The Birth of Forensic Ballistics

Dec 2, 2021 - by Dr. Peter L. Platteborze
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The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 would usher in the use of forensic ballistics to solve gun crimes. 

by Dr. Peter L. Platteborze

Most of us have sat mesmerized in front of a TV watching how highly motivated detectives solve a perplexing crime.  The popular non-fictional series “Forensic Files” has as its mantra “no witness, no leads, no problem” which alludes to how crime scene evidence will ultimately lead to the identification of the unknown perpetrator. 

Forensics, simply put, is the application of science to the law.  Since the 1960s, the U.S. criminal justice system has heavily emphasized its use.  A key discipline used in solving violent crimes involving firearms is forensic ballistics.  Few know that the small Michigan city of St. Joseph provided critical ballistics evidence that solved one of the worst crimes of the 20th century, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  This dark event also firmly established the field of forensic ballistics as an integral component of the legal system that is still commonly used today. 

America in the Roaring Twenties was a relatively lawless land despite Prohibition. Due to the actions of social moralists and the powerful national Temperance movement, starting in 1920 there was a Constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages.  While Prohibition was intended to purify society, it instead spawned widespread corruption, violence, and organized crime.  It did not stop the country’s insatiable demand for alcohol.  Since alcohol remained legal in neighboring Canada, enormous amounts of contraband were smuggled in via the narrow and heavily trafficked Detroit River from Windsor.  Crime outfits in Chicago and Detroit massively profiteered from selling bootleg alcohol.  This flourishing underground black market often led to violence between competing gangs. 

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre stemmed from who would control the highly lucrative Chicago bootleg trade.  In 1928, a bitter rivalry developed pitting George “Bugs” Moran’s Irish Northsiders against Al Capone’s Italian Southside gang.  Moran had started hijacking Capone’s bootleg whisky liquor shipments that were coming from Detroit.  To address this, Capone allegedly sought to get Moran and his henchmen together in one location so the competition could be collectively eliminated.  The crime was triggered when Moran’s gang met on a cold Saturday morning in February 1929, which coincidentally was St. Valentine’s Day. 

A black Packard pulled up to the front of Moran’s garage; this was the vehicle used by the Chicago Detective Bureau.  Two uniformed men entered and disarmed Moran’s men who were drinking coffee in the unheated building.  After Moran’s gang was lined up along a wall other men appeared from the shadows and opened fire.  Once the shooting stopped, witnesses observed that men in overcoats walked out with their hands held above their head escorted by policemen brandishing revolvers.  Everyone loaded into the Packard which rapidly sped away; this seemed to implicate the Chicago Police Department.

Soon thereafter multiple police cars arrived to discover a horrific crime scene.  Inside the garage, seven members and associates of Moran’s Gang were found dead along a blood spattered and heavily bullet pocked yellow brick wall.  Prior to any evidence being disturbed, the Chicago coroner’s office took charge of the investigation.  An array of photographs was taken  that documented the crime scene followed by the systematic collection of all spent bullets, shell casings, and bullet fragments.  This evidence was placed into marked envelopes that were then sealed, representing a detailed forensic chain of custody.  The bullets that were subsequently removed from the victims by the coroner’s office were similarly treated and labeled with the decedent’s name.

This crime horrified the entire country and set off a public outcry demanding an end to Chicago’s rampant violence. In response, the police closed speakeasies and arrested bootleggers.  Despite being under enormous pressure to solve the crime, the police quickly exhausted all their leads.  The Chicago coroner’s office recommended using a new type of science called forensic ballistics to help solve this violent crime.  Based on this educated gamble, they contacted Dr. Calvin Goddard, the recognized field expert to assist the investigation.  To convince him to leave New York City and support the case, business leaders offered to finance a new forensic laboratory at nearby Northwestern University. This new lab was intentionally designed as a private business to exclude the notoriously corrupt Chicago police who were potentially complicit in the Massacre.  The offer worked; Goddard agreed to support the case which ultimately involved his assessment of the most firearm evidence he had ever received in his career.

The new field of forensics ballistics was based on the striations (i.e., scratches) that are imprinted onto bullets fired through rifled gun barrels.  It was hypothesized that these patterns were unique like a fingerprint and were traceable to a single source.  Striations are due to the soft lead bullet firmly gripping the rifled gun barrel’s grooves when fired which are engineered to impart a rapid spin.  This process is like the spiral pass of a football, dramatically improving the gun’s accuracy and increasing the effective firing range.  The specific rifling characteristics differ between firearm manufacturers but are consistent to a particular brand, model, and caliber.  If a gun was thought to have been involved in a shooting, it could be test-fired in a controlled lab setting.  The resulting intact bullets are then directly compared to bullets recovered from a crime scene.  This was usually done by using a magnifying glass and an investigator’s memory.  If the striations patterns matched, the weapon was placed at the crime which could lead to identification of the perpetrator. 

