The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation recently opened its doors to members of the media in an effort to help journalists better understand the role of this unique investigative entity in the state.
The academy was attended by print and video journalists primarily from the Oklahoma City and Tulsa areas, although newspaper reporters from other areas also attended including the Poteau Daily News, Stillwater News Press, and The Oklahoman as well as the Woodward News.
New OSBI Director Stan Florence kicked off the media academy, which was held Tuesday and Wednesday evening, with a little background on the agency’s role.
Unlike police departments or sheriff’s offices, Florence said the OSBI doesn’t have its own jurisdiction, but rather is an assistance agency that must be asked to help investigate cases.
“And there are only a few people who can request our assistance,” he said, noting this includes police departments and sheriff’s offices as well as the District Attorney’s office, Attorney General and the governor.
“DHS also can in some instances and a judge can in some instances,” he said.
However, the public cannot ask the OSBI to investigate a case, they must go through someone like the Attorney General, he said, noting “9-1-1 doesn’t ring here.”
But beyond explaining OSBI’s role within the state, Florence said the academy was also a part of the bureau's efforts to be “approachable” and “transparent.”
“We’re excited about opening our doors to you more than we have in the past,” he said.
Also after some “negative stories” about the bureau in 2010, including criticism over the OSBI’s handling of the Aja Johnson case, Florence said “it’s clear from the past year that the media needs to know more about what we do.”
“And ultimately the more we share with you, the more the public knows,” he said.
In addition, Florence told the journalists, “It’s in everybody’s best interest, you, us, the citizens of the state that we all succeed.”
On Tuesday the group met at OSBI headquarters in Oklahoma City, where they heard from the agency director.
Although Florence expressed his desire to work with the media to help get important information out to the public, he said there were some complicating factors that sometimes interfere with that desire.
Primarily he said there is some conflict between the open record laws that govern what information he can release and Oklahoma confidentiality statutes specifically for the OSBI, which prohibit the bureau from sharing “investigative details.”
The contradictions between those two areas of law can create “gray areas” as far as what information can and cannot be shared, he said.
The OSBI’s confidentiality restrictions also “causes problems when we try to bring in non-law enforcement experts to assist in cases,” Florence said.
However, Florence said OSBI investigations weren't always confidential. But he believed the change was made, along with several other changes in the operation of the bureau, after former Oklahoma Gov. David Hall was investigated by the agency.
Florence said he believed the confidentiality issue was implemented in case OSBI investigates any other governor to prevent that person from requiring the agency to present them with the investigation files.
In addition, confidentiality can be important in protecting other “investigative details,” which may be crucial in solving some cases, Florence said.
However, the biggest difficulty this presents is being able to share information with a victim’s loved ones who are anxious to learn more about what happened to the person they lost, he said.
That’s why Florence said that he is “still seeking the best balance” so that the OSBI doesn’t violate its confidentiality statutes or endanger its investigations, but still gets information out to the families and to the public in general “so we can at least give them some assurance that something is being done.”
Another “difficulty, conflict between us,” the OSBI and the media, Florence said, is “you need information early on, but the problem we face is that information changes, especially within the first 12 hours on the scene. And we want to make sure what we release is accurate.”
The OSBI director said that is why the bureau often does not release much information during early investigations.
To help demonstrate just how much investigative information and leads can change, Florence had OSBI agents recreate 2 old crime scenes and invited the participating journalists to take on the role of investigators as they walked through the interactive scenarios.
Both crimes were homicides that occurred in the Panhandle several years ago and were investigated by OSBI Agent Clif Gann, who is now the OSBI’s investigative division director. Gann led the journalists through the scenarios and shared how his investigations progressed.
One scenario looked at a 1986 homicide in which an approximately 60-year-old man was found dead with multiple gunshot wounds in some tall brush near the site of a 2-vehicle accident along Highway 64 east of Boise City.
Upon initial investigation, the lead suspect appeared to be someone named Danny who Gann knew personally because Danny was the driver of one of the vehicles involved in the accident.
There was also a man who came forward as a witness claiming to have seen Danny fighting with the victim earlier in the evening.
In fact, Gann said that when he interrogated his friend, Danny even confessed to killing the victim, believing he had killed the other man when his El Camino hit a Chevette parked along the shoulder of the highway.
However, when asked about the gun that was used to shoot the victim, Gann said Danny was eager to try to prove he didn’t shoot the man.
Upon further investigation, which was delayed because the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) computer system was down for a while, investigators eventually learned that the Chevette had been stolen.
They also learned that a checkbook belonging to a Richard Bartlett that was found in the Chevette did not belong to the victim, but rather to one of the 3 thieves who had stolen the Chevette from the Dallas area.
The victim was identified by looking through missing persons reports in the area and finding that a Robert Gummo out of Kansas had not returned home the day before. It was also discovered that Gummo’s Cadillac had gone missing as well as his wallet and credit cards.
