The School Stalker

Sep 17, 2012 - by Liz Porter - 0 Comments

Forensics Handwriting

Handwriting analysis example from the University of Kent

 The School Stalker is an extract from Written On The Skin– an Australian Forensic Casebook by Liz Porter, joint winner of the 2007 Ned Kelly Prize for best true crime book.  This book is available in a Kindle edition. Hard copies from the author:

by Liz Porter 

The attractive young female teacher had been delighted to get a job on the staff of an inner-suburban boys-only high school in the Australian city of Melbourne. But in late 1996, within months of her arrival, she began receiving offensive handwritten notes, accusing her of having sex with some of her 15 and 16-year-old year students. A letter from an anonymous parent was also sent to the school principal.

The opening of the 1997 school year triggered a resumption of the notes, including a second letter to the principal, and the targeted teacher became increasingly distraught. The letter suggested that the young woman had been behaving in an improper way towards some of her male students and threatened to “seek legal advice” about it.

“On many occasions,” this “concerned parent” wrote, “my son has mentioned that this lady uses inappropriate and suggestive comments to year 10 boys in class.” The “parent” also drew attention to the teacher’s appearance – her ‘very short dresses which leave little to the imagination.”

When the teacher turned to the police, Detective Tony Warren, then based at a station near the school, was assigned to the case.

Although the teacher had destroyed some of the early notes she had been sent, dismissing them as pranks, she had soon begun keeping them, and had collected a considerable number to give to the detective. One note described her as “a big slut who roots boys in year 9 and 10.”

“There’s a word for sluts like you,” said another, “pedophile – sickos who root young boys.”  That latter note was illustrated with a drawing of a bare-breasted woman. A further note featured the teacher’s head, cut from the previous year’s school magazine, and attached to a crudely drawn nude female body.

Detective-Sergeant Warren began speaking to teachers at the school, asking them for suggestions about possible culprits. To him, the notes all looked to be the work of the same person. Although there had been clear attempts to disguise the writing, certain characteristics recurred, like the left to right upward swing of the top bar of the capital “T.”

Samples of writing were taken from students at the school, and the poison-pen notes were sent off to the Victoria Police forensic sciences center to be treated with ninhydrin, a chemical that reacts with the amino acids in the human sweat that is part of fingerprint residue, slowly bringing up a reddish-purple print. But that process only revealed partial prints, none of them any use for comparative purposes.

The general assumption among the teachers was that one of the boys was responsible, and the detective was given several leads on “dysfunctional” students thought to be capable of such letters. The detective himself wasn’t altogether happy with this hypothesis. A father of three teenage boys himself, he considered the wording and style of the notes atypical of boys’ work. The drawings bothered him particularly. The face of the bare-breasted woman illustrating one of the notes featured far too many details on it: eyes, nose, hair, and carefully drawn lips. In his experience, teenage boys didn’t bother with that sort of finesse in their crude sexual drawings. The words were wrong, too, he thought. One note accused the teacher of acting like a “goody-goody”; another said she “shakes her arse” and “packs on makeup goo.” Those comments didn’t strike him as a typically teen male critique.

But this was an all-male school. Boys were the only suspects who had been suggested to him, and he had at least to eliminate them before he started looking elsewhere in the school. Accordingly, he interviewed several boys, including one who had been named by one of the few female teachers at the school as a potential poison-pen letter writer.

Speaking to the boy in the presence of the school headmaster, the detective was bothered by the way the boy was reacting to his questions. Something wasn’t right. But the boy’s discomfort wasn’t, he believed, an indicator that he was guilty of writing the notes. The detective’s gut feeling was not ambivalent. This youth was not a perpetrator. He had the aura of a victim, albeit one of another type.  To the detective, this lad seemed just the sort who might well be the target of a pedophile. Physically mature for his age, he was a loner who wasn’t doing well at school, and his parents were going through a very messy marriage break-up.

Suddenly the detective took a chance with a stunning new question – a change of direction that neither the boy, nor the school principal, had been expecting:

“How long have you been sleeping with your teacher?” he asked.

The detective saw the headmaster’s face turn grey as the boy said: “Only three times.” He followed his confession with an assurance that it was “over,” because the teacher concerned was “crazy.”

Before the interview ended, the detective had another name to work with. The teacher the boy had mentioned was 36, and a single mother of a teenage daughter. She had been at the school late the year before as a student teacher and had returned to a temporary placement in early 1997. But there had been no more work for her at the school after that initial stint. In fact, by the time the detective had spoken to this last boy, the teacher was no longer at the school.

