Criminals Beware

January 22, 2004, vol. 29, no. 2
By Carol Thorbes

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Criminals had better beware of plant bits left at the scene of their crimes.

Rolf Mathewes, a botanist at Simon Fraser University, is regularly seconded from his academic and teaching duties to help solve high profile murder cases.

Trained in botany and paleobotany, the study of ancient plant fossils, the silver-haired academic refers to himself as “the accidental forensic botanist.”

“My study of microscopic plant remains in sediments to track forest history and climatic changes unwittingly prepared me for forensic analysis of similar fragments recovered from crime scenes and bodies,” explains Mathewes.

The Maple Ridge resident and associate dean of science at SFU helped police identify plant evidence found, almost four years ago, in a bag that had contained the body of a young murder victim.

“I was called in after police recovered the bag from the bottom of Alouette Lake in Golden Ears Park,” recalls Mathewes. “My identification of plant remains from the body bag and the victim's hair helped police confirm where her body had originally been hidden.”

Mathewes' forensic work involves using bits of leaves, seeds, pollen and other plant parts to confirm the timing or location of a crime.

Aside from his passion for detail, Mathewes' patience is a great asset in this work.

“With the help of a microscope, I'm often sifting through pans of dust and sediment for plant fragments that can be up to 500 times smaller than what can be seen with the naked eye.”

Not being faint of heart also helps.

“Sometimes I get just a container of plant material from the police, or I may have to go down to the morgue myself to pick plant bits off a body,” says Mathewes. “It's unpleasant and can be gruesome, but I draw my strength from knowing this work can help solve serious crimes.”

Mathewes was first bitten by the forensic bug 18 years ago.

Mathewes analyzed plant growth patterns to help determine how long the bodies of two exotic dancers, found on Mount Seymour, had been there.

The annual rings of woody plants can help date burials.

“Buried remains act as a fertilizer for shrubs and trees next to them,” reveals Mathewes. “An examination of growth rings can help you correlate evidence of growth spurts in plants to the year when a nearby body was buried.”

Mathewes is in big demand on the lecture circuit. Homicide investigators and other professionals in forensics attended his workshops last year. One of Mathewes' current interests is helping SFU establish an institute of forensic studies.

A fictional detective novel is also taking root in the back of his mind.

As an avid reader of such works, Mathewes says with a sly grin, “Forensic botany is fertile ground for new plotlines.”

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