15 Fascinating Facts About Forensic Files

If you know what a pyrolysis gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer does, can readily identify the symptoms of arsenic poisoning, and perk up whenever you hear the name Dr. Henry Lee, you’ve clearly been watching Forensic Files. Since its premiere 20 years ago on April 21, 1996, the documentary-style science series has guided television audiences through the often complex world of forensic science, and left a trail of network crime shows in its path (see: CSI).

To celebrate the beloved series’ 20th anniversary, we spoke with creator/executive producer Paul Dowling, who shared 15 fascinating facts about Forensic Files.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A TRUE CRIME VERSION OF THE “WHODUNIT” FORMAT.

“There was no particular case or incident that sparked the idea for the series,” Dowling tells mental_floss. “It was a new idea for how to tell true crime stories. Before Forensic Files, true crime TV series and documentaries were all produced in the same tired way, but fictional crime drama was excellent and getting much higher ratings. So why not marry the best of both?”

By melding talking head interviews with reenactments of both the crimes and forensic processes scientists used to solve said crimes, Dowling came up with a totally new type of television series. “I simply took the murder mystery 'whodunit' format of the successful fictional television crime dramas and used it to tell true crime stories,” he says. “That's how Forensic Files was born.”

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY GOING TO FOCUS ON MEDICAL INVESTIGATIONS.

Longtime fans of Forensic Files might remember that it was called Medical Detectives in its earliest days. “Originally, we planned to tell not only murder investigation stories but also disease outbreak and accident investigations,” Dowling explains. “Over time, ratings showed that viewers preferred the murder mysteries, which explains the title change in 2000.”

3. THE PREMIERE EPISODE HAD A CONNECTION TO FARGO.

Spring of 1996 was a big season for death by wood chipper. In March, one month before Forensic Files debuted, the Coen brothers’ critically acclaimed black comedy Fargo was released in theaters. Among the film’s most memorable scenes is one in which Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) feeds the body of his partner, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), into a wood chipper. The scene was inspired by the murder of Helle Crafts, who was killed by her husband, Richard, then disposed of in a wood chipper. Crafts’s murder was also the subject of Forensic Files’ very first episode, “The Disappearance of Helle Crafts.”

4. THE O.J. SIMPSON CASE HELPED BOOST THE SHOW’S POPULARITY.

It was only about six months before Forensic Files premiered that nearly 100 million people tuned in to see the verdict read in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. For many of those same courtroom watchers, it was the Simpson case that first introduced them to the basics of forensic science, which led to a built-in audience for Forensic Files from the get-go.

“The Forensic Files pilot of the famous Wood Chipper Murder case did indeed benefit from the wall-to-wall coverage networks had given to the O.J. trial,” Dowling says. “It prepared the public to handle crime scene photographs, detailed crime creations, and it gave audiences a good preview for the new role forensic science would play in the criminal justice system.”

5. THE SERIES BROUGHT ATTENTION TO LITTLE-KNOWN CASES THAT FEATURED BREAKTHROUGHS IN FORENSIC SCIENCE.

While Forensic Files didn’t completely shy away from revisiting well-known cases, it was in the lesser-known crimes that they were able to feature some truly groundbreaking scientific developments.

“We've done several one-hour specials on high-profile cases like the Kennedy assassination and Lindbergh baby kidnapping, but virtually all of the half-hour episodes (400 in total) were little-known [stories],” Dowling says. “Interestingly, many of the breakthroughs in forensic science happened because of the innovation and discoveries of scientists and investigators in these little-known cases, which we brought to worldwide audiences for the first time.”

6. PETER THOMAS WAS THE “FIRST, LAST, AND ONLY CHOICE” FOR A NARRATOR.

It’s impossible to talk about Forensic Files without mentioning the familiar voice that narrates each episode. That voice belongs to Peter Thomas, a world-class orator who has spent more than 50 years lending his pipes to Oscar-winning documentaries, television series, and commercials. For Dowling, Thomas—who passed away on April 30—was the only choice to serve as Forensic Files’ narrator.

“When the series was set to premiere in 1996, it wasn't going to look like a PBS or A&E crime documentary," he says. "It was going to be something new and different, a little ‘tabloidy,’ but I didn't want the series to sound like a tabloid, which I'd describe like an AM radio announcer doing a car commercial.

