COLUMBUS, Miss. - Have a conversation with John Ross, and topics like paraffin tests, toxicology, insect larvae and such may come up.
It's not that Ross, a retired Air Force colonel in Columbus, is preoccupied with criminal nature or the macabre. It's only that forensic science fascinates him.
Ross is a former director of law enforcement for the Air Force, and later was a security manager for a high-tech engineering firm, advising on anti-terrorism and counterterrorism strategies. He also taught law enforcement and security sessions for base commanders. He's spent a lot of time on how to thwart folks who are up to no good.
This fall, Ross will share some of his insights with up to 35 participants in forensic science applications, a six-week course he will teach for Mississippi University for Women. The non-credit courses for adults touch on a range of subjects tied to the application of scientific methods and techniques to the investigation of crime.
Ross' approach to the class will be a broad-brush, non-technical look at actual events. The Charles Lindbergh child kidnapping case, the Israeli raid on Entebbe, Uganda, explosives detection and forensic applications in espionage and entitlement fraud cases are up for discussion.
Ross, 72, readily states up front that he earned his degree in forensic science in 1974, and that he's been retired from the Air Force for 23 years. A lot has changed in the field since then.
"I'm not an expert on anything, but I do have some things I learned and things I've kept up with that I think will be of interest," he said with modesty.
One thing would-be amateur detectives can look forward to is examining an actual case history.
"Here is a human skeleton, and it's been found on a beach not far from Charleston, South Carolina," Ross began. "Somebody reports it, you show up, what do you do? What kind of expertise is required to determine who did what and when, where, why and how?"
Some answers might be found in a paper Ross once wrote, titled "Establishing the Post Mortem Interval." "Or," he added, grinning, "How Long Has This Guy Been Dead?"
"Back in my day, the first thing I'd look for is the presence or absence of post mortem lividity, or gravitational lividity," the instructor said. Lividity in this instance, simply defined, is the pooling of blood in the lowest part of the body, creating discoloration.
"If lividity is on his back and you find him on his face, you know he's been moved," Ross noted. Another clue is insect larvae. "You just have to know the life cycle of insects," he continued.
Another example of how the field has changed is the vast range of specialized experts today.
"You can find an expert on almost anything now if you look hard enough," Ross said. He cited a kidnapping case in which an expert on wood played an integral role. Sometimes an investigation turns on the smallest detail. "Here, we're surrounded by universities; I could foresee an agronomy or soil expert being called in if you've got, say, somebody's boots that have stepped on a certain kind of sand or soil."
Ross' studies and career have made him a witness to law enforcement evolution. He remembers when the Miranda decision on the rights of arrested persons was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966 and how significantly it impacted law enforcement. In the field of detector dogs, he saw training expand from the nitrate-based explosives work he once was involved in to teaching dogs to find peroxide-based explosives - in part, due to "Shoe Bomber" Richard Reed who tried to bring down an American Airlines flight with a device hidden in his shoe in 2001.
"Forensic science is so far advanced now," Ross observed. "When I look back at the tools we had then ... "
The television industry latched on years ago to the public's interest in forensics. A proliferation of shows like "CSI," "NCIS," "Bones," "Criminal Minds," "Dexter" and "Body of Proof," have catered to it and are frequently loose in their portrayal of the science for entertainment purposes. One might think Ross would watch them all, but no - although he does occasionally catch "NCIS" with his wife, Anne, who enjoys the show.
Anne, it could be said, may be Ross' favorite "cold case." The two dated in high school, in Auburn, Alabama. "But she dumped me," he laughed. "We got another go at it four years ago when we reconnected at our 50th high school reunion." The couple has lived in downtown Columbus for the past two years and immersed themselves in the community. It didn't take them long to discover Mississippi University for Women's life enrichment program.
Information from: The Commercial Dispatch, http://www.cdispatch.com