Investigators tracked activity on Gummo’s credit cards and eventually discovered the 3 suspects in California some 3 to 4 days later. However, initial questioning of the suspects, which included Bartlett, Allen Watts and Ronald White, didn’t help clear up matters because Bartlett was blaming Watts for the shooting, Watts wasn’t talking and White told investigators Bartlett pulled the trigger, Gann said.
It wasn’t until charges were filed and the District Attorney asked for the death penalty that Watts eventually talked and said that Bartlett had shot Gummo, Gann said. It turned out that the stolen Chevette had broken down and Gummo had stopped to help the 3 men to give them a ride, when Bartlett decided to kill him and take his Cadillac, Gann said.
Bartlett, who was 19 at the time, is still in jail, he said.
But before Gann explained the details of the case, OSBI Public Information Officer Jessica Brown had some fun turning the tables on the journalists.
Treating them as OSBI agents, Brown asked them the same type of questions that she is typically asked to help show them how difficult it really is to try to release information about a case that you know to be accurate.
For example, she asked about the identity of the victim, which wasn’t immediately known. All that could be released was that the victim was a male around the age of 60.
As for cause of death, the journalists were able to confirm that it was a homicide, simply because of the bullet wounds to the head and the chest. However, additional information about the type of gun used was unavailable at that time. (In fact, Gann later said that the gun was never found because the suspects tossed it away somewhere along the drive from Boise City to California.)
Brown also asked about suspects and the journalists had to tell her that we had a person of interest, but couldn’t confirm him as a suspect.
Earlier in the academy, the OSBI director tried to clear up the differences between individuals that investigators designate as suspects and people of interest.
Suspects, he said, are people who “we’re to a point we could probably make the arrest, we either have a warrant or about to file charges.” However, he said persons of interest are “often times people who we think may have critical information about the case; they are people who are close to the case but may not actually be a suspect.”
On the second day of the academy, the media participants were given a tour of the OSBI’s almost 3-year-old Forensic Science Center, located near the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond.
The purpose of the laboratory tour was to provide the journalists with some hands-on experience in learning about all the various investigative capabilities of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
During the tour, the journalists were able to visit 4 of the Forensic Science Center’s laboratory service units: the biology lab, latent prints lab, trace evidence lab and firearms/toolmarks lab.
In each of the labs, criminalists assigned to those labs gave an overview of what each laboratory does in trying to analyze evidence to further OSBI investigations.
For example, in the biology laboratory, Criminalist Supervisor Ryan Porter shared how his department would go about verifying if a stain was blood splatter.
First they would take a piece of evidence, such as a bed sheet, to see if they can find any suspicious stains. Sometimes the stains are obvious, but in the case of high velocity blood spatter, sometimes the blood droplets are too tiny to see with the naked eye, but can become visible when looking through a stereoscope.
Once the stains are located, a sample is taken, which Porter said is placed on a microscope slide and then inserted into a Nikon Coolscope which is both a microscope and a camera. This allows the criminalists to magnify the substance to look for particular crystals which are used to confirm that the material is blood, he said.
However, this test will not confirm that it’s human blood. Instead, Porter said the lab uses something similar to a home-pregnancy test to confirm if the blood is human or not.
In the latent print laboratory, the journalists were allowed to lift prints off of aluminum soda cans using black powder and off of plastic baggies using special magnetic powder.
They also learned about the different chemicals used to develop prints that might otherwise be invisible to the eye, such as Ninhydrin that reacts to amino acids in the sweat that forms fingerprints and Leuco Crystal Violet, which reacts to hemoglobin in blood to find fingerprints or other types of prints made in blood.
Criminalist Stormy Gribble said the latent print lab also uses a cyanoacrylate fuming chamber to seal prints so that they can be lifted multiple times without damaging or destroying the print. A piece of evidence is placed in the chamber, then super glue is heated within the chamber, which becomes a fume and “those fumes adhere to the moisture in the print,” thus making the print more durable, Gribble said.
However, because of limited time, the journalists weren’t able to tour the entire Forensic Science Center and didn’t even touch on the center’s DNA lab, drug lab, or toxicology lab capabilities.
But Laboratory Director Andrea Swiech invited them to come back anytime for a full tour.
The public can also tour the laboratory as the 2nd and 4th Mondays of each month have been reserved for public tours. However, according to information on the OSBI website, www.ok.gov/osbi/, you must submit your request for a tour in writing to the OSBI-Forensic Science Center at 800 E. 2nd Street, Edmond, OK 73034 and provide your name, number of people in your group, age of participants and the date you would like to tour the facility. Requests “must also explain how a tour of the OSBI lab will benefit the group members” and “should include a name and telephone number for the individual requesting the tour.”