“I wanted the series to have the legitimacy of a documentary, despite how it looked, so I wanted a traditional voice, a great storyteller, classy, and chose a man whose voice was well known because he'd done some PBS documentaries and science and history films we'd all seen over the years in high school. That was Peter Thomas, my first, last, and only choice.”

7. THOMAS DIDN’T TAKE THE GIG LIGHTLY.

In a tweet, Dowling shared that, “Peter Thomas rehearsed each script for several hours the night before the recording session with his wife Stella as his audience.”

8. PRODUCERS ACTIVELY SOUGHT OUT “OMG” MOMENTS.

When asked if there were specific elements that made a case Forensic Files-worthy, Dowling says that, “It was the 'oh my god' factor. If a story had that, it was chosen.”

Some examples, according to Dowling:

"A doctor accused of rape implants a tube of his patient’s blood into his arm so the blood sample drawn for his DNA test wasn't his—and therefore, didn't match the semen sample from rape test kit. But the victim stole the doctor’s Chapstick and the DNA from those skin cells did match! The victim solved her own crime.

A killer in bare feet steps on a hamburger roll on his way out of the crime scene, leaving his clear footprint in the soft dough!

A piece of chewing gun found next to a dead body matches the teeth impressions of the suspect.

A sundial analysis proves that the time clock on a home video—the murder suspect’s alibi—was not correct, and had been doctored."

9. STUPID CRIMINALS DON’T MAKE FOR GREAT TELEVISION.

Some of Forensic Files’ most compelling episodes are the ones in which a crime is so sophisticated, and so well covered up (like the aforementioned doctor inserting a vial of his patient’s blood), that they make truth seem stranger than fiction. As for crimes that didn’t interest the producers? “Stories we rejected were often ones where a killer was so stupid, and left so much evidence, it was almost a comedy,” Dowling says.

10. THE REENACTMENTS LOOK DIFFERENT ON PURPOSE.

The show is generally made up of three different parts: interviews with the people involved, then reenactments of both the crime and the lab processes—each of which was filmed in a slightly unique style, which was a very conscious decision.

“I wanted to make sure viewers knew exactly what was reenactment and what was real crime scene video or authentic police interrogation footage,” Dowling explains. “We did that by setting recreations apart from the other elements by giving them a different look and using loud sound effects and flash frames and music bumps.

“Some crime TV series today try to make recreations seamless, so viewers can't tell what's real and what's not. I find that very confusing and, frankly, unfair to the accused.”

11. THEY TRIED TO CAST REENACTMENT ACTORS WHO RESEMBLED THE REAL PEOPLE.

“We used crime reenactments at the end of each episode to show how the scientific evidence put all the pieces together for prosecutors in the courtroom,” Dowling says. “When doing that, we tried to cast actors who looked as much like the individuals involved in the case as possible, to avoid confusing the viewers. Viewers obviously knew these were crime recreations intended to put all the pieces of the investigation puzzle together and were willing to suspend disbelief if and when the casting matches weren't perfect.”

12. THE ACTOR WHO PORTRAYED LEE HARVEY OSWALD LOOKED A LITTLE TOO MUCH LIKE LEE HARVEY OSWALD.

For the hour-long JFK special, it was particularly important to senior producer Kelly Martin that they cast actors who shared a strong resemblance to the real-life figures they were portraying. “We want exact matches or it is not going to work," Martin told The Morning Call in 2004. “This is one of the highest-profile killings ever. Pardon the pun, it had to be dead-on.”

They found their Lee Harvey Oswald in an actor named Marcus Hinkle, who may have looked a little too much like Oswald for some. “Martin said that when the company was shooting the JFK special on Sixth Street in Allentown, [Pennsylvania] last year, older bystanders who lived through the assassination said Hinkle gave them chills because he resembled Oswald so closely,” wrote The Morning Call.

13. MANY OF THE POLICE OFFICERS AND PARAMEDICS YOU SEE ARE REAL.

In 2004, Laurie Bianco—president of Pro Model & Casting Agency, the company tasked with finding the right reenactment actors for Forensic Filesexplained to The Morning Call that when casting on-screen police officers and paramedics, she preferred to use real professionals in those fields, because they behaved much more naturally in those parts.