If the boy’s story was true, this woman suddenly looked like a very good potential suspect. The “dysfunctional male student” theory had never really held up to scrutiny. The letters had been postmarked at various locations, a few miles away, and at times indicating they had been posted during school hours. Yet, the use of a picture cut from the school magazine showed that the sender was part of the school community. While it had been the detective’s gut feeling all along that the letter writer was female, there were only a handful of female teachers at the school, all of them, with the exception of the victim and the new suspect, in their late forties and presumably far too mature for some of the silliness on display in the notes.

In a horrible way, the scenario had its own logic. If the suspect was a pedophile (and there were indications that the boy Warren interviewed hadn’t been her only target), then she might very well have viewed the new teacher, prettier and younger than she, as a rival for her targets’ sexual interest. Removing the younger woman from the school would also open up a teaching position.

Prosecuting the former temporary teacher for having sex with an under-age boy looked impossible, because the mother of the boy Warren had spoken to had refused to allow her son to make a statement. But the information the youth had given in the headmaster’s office was enough to justify a warrant to search the suspect teacher’s house. A check of criminal records had revealed a long-ago dishonesty offence, to do with over-claiming of welfare benefits. There was also something odd and immature about this woman. Her own house was barely furnished, and she and her daughter seemed to spend most of their time at her parents’ house.

The 36-year-old accused denied all knowledge of the notes but agreed to meet police at her house. She watched as police seized pens, pencils, handwritten letters, a diary and notepads, all the time maintaining that the detectives should be looking at the boys, and one boy in particular, rather than her. As the woman defended herself, Warren found himself studying the notepad found in her bedroom. It was exactly the same kind of paper that had been used in some of the notes.

Dr Bryan Found
Dr Bryan Found

More than 20 items of evidence were delivered to Victoria Police scientist Dr. Bryan Found. Now the chief forensic scientist at the Victoria Police forensic science headquarters at Macleod, Dr. Found was then the center’s chief document examiner. His Ph.D. had been on the theoretical and analytical approaches to handwriting analysis, and his chief area of interest was the relationship between handwriting, neuropsychology and motor control.  The handwriting analysis and comparison that was his bread-and- butter work wasn’t a simple matter of visually assessing and counting points of comparison, as if the letters were ridges and patterns in a fingerprint. Handwriting is human behavior and can change according to environment, circumstances, age, or drug and alcohol intoxication. Almost every time a person writes, therefore, his or her letters will look slightly different.

The handwriting analyst starts with the features of the motor behavior associated with a person’s known handwriting. Through study of the samples given as “known” writing, he accumulates and records a whole “population” of features. Beginning by noting down all the variations for each letter in the subject’s known handwriting, he studies the range of the handwriting by essentially teaching himself to write the way the suspect writes.

Microscopic analysis helps him to establish exactly how the letters have been formed. “Striations” (tiny lines within each letter line, created by imperfections in the housing of a ballpoint pen) indicate the direction in which the ball of the pen point was rotating, helping the expert to determine the way in which the writer has constructed each character. Are the writer’s “O”s constructed clock- wise, for example, or anti-clockwise? How are the upper-case “E”s formed? He then looks at the equivalent features exhibited in the sample of “questioned” handwriting, asking and answering the question, “What is the likelihood that these two populations of features were a product of the same (or different) motor behavior?”

If the features appear to be an expression of the same behavior, there are three possibilities. Either the same person wrote both, there has been a chance match (considered to be extremely unlikely), or someone other than the suspect has forged the suspect’s writing.

After comparing the handwriting in the notes to known samples of the suspect’s writing, Dr. Found could categorically say that the same person had addressed all the envelopes in which the notes had been posted. There were also “indications” that this writer had penned the notes inside as well. But the comparison process was limited, he explained, by the amount of writing available, its variability (because of the attempts to disguise the writing) and the differing formats (block capitals and conventional script).


Electro-Static Detection Apparatus (ESDA)
Electro-Static Detection Apparatus (ESDA)

His next job was to use his department’s ESDA – or Electro-Static Detection Apparatus – to examine the notes and writing pads seized from the suspect and see what indentations came up. The ESDA is a key fixture in the document section of any police forensics lab. Used to find the “ghosts” of previously written notes on any piece of notepad paper, its effectiveness is based on the fact that pressure on paper exerted by the tip of a pen creates minor disturbances in the relative position of paper fibers on the page being written on – and on paper up to five pages beneath it in a notepad.

The detection of the traces of previous notes is relatively simple.

First, the document under investigation is placed in a special humidifier to increase its water content. It is then placed on the ESDA, an innocuous looking box with a brass plate on top. When the red “on” button is pressed, a vacuum switch sucks out the air between the paper and the brass, flattening both the document and the lunch-wrap-like layer of Mylar film placed over it to protect it.

