For forensic Detective Garda O’Callaghan, finding and deciphering clues from bloody scenes are all in a day’s work, says Juno McEnroe.
BLOODY scenes, dead people, analysing weapons for fingerprints and disposable white boiler suits are all part and parcel of a week’s work for forensic gardaí.
Detective Garda Austin O’Callaghan, 40, has been in the force for more than 17 years. He has recorded some of Ireland’s most gruesome and shocking crime scenes while working with the Garda Technical Bureau. His work, integral to catching criminals, has even won an international photography award.
However, despite the hype that surrounds forensic Garda work, the father of two has an aversion to the popular CSI series, which keeps Irish viewers glued to TVs each week.
The reality is his job can be a lot darker than the fictional US drama.
“Your main function is to go to scenes of murders and serious crimes. Photograph it. Video it. Make sure you’re the first person in. You have to have an eye for detail. You have to make sure that you cover everything because after you are finished you’re opening up the scene for other members to come in and search and move around in it.
“When you’re going in you have to be aware of even where you’re standing because there may be footprints on the ground that aren’t visible under normal light.
“When you first go in there and the person has been murdered, they are normally still there. You’re looking for something that you can’t even see. If you shine a light in a particular way, you might get a foot mark or even a finger mark on the wall where somebody may have tried to clean something off which can become visible.”
Members of the Garda Technical Bureau, like other emergency services, often have just minutes before being whisked away to crime scenes.
They might be told if it is a stabbing or a shooting but only the bare facts are known before they arrive.
“You have your bags packed ready to go all the time. You’d always bring two cameras, sometimes three or four. At a scene, you try to keep where you’re walking away from where normal people would have walked. Sometimes, you put foot plates down in front of you so you don’t disturb anything on the ground.”
Digital camera shots at scenes are backed up with film camera images from the same angles. A job can take anywhere between half an hour and several hours and involve between five and hundreds of shots being taken. Special fluorescent lights illuminate marks or clues, often invisible to the naked eye, picking up different clues such as blood, prints and fibres.
One crime investigation is very memorable for the award-winning Cork man.
In 2003, on an unlit country road one wintry night on the outskirts of Limerick city, gardaí found a body. The murder would set off one of the country’s biggest gangland feuds for years to come. Crime boss Kieran Keane had his hands tied and had been shot once in the head in an execution-style killing. Clues at the scene were crucial to identifying his killers.
When called out, Garda O’Callaghan very carefully approached the crime tent covering the body.
He knew the stakes involved in the high-profile investigation.
“He was tied up, hands behind his back, legs tied and shot in the back of the head. There would have been a lot of blood around the body, mostly around the head.”
Keane had just been executed a few hours before. O’Callaghan was accompanied by his forensic colleagues including a ballistics specialist, a fingerprint expert and a mapper — all four recorded the area around the body looking for clues.
“The initial one would have been the tape being used around him. Tape is always a good source of forensic evidence, fibres will stick to it, there may be DNA on it or someone may have used their key to cut it. There may actually be fingerprints on the tape as well. If gloves weren’t used — and the chances are they aren’t as the tape will stick to the gloves and make things awkward — it’s good,” he said.
Around the bloodied body, searches continued for footprints and disused gun cartridges and fibres.
“We’d have a list of suspects and then their vehicles would have to be examined as well. The body would have been taken away immediately once we were finished photographing it.
“Then we’d go and photograph the postmortem as well,” he explained.
Aside from training in Templemore, Garda O’Callaghan studied photography at the Crawford College of Art and Design, Cork, Dublin Institute of Technology as well as specific forensic training in a university course in Durham, north England.
He served initially in Clontarf and Naas before joining the photographic section of the Garda Technical Bureau in 1996. Earlier this year, he heroically pulled his neighbour from a burning house before its roof collapsed.
After years of photographing all types of incidents from road accidents to the most vicious murders, not many scenes faze the Cork Garda. Except one.
“I suppose in particular ones involving children are ones you don’t like going to. You’re going into where somebody has been murdered. I’ve seen literally hundreds of dead people over the years of all ages and all sizes and killed in all different ways.”
Surveying a scene can often leave emotional scars.
“They all affect you to a certain degree. If they don’t affect you, well then you’re not human anymore, it’s time to give up.
“But you’re there with a specific task so that tends to overrule whatever you do see. And you have to have it in mind that this is right for the people who are going to be investigating it after you leave.”
Detail is everything. Winding down is equally as important though.
“How I keep my mind from it is I run and I often spend time with my family after it to get back to normal as quickly as possible. My normality would be my two kids and my wife.”
Support and debriefings are also available within the force for gardaí left traumatised by scenes — as they often can be.
On the morning of April 30, 2004, young Andrew Carroll was sitting in his south Dublin home watching the film Chicken Run with his father. The 12-year-old went into the kitchen to cook rashers.
A moment later, his deranged father smashed a lump hammer between six and eight times over his son’s head. John Carroll was later found guilty of murder but insane.
Garda O’Callaghan was one of the first on the gruesome scene.
“I have a nine-year-old daughter. Just trying to understand how something like that could have happened. You can find it’s particularly difficult to get your head around that this has happened to a child, somebody that their whole life is ahead of them.”
Another scene is still fresh in his mind.
One dark night on June 22, 2001, Ruth Murphy drowned her seven-year-old son Karl on Greystones Beach, Wicklow.
The disturbed mother later pleaded guilty to murder after the court heard how little Karl had six finger-sized bruises on his neck consistent with forcible drowning when his body was found face down at the water’s edge.
Another investigation saw Garda O’Callaghan whisked in a helicopter from Phoenix Park over the tragic scenes of the Navan bus crash which left five school children dead.
“It was about half an hour after the accident happened,” he said.
Like any job though, the Garda leaves his work once he clocks out for the day.
“You realise very quickly that life goes on. You can’t bring your problems home with you. If you start bringing them home, that’s time to give up, I think.”
Often a crime scene only reveals itself very discretely. A recent case, still ongoing, threw up several surprises when a Garda team took a closer look at the scene.
“We went into a place and the whole place looked extremely clean. The floors were clean, the walls were clean, maybe minute splashes of blood on it that wouldn’t be obvious. But when we looked at it under certain lights, it was obvious that the whole area, including every wall and all the floor, had at one stage recently been covered in blood.”
Aside from crime scenes, Garda O’Callaghan also takes portraits, scenic shots and public relations pictures for Garda crime magazines and reports. It was one of these that won him International Photographer of the Year.
The award was presented as part of an annual competition run between Ireland and Britain by the National Policing Improvement Agency, a leading forensic training section in Durham, North England.
The winning shot, Reflections of the Real Capital, shows two members of the force on the beat along Cork city’s quays, their figures reflected in the helmet of another officer nearby.
Many might compare Garda O’Callaghan’s job to the scores of crime dramas being broadcast these days.
But the fiction is far from the truth. The comparison to the popular US crime series CSI elicits a humoured response.
“Some of the suits that they wear are really nice but on my wages I’m never going to be able to afford one. Even the sunglasses. I don’t think I can afford them, never mind the suits.”
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