14. IT HOLDS SOME TELEVISION RECORDS.

First, according to Dowling, “Forensic Files is the longest running non-scripted series in TV history.” In addition, the show “made television history in 2002 when it aired on NBC as a summer replacement series,” he says. “It was the first TV series that originated on a cable network first, before moving to a broadcast network airing new episodes.”

And its popularity stretches far beyond American borders. “At one time,” Dowling says, “Forensic Files aired simultaneously on five different broadcast networks at the same time in Great Britain: CBS Reality, UKTV, History Channel, Sky Network, and Discovery.” The series has been seen in 142 countries.

15. THERE’S AN OFFICIAL COMPANION BOOK TO THE SERIES.

In 2004, Dowling published The Official Forensic Files Casebook, which provides recaps of the series’ individual episodes, gives some behind-the-scenes details on how the show itself is produced, and offers further insight into why particular stories make the cut, and why others are rejected. (You can purchase it here.)

All images courtesy ForensicFiles.com
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Jack Taylor, Getty Images
8 Arresting Facts About Scotland Yard
Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

Depicted in fiction for well over a century as the world's premier police force, Scotland Yard might be the most famous banner for law enforcement in history. Though the name itself is officially a term for the location of the London Metropolitan Police headquarters, it’s taken on a colloquial use to describe the collective brain trust of that station’s patrolmen and detectives. Here’s what we’ve deduced about the past, present, and future of this historic—and sometimes controversial—institution.

1. IT GOT ITS NAME FROM A TRICKY BIT OF GEOGRAPHY.

London didn’t have a formal police force until 1829, when Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel arranged for a squad to replace the fractured system of watchmen, street patrols, and the River Police. Colonel Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne were tasked with organizing the force: Mayne’s house at 4 Whitehall Place opened to an adjacent courtyard that had once been a medieval palace that hosted Scottish royalty while they were in London. This “Great Scotland Yard,” which was also reportedly the name of the street behind the building, became synonymous with Rowan and Mayne’s efforts to create a new era in law enforcement.

2. CHARLES DICKENS TAGGED ALONG ON PATROLS.

Author Charles Dickens poses for a photo
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

The renowned author of Great Expectations and other literary classics wasn’t a policeman, but he did perform the 19th-century equivalent of a ride-along. Dickens was friends with Charles Frederick Field, a Scotland Yard inspector, and their relationship led to Dickens occasionally accompanying patrolmen on their nightly rounds. He even based a character in his novel Bleak House on Fields.

3. THERE WERE DIRTY COPS AMONG THE RANKS IN THOSE EARLY DAYS.

For all of the public acceptance of Scotland Yard—Londoners were initially wary of the plainclothes cops walking among them—the squad suffered a sensational blow to its image in 1877. Known as the “Turf Fraud Scandal” or the “Trial of the Detectives,” the controversy erupted after a Parisian socialite named Madame de Goncourt was conned by two men named Harry Benson and William Kurr. Scotland Yard inspector Nathaniel Druscovich was dispatched to Amsterdam to capture a fleeing Benson while others pursued Kurr. The men proved surprisingly elusive, which prompted suspicion among Scotland Yard officials. When the two con men were finally arrested, they explained that an inspector named John Meiklejohn was taking bribes in exchange for tipping off Kurr to police activity. Two other policemen were implicated; the three each received two years in prison. The high-profile breach led to a reorganization, with the Yard inserting detectives into a new Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to help minimize misconduct.

4. THEY HELPED PIONEER FINGERPRINTING.

A Scotland Yard employee examines fingerprints
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At one time, the science of fingerprinting was more of a theory than anything that could be put into practice. Most police forces instead relied on anthropometry, a system created by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon, which used 11 body measurements taken by calipers to provide a unique physical identity for an individual. While fingerprinting was beginning to take off in India in the late 1800s, the English-speaking world didn’t adopt the forensic technique of lifting and matching prints until 1901, when Sir Edward Henry, then the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard, instituted the Metropolitan Police Fingerprint Bureau. In 1902, a billiard ball thief was convicted based on a fingerprint he left on a windowsill. In 1904, a Yard detective demonstrated the efficacy of fingerprinting at the St. Louis World’s Fair, helping spread the new science to American law enforcement officials.