The scientist then “charges up” the document by passing an 8,000-volt wand over it. The electrons sprayed over the page will be attracted to the “disturbed” fibers in a different way to the sections of the paper without indentations. Tiny glass beads covered in photocopy toner are then poured over the top of the sheet. Because they carry a charge themselves, they are also attracted to the areas of “disturbed” fibers. Slowly, an inky image of writing from pages formerly “above” the suspect page becomes visible.

This technique also brings up fingerprints (the use for which the machine was originally devised). But its ability to bring up the indentations made by words written on pages previously torn from the same pad has made ESDA a devastatingly effective forensic tool. Best of all, the document itself isn’t damaged during testing, because the inked indentations come up on the Mylar film placed over the document. The Mylar is then covered with a layer of clear contact wrapping to fix the pattern in place, leaving the document untouched and able to be re-tested for fingerprints.

ESDA is best known internationally for the role it played in helping to secure the release of prisoners sentenced to prison after convictions based on false confessions fabricated by West Midlands police in the United Kingdom in the late 1980s. In IRA bombing cases against the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, ESDA tests on original police interview notes revealed that statements had been written and rewritten by police, leading to the quashing of convictions

This Australian case was less momentous. But the ESDA also struck gold for the Melbourne document examiner.   One item, a note in which the writer said the teacher “shakes her ass,” brought up two lots of indentations – the first from an envelope addressed to the victim, the second from another note attacking the teacher and accusing her of having sex with the boys. Three other notes also revealed similar indentations from previously written notes and other envelopes addressed to the victim. These results proved something that Dr. Found hadn’t been able to establish with certainty from the handwriting itself: the fact that the notes and the envelopes had been written in the same place (and therefore probably by the same person).

The piéce de rèsistance was “item 9” on the list of pieces of evidence seized during the raid on the suspect’s house: the large lined school notepad found in the bedroom. The fifth page of that pad brought up indentations from “item 4B” – a note which started with “THERE’S A WORD FOR SLUTS.” While the ragged edges across the top of note 4B indicated that it had been torn from a pad, it was easy to see that a page had been torn out between pages three and five of the seized pad. The vestiges of paper left at the top of the pad lined up exactly with the top of the note. The positioning of the indentations, coupled with the exact fit between the two edges, confirmed that the note 4B had been written while it was still attached to the pad.

Detective Warren was pleased with these results. But only cautiously so. Although the evidence was good enough to make any rational person confess, he was certain the suspect would continue to deny all involvement. She did. After all, the boy with whom she had had sex had had access to her room, her notepad, her envelopes.

The writing evidence only proved that the notes had been written on her pad and, given the envelope indentations, in her house.

But the detective had luck on his side. And science. Some months earlier, when the notes had been given the “ninhydrin” treatment, only partial prints had come up. The treatment works slowly, and the chemical soaked into the paper can sometimes continue to react over weeks and, in this case, months. In August, Warren opened up his file to prepare for an interview with the suspect. Looking at one of the notes, he saw a change in the fingerprint on a piece of adhesive tape used to stick the victim’s photo on to a drawing. In the intervening months the chemical had continued its slow reaction. The partial print had become a complete print.

Maintaining her innocence (and no doubt confident that she hadn’t left prints), the suspect had earlier allowed her fingerprints to be taken. The print on the sticky tape matched them.Confronting her with all the evidence against her, Warren charged the 36-year-old with stalking.

In October, when the case came up at the local Magistrate’s Court, the woman continued to maintain her innocence. Quite a crowd was gathered waiting for her case to proceed. The accused, ready for a contest, had brought a barrister to represent her, while several parents from the school were also in the court precinct. Although they hadn’t wanted to put their boys through the trauma of a court hearing, they were keen to see the teacher punished for a crime directly linked to her activities as a sexual predator.

Meanwhile, the fingerprint expert was waiting to testify, as was Dr. Found, who had come with charts he had prepared to illustrate the clarity of the indentations left on the teacher’s notepad by note 4B. But as soon as the teacher’s advocate had a chance to look at the forensic evidence against his client, he was able to persuade her to see reason. After changing her plea to guilty, the former teacher was sentenced to a month’s in jail, and wholly suspended for 12 months. She was fined $500, and had to agree to seek psychiatric help.


The School Stalker is an extract from Written On The Skin– an Australian Forensic Casebook by Liz Porter, joint winner of the 2007 Ned Kelly Prize for best true crime book.  This book is available in a Kindle edition. Hard copies from the author:

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