Have a conversation with John Ross, and topics like lividity, paraffin tests, toxicology, insect larvae and such may come up. It’s not that Ross, a retired U.S. 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 antiterrorism and counterterrorism strategies. He also taught law enforcement and security sessions for numerous base commanders’ management courses. One way or another, 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 curious participants in Forensic Science Applications, a six-week course he will conduct for Mississippi University for Women’s Life Enrichment Program. The non-credit courses for adults touch on a wide range of subjects, from the six wives of Henry XIII to the ABC’s of investing. Forensic Science — the application of scientific methods and techniques to the investigation of crime — is being offered for the first time.
Ross’ approach to the new class will be a broad-brush, non-technical look at actual events. The Lindbergh kidnapping case, the Raid on Entebbe, 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.
Who are you?
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 grinned, “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, then paused. “We’re talking about something I didn’t have when I was active.”
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 remarked. 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 … ”
Eye on history
Ross’ studies and career have made him an eye witness to evolutions. He remembers when the Miranda decision 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, according to many forensics experts commenting online). 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 MUW’s Life Enrichment Program.
LEP Coordinator Janie Shields said, “We try to offer exciting new courses each session. With shows like ‘NCIS’ and ‘CSI’ being so popular, the forensics course is getting a lot of buzz for our second fall term.” Other new courses this semester include Sign Language with Theresa Riddick and Architectural History of Columbus with Rufus Ward. For a complete listing of courses, go to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 662-329-7150 or 662-241-6101.
Forensic Science Applications is one of 18 courses offered in the second term, Oct. 13 through Nov. 21. Twenty-two courses are offered in the first fall term Aug. 25 through Oct. 6. For $35, take up to five courses per term. Each additional course is $10. Space is limited, so don’t delay. And be careful where you leave your fingerprints.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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