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Investigation may hinge on the tiniest evidence
By Dan Rozek | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/4/2009 5:03 PM | Updated: 8/4/2009 10:06 PM

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Originally published Jan. 13, 1993

Solving the gruesome murders of seven restaurant workers in Palatine could hinge on minute, almost invisible evidence carefully gathered and cataloged by investigators in the fast-food franchise in the hours after the killings.

The key element that cracks the worst suburban murder case in decades could turn out to be as simple - and as small - as a single fingerprint, a strand of hair, a fiber of cloth.

Even complex, puzzling investigations often can hinge on a single piece of physical evidence carefully collected at a crime scene by evidence technicians, police and law-enforcement experts say.

"Dead men tell tales through the crime scene," said Mundelein Police Chief Raymond Rose.

Rose recalled the case in which Patty Columbo was convicted of murdering her father mother and younger brother Michael, at their Elk Grove Village home 1976 at least partly on the strength of such evidence.

Rose investigated the killings as a detective.

"One thing we ended up finding was a single strand of Patty Columbo's hair on Michael Columbo's chest, which was the link we vitally needed," said Rose. "It shows how important a single strand of hair can be."

Conversely, if investigators make a mistake while collecting evidence, if they overlook or damage a piece of evidence, the results could be disastrous.

"If you don't have people who know what they're doing, it very well could throw off the whole case," agreed Mark Dantzker, a Loyola University criminal justice professor and former police officer. "One of the most important aspects of any case is the physical evidence."

Following the discovery of seven bodies in Palatine, crime scene investigators spent nearly two days exhaustively examining the Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant where the workers were killed.

Police spent about 14 hours studying the scene of the killing before removing the bodies.

"The first stage is dealing with the bodies, everything else comes later," Dantzker said. "It really does become a very painstaking process and it takes an elaborate length of time."

Investigators photographed and videotaped the bodies - and likely photographed and videotaped them again each time a body was removed, just to be sure nothing fell off a body or was disturbed when one of the victims was removed, said Dantzker.

Officers then likely searched for fingerprints, examined blood stains, and looked for hair or clothing fibers. "You look for anything odd, or something that shouldn't be there," FBI spokesman Bob Long said, adding expert evidence technicians develop such an eye for crime scenes they often can determine with a glance details of how a killing occurred.

"They look at it a little differently than most people " Long added. Although physical evidence like fingerprints could remain intact for months - or possibly years - after the killing, police in practice need to recover those within a day or a few days of the crime while the location is still blocked off from the public.

If, for example, fingerprints or other evidence turns up later, after other people have been allowed back in the crime scene, that evidence likely would carry little weight, Dantzker said. "Anything after that would be questionable in court."