Please excuse some of the atrocities that will be committed below with respect to the rules of the English written language. These events happened over ten years ago and my recollection is in no way perfect. In order to tell the story in the most accurate way possible, tenses will be switched and the path will abruptly turn from perspective to perspective. The overall message throughout should stay the same; trace evidence examiners love what they do, believe in the value of their science, and are, without a doubt, the most dedicated and collaborative scientists in the forensic sciences.
The History of ASTEE
Written by Vinny Desiderio – ASTEE President 2010-2011
The year was 2007 and the location was Clearwater Beach, Florida. After the previous day of workshops and an evening of socializing and catching up with old friends, there was a great deal of excitement as approximately 400 people gathered to hear the opening remarks signaling the official start to the 2007 Trace Evidence Symposium.
Some of the attendees had been at the previous Trace Evidence Symposium held in 1996 in San Antonio, Texas, but most had not. Things had changed considerably in those 11 years. Once the most prominent evidentiary means of establishing physical links when reconstructing a crime, trace evidence had taken a distant backseat to the ever improving wonder that was DNA evidence. The solidification of DNA as the “gold standard” in the forensic sciences forced a wide scale short sightedness that drew substantial resources away from other forensic disciplines with trace evidence taking the greatest hit. Laboratories across the United States were in the process of either scaling back or closing down their trace evidence units.
Digressing a bit, it is important to point out that the trace evidence community (then and now) consists of an extremely dedicated group of professionals. Since the beginning of forensic science, there have always been individuals that applied their general curiosity regarding materials found in their environment to the solution of criminal activities. People like Edmond Locard and Georg Popp who scrutinized the most minute transfers of material to determine their constitution and establish links to other objects and locations. In general, trace evidence examiners have an insatiable need to analyze and understand their environments and this drives an intense passion for what they do. The training required to get started and the constant learning required to continue are badges of honor that any good trace evidence examiner will proudly display. Individually, you would be hard pressed to find a trace evidence examiner that is not fully dedicated to their work and determined to keep trace evidence operating at a high level not only in their particular laboratory, but the world as a whole.
Sandra Koch, one of the primary organizers of the event had not been at the 1996 event; however, having worked with many of the organizers, she was aware of the value that it presented to the field. Having knowledge of the successful nature of the 1996 event and a desire to bring the trace evidence community back together, Sandy, in conjunction with several key players from the National Institute of Justice and a dedicated steering committee consisting of the biggest names in trace evidence at the time, pushed hard for the organization of the joint FBI/NIJ event that we all found ourselves at on that sticky August day in 2007. To those in attendance, this meeting could not have come at a more critical moment. It was as if the survival of trace evidence as a forensic discipline depended on it.
What that event did in 2007 is difficult to put into words. It had been a long time since the last event had been held and there probably has never been an equivalent event in scope and size. Over 400 people dedicated to the study and advancement of trace evidence in one place! The atmosphere was electric! The workshops were full of great information, the speakers presented with tremendous passion, the energy could be felt throughout the day during the talks and into the evening during more personal discussions. New friendships were forged and a stronger network of trace evidence professionals was a critical result. There really was only one problem, the event had to end.
I’m not going to lie here, the high of the meeting was closely followed by what could only be described as a depressive state. As early as a week after the meeting, the euphoria wore off and reality set in. The event was over and there was nothing similar in scope on the horizon for the foreseeable future. I might see some colleagues and a few trace evidence presentations here or there at an American Academy of Forensic Sciences or regional forensic meetings and I might get to work with a small group at a SWGMAT meeting but it would be a long time before that many trace evidence enthusiasts would be in the same place at the same time. Out of these ruminations grew a thought, what if there was a way that the trace evidence community could be brought together in a more consistent fashion, what if there was a professional organization dedicated solely to the pursuit of not only maintaining trace evidence as a viable forensic discipline but pushing it forward. Others had certainly had similar thoughts so it was only a matter of finding such individuals and determining whether or not such an idea would be a) feasible, and b) attractive enough to pull in a sufficient number of members to constitute a viable organization.
During the spring of 2008, the FBI held their annual SWGMAT meeting in Fredericksburg, VA. As an attendee during this event, I had an opportunity to have dinner with one of my idols in the field, Scott Ryland. For the few of you that may not know Scott, he is an individual that personifies the archetype of the dedicated trace evidence examiner. His passion for the field, extensive range of knowledge, and constant efforts to disseminate this knowledge via teaching and mentoring is something that we all should aspire to. During this dinner, we had a discussion on the possibility of forming a trace evidence specific professional organization. Scott immediately threw his support and enthusiasm behind it and recommended that I reach out to Sandy Parent as a possible co-conspirator. Taking Scott’s advice, Sandy was approached and enthusiastically threw her support behind the idea.