5. THEIR PATROL OFFICERS DIDN’T CARRY GUNS UNTIL 1994.

The uniformed police officers who wander London’s streets with an eye on keeping the peace were unarmed for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1994 that select patrol officers were permitted to carry guns, a policy shift that stemmed from increased assaults on police. The addition of firearms was limited to armed response cars intended to be dispatched to high-risk calls; previously, officers were instructed to keep their weapons in a lockbox inside their vehicles. Today, 90 percent of Metropolitan police officers go on duty without a gun, a policy largely maintained in response to a relatively low number of guns carried by civilians. Less than four in 100 British citizens own a firearm.

6. THEY HAVE A SQUAD OF “SUPER RECOGNIZERS.”

A surveillance camera is posted in London
Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

With surveillance cameras dotting London, facial recognition for identifying criminal suspects is in high demand. But no software can outperform Scotland Yard’s team of “super recognizers,” who are recruited for their ability to match a face to a name based on their own memory. These officers are hired by administering a facial recognition test first implemented by Harvard in 2009. Those in the top percentile have an uncanny ability to retain facial feature details and are often dispatched to cull out known criminals like pickpockets at public gatherings. One such specialist, Constable Gary Collins, identified 180 people out of 4000 while examining footage of the 2011 London riots. Software was able to identify exactly one.

7. THEY KEEP A SECRET CRIME MUSEUM HIDDEN FROM THE PUBLIC.

Housed across two floors at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police in London is the Black Museum, a macabre cavalcade of evidence from nearly 150 years of investigative work. Established in 1875, the collection houses body parts (gallstones that failed to dissolve in acid along with the rest of a murder victim) and seemingly innocuous items that take on sinister connotations: A set of pots and pans that once belonged to Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen and were used to boil human flesh. It’s closed to the public, though visiting law enforcement and sometimes celebrities can secure an invite: Laurel and Hardy and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have toured its inventory. A sample of the collection went on display at the Museum of London in 2015.  

8. YOU COULD LIVE THERE ONE DAY.

The former New Scotland Yard building at 10 Broadway
Jack Taylor, AFP/Getty Images

The Metropolitan Police have changed locations several times over the years. It was situated at its original location of 4 Whitehall Place from 1829 to 1890, then housed in a large Victorian building on the Victoria Embankment from 1890 until 1967. That’s when the operation was moved to a 600,000 square-foot building at 10 Broadway in Westminster: a famous revolving sign announced a New Scotland Yard was taking up residence. In 2014, the building was sold to investors from Abu Dhabi for $580 million: London cited operating expenses and budget cuts as the reasons for the sale. The buyers plan to mount a residential housing project in the spot. Scotland Yard staff moved to a trimmed-down facility at the Curtis Green Building in Westminster and within walking distance of the Houses of Parliament.   

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Why an Ex-FBI Agent Recommends Wrapping Your Keys in Tinfoil Whenever You Leave Your Car
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iStock

A car thief doesn't need to get their hands on your keys to break into your vehicle. If you use a wireless, keyless system, or fob, to unlock your car, all they need to do is steal the signal it emits. Luckily there's a tool you can use to protect your fob from hackers that you may already have in your kitchen at home: tinfoil.

Speaking with USA Today, retired FBI agent Holly Hubert said that wrapping car fobs in a layer of foil is the cheapest way to block their sensitive information from anyone who may be trying to access it. Hackers can easily infiltrate your car by using a device to amplify the fob signal or by copying the code it uses. And they don't even need to be in the same room as you to do it: They can hack the fob inside your pocket from the street outside your house or office.

Electronic car theft is a growing problem for automobile manufacturers. Ideally fobs made in the future will come with cyber protection built-in, but until then the best way to keep your car safe is to carry your fob in an electromagnetic field-blocking shield when you go out. Bags made specifically to protect your key fob work better than foil, but they can cost more than $50. If tinfoil is all you can afford, it's better than nothing.

At home, make sure to store your keys in a spot where they will continue to get protection. Dropping them in a metal coffee can is a lot smarter than leaving them out in the open on your kitchen counter.

[h/t USA Today]

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