I first met Cassandra Burke during a FTIR training course that was given at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia in 2003. Between 2003 and 2007 we would see each other here or there at other trainings and the occasional forensic meeting. Cassandra was a member of the 2007 Trace Evidence Symposium Steering Committee and had been invited back to serve as a member of the committee to plan a similar event to be held in 2009. During the summer of 2008, we began a collaboration to co-chair a polymer chemistry workshop during the next symposium. As our collaboration grew, the idea for a trace specific professional organization was brought up and Cassandra also enthusiastically threw her support behind such an endeavor.
Now those of you who know me well, know that I am a procrastinator of epic proportions (as a side fact, this article was due five years ago). In typical fashion, the steps that needed to be taken to establish a professional organization were pushed aside in favor of whatever other shiny objects caught my eye. Several months passed and nothing was done to push this idea forward. In February of 2009, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences were holding their meeting in Denver Colorado. That particular year had a very strong trace evidence session in the Criminalistics block. As luck would have it, both Sandy Parent and Cassandra Burke were in attendance and neither of them were happy with me (rightfully so). At one point, I recall walking to the back of the room where the session was being held and being cornered by the two of them. I distinctly remember Sandy saying “we need to talk to you” in a relatively stern, yet cordial manner. I hung my head down knowing exactly what this was about. They were both asking, “are we doing this or not?” With their unwavering support, this was the moment that things really took off.
With the next Trace Evidence Symposium scheduled for August of 2009, we knew that this represented the opening we needed to kick start this organization. With a potential audience of 400 trace evidence practitioners, this was an opportunity that we absolutely had to take advantage of. So, with just under five months to go between the end of the Academy meeting and the start of the 2009 Symposium, we kicked things into high gear. The name was selected1, solicitations were made to the individuals that would hopefully become the initial, incorporating Board of Directors, the organization was incorporated, a logo was created, and our PO Box, bank account, and website were set up.
With respect to building the initial Board of Directors, we needed to pull in a diverse group of dedicated practitioners that we knew would make substantial contributions and guide the organization in the proper direction. Between Cassandra, Sandy, and myself, we knew exactly who was needed to make this work:
Sandy Koch was the driving force behind the re-establishment of the Trace Evidence Symposium. Thanks in great part to her vision and dedication, the 2007 event was an amazing success. This was certainly the kind of leadership that we needed to bring in.
Amy Michaud spent years as a tenacious defender of hair examinations as a viable trace discipline. This was no easy task due to the swell of criticism that was sweeping over the field, yet she was unyielding in her stance and dealt with every ounce of adversity thrown at her with grace and poise. Such character would be necessary to help establish our organization.
Christopher Bommarito is both an advocate and a critic of our field. Such a blend may seem counterintuitive; however, his extensive knowledge of a broad range of sub-disciplines consistently allows him to know when good work was being performed verse bad. Certainly never shy when it comes to fact based criticism, his diligent efforts towards improving our field and keeping it honest have helped to shape trace evidence to what it currently is in its modern form. One of the reasons Chris was asked to participate was for his honest opinion on whether or not there was a need for such an organization. Although skeptical at first, he did come around and a great deal of our success as an organization is due to his input, efforts, and the vision he had for this undertaking.
Christopher Taylor has always been the type of individual to make substantial contributions without the need for public accolades. Unless you personally knew him or directly worked with him, you would be astonished when you were introduced to his extensive list of accomplishments. When it came down to it, there was rarely an event or trace evidence related undertaking that Chris did not positively influence in one shape or form. His amazing skills at bringing disparate entities together to focus on a single goal would be required here.
Melissa Balogh was my co-conspirator as a fellow trace evidence examiner for the New Jersey State Police Office of Forensic Sciences. She is a prevalent force in the northeast and one of the most reliable people I have ever had the privilege of working with. We had spent years collaborating on projects and her dedication to the field would make her an important asset to the board.
It is worth noting that every one of these people were viewed by members of the field as leaders. They were dedicated, outspoken, and had tremendous passion for trace evidence. On a personal note, I looked up to each and every one of them as leaders in the field, and in fact I still do. I had seen them present at various meetings, organize multiple events, write papers, and defend our field at every chance available. The addition of their seemingly boundless energy towards the preservation of trace evidence as a viable discipline was absolutely necessary if this organization was to succeed.
On Sunday, August 2, 2009, in Clearwater Beach, Florida, the eight members of what would become the first ASTEE Board of Directors met in-person for the first time to discuss the merits and possibilities of a professional organization dedicated to the advancement of trace evidence as a forensic discipline. There was a healthy dose of skepticism in the room with some of the opinion that such an organization was not necessary; however, after a productive discussion, it was agreed that we would proceed and everyone in the room signed on to dedicate their time and efforts towards making the American Society of Trace Evidence Examiners a viable forensic professional organization. The announcement would be made later that week during the 2009 Trace Evidence Symposium in front of approximately 350 people.
During the symposium, we were granted some time by the organizers to make the announcement to the full assembly. None of us knew how it would be received. Was this something the field would embrace or would it fall flat on its face? At the conclusion of the session during which the announcement was made, we had our answer. Each member of the Board was inundated with requests for membership applications and membership references.
The weeks following the 2009 Symposium were a blur. So many applications had been received that it was difficult to keep track of everything, get everything entered into the membership rolls, deposit application fees, and send out responses in a timely fashion. The sheer exhilaration of knowing that we were creating something so worthwhile helped us push through. Within just a few weeks of the announcement, we had over 100 applicants with representation from all over the United States and several international applications as well. The response was nothing short of phenomenal. In addition to the applications, we received a great deal of support from various business entities that had long been supporters of the trace evidence community. In particular, Paul Martin of CRAIC Technologies, David Exline of Gateway Analytical, and David Tobin of Foster & Freeman all pledged financial support to help launch the organization. Make no mistake about it, we could not have proceeded as quickly as we did without their generous assistance. They were there at the beginning and have continued to be critical supporters of our efforts to this day.
Figure 1: A scanned copy of the original announcement that was distributed to the attendees at the 2009 Trace Evidence Symposium.
Fast forwarding to 2011, two years after the initial announcement we found ourselves gathered once again for the 2011 Trace Evidence Symposium in Kansas City, MO. During this meeting, I had the honor of giving a presentation that included an update on the status of the American Society of Trace Evidence Examiners. Thanks to the efforts of the Board, and the excitement that existed within the Trace Evidence community, two years on, we had over 250 official members with domestic and international representation from federal, state, local, and private laboratories as well as various academic programs. We were realizing our mission to support the growth of Trace Evidence as a forensic discipline by supporting research, organizing and providing education, training, and resources to practitioners, attorneys, and the general public, and promoting professionalism and high ethical standards within the field.
Over the course of those two years, leading up to the symposium, we had launched the Journal of the American Society of Trace Evidence Examiners (JASTEE)2, created a newsletter, populated our website, held receptions in conjunction with the American Academy of Forensic Sciences annual meeting, created a scholarship award, and created the Edmond Locard Award for Excellence in Trace Evidence3.
As part of my presentation during the 2011 Symposium, I had the privilege of announcing our first awardees. Emily Schenk, a Florida International University student, was the recipient of the first ever ASTEE Scholarship Award. For all of his contributions to the field as a whole, his tireless efforts towards educating practitioners, his unmatched integrity, and fact that the organization would never had launched without his initial input and guidance, Scott Ryland was announced as the first recipient of the Edmond Locard Award for Excellence in Trace Evidence. In celebration of this award and recognition of all the effort that our Board and membership dedicated to building the organization, we held an amazing reception that evening at the Boulevard Brewery with well over 100 members in attendance.
During his presentation at the 2011 Trace Evidence Symposium, one of the undisputed leaders of the trace evidence community, the world class microscopist/microchemist, Skip Palenik gave his praise to ASTEE for filling a niche that surely needed to be filled. He mentioned that he hoped we had taken at least a few photographs capturing the moments during which the organization was born. He said that it would be amazing to look back at those photos at some point in the future and be proud of that moment when those photographs were captured. Here we are 10 years later and ASTEE is stronger than ever! There are over 400 members including members from various regions of the world, we have had a strong presence at various forensic meetings on an annual basis, trainings have been given, scholarships disbursed, and journal articles disseminated. I cannot help but think about what Skip said and look at the few photos of the first board meeting that exist (thanks to Chris Taylor!) and feel nothing but a shared pride for everything that we have accomplished!!!
Photo 1: The first ASTEE Board of Directors Meeting, August 2009 (L to R: Sandy Parent, Amy Michaud, Sandra Koch, and Christopher Bommarito. Photo Credit - Chris Taylor)
Photo 2: The first ASTEE Board of Directors Meeting, August 2009 (L to R: Cassandra Burke, Vincent Desiderio, and Melissa Balogh. Photo Credit - Chris Taylor)
Photo 3: The first ASTEE Board of Directors Meeting, August 2009 (L to R: Christopher Bommarito, Cassandra Burke, and Christopher Taylor. Photo Credit - Chris Taylor’s camera, photographer unknown)
It was difficult for me to write this as I do not particularly like talking about myself. In order to bring this together, it unfortunately required a lot of my own perspective so thank you for bearing with me. This entire endeavor was the result of extreme dedication from a number of people that I have always found to be amazing. Going into this, I barely knew some of the people that were mentioned above; however, by the end, and to this day it is a privilege to count them among the best friends I have ever known. Forensic science in general, and trace evidence in particular is fortunate to have them as members of their community. Ten years before and now 10 years after, these folks are still making substantial contributions to the field with absolutely no signs of slowing down. I may have planted a seed but these folks provided all of the water, sunlight, and nutrients to make this grow aided by countless others that have followed in their footsteps to make if flourish.
1A strong contender for an initial name for the organization was the North American Society of Trace Evidence Examiners.Unfortunately, the acronym (NASTEE) was a little too edgy.
2Chris Bommarito was the driving force behind this initiative.He brilliantly served as the first Editor and pulled together some amazing contributions from the field.
3Chris Taylor was able to get permission from the Locard family to use their name in conjunction with this award.