Goddard was well positioned to support the forensic assessment of the Massacre’s evidence.  He had recently reviewed ballistics evidence in the Sacco and Vanzetti trial appeal that involved two immigrant anarchist bank robbers being convicted of murder.  While his scientific conclusions condemned Sacco, it seemed to largely confuse the jurors and lawyers.  Goddard was a World War I veteran and retired U.S. Army Colonel academically trained as a medical doctor.  His intense interest in firearms caused him to leave the medical profession to focus on his avocation.  Critical to his success was the invention and implementation of a new lab instrument.

In 1925, Goddard co-invented the comparison microscope which proved essential to the field of forensic ballistics becoming a recognized science by the criminal justice system. Now, instead of investigators using a magnifying glass and their recall to compare striation patterns, they could use a comparison microscope.  This device is two separate microscopes side by side linked by an optical bridge.  It allows an analyst to look at two different samples simultaneously and compare key characteristics.  Under magnification, fired bullets mounted on a post were turned to determine if the nearly invisible striations matched.  If they failed to align, then the bullets were fired from different guns.  With this new technology, Goddard proved the hypothesis that no two rifled firearms are made exactly alike.  Each rifled weapon made characteristic striations on a bullet that were consistent every time it was fired.  Hence, a bullet taken from a murdered victim could identify the specific gun it was fired from.  He also showed that striations on ejected shell casings could be traceable to a single firearm.

At the Massacre crime scene, extensive firearms evidence had been collected.  This included 70 spent shell casings from the garage floor, 14 bullets that had either missed or passed through their targets and 47 bullet fragments.  In addition, 39 bullets and bullet fragments had been removed from the seven murdered gangsters. 

Goddard began his forensic examination by scrutinizing the spent shell casings.  He quickly determined that they all were of the same make and had been fired from a .45 caliber automatic weapon.  This eliminated all but two guns made in the U.S., the 45 Colt automatic pistol and the Thompson submachine gun.  Close examination of the spent bullets revealed that they had been fired through a barrel manufactured with six grooves that twisted to the right.  Since Colt firearms were manufactured with a left twist, this indicated to Goddard that the weapon used was the Thompson submachine gun whose barrel had a six groove, right twist.  Often called the Tommy gun, in the 1920s these firearms were frequently employed by gangsters and law enforcement.  Goddard’s analysis also revealed that two different Tommy guns had been used in the crime. 

As Goddard labored over this firearms evidence, the citizens of Chicago demanded to know if the killers were corrupt policemen who had been feuding with the Moran gang.  Under mounting public pressure, the city and suburb police submitted all their Thompson submachine guns to Goddard for forensic analysis.  He systematically test-fired each weapon and directly compared the resulting bullets and shell casings to the crime scene evidence.  Using his newly invented comparison microscope, Goddard firmly concluded that none of these weapons had been used in the crime which absolved the Chicago police of involvement.  

Goddard’s conclusion was corroborated by witnesses who were near the Massacre site when the crime occurred.  They described a tall, stocky man missing a front tooth who rapidly drove away in the alleged police car.  This description did not closely match any of the city’s policemen, however, it did fit Fred R. Burke.  Nicknamed “Killer,” Burke was a notorious criminal and prolific mob hitman who would do anything if the price was right.  Law enforcement was well acquainted with him, especially those in Michigan.  Burke had previously served time in the Jackson prison and was allegedly involved in several robberies of Detroit jewelry stores and a bank in Cadillac. He had also been associated with Capone and the Purple Gang of Detroit.  He was a prime suspect in the notorious March 1927 Miraflores Massacre where three Detroit mobsters were murdered and in the killing of Thomas Bonner of Hess Lake.  No one knew Burke’s whereabouts; he had disappeared from the public right after the Chicago Massacre.

This criminal investigation then went cold for nearly a year until a bizarre indent occurred 90 miles northeast of Chicago in Michigan.  St. Joseph is the seat of Berrien County and was frequently visited by Capone and other gangsters.  On a cold Saturday night in mid-December, 25-year-old police officer Charles Skelly was on a routine foot patrol and directing Christmas shopping traffic.  He became involved in an argument involving a minor traffic accident in which local farmer George Kool claimed an unknown intoxicated man had rear-ended his vehicle.  When escorting them to the police station to resolve the issue, the stranger shot Officer Skelly three times at point-blank range.  While speeding away the shooter soon crashed his car on a sharp curve.  Undeterred, the fugitive then stopped a passing motorist and at gun point commandeered his car to escape.  When the police arrived at the accident, the driver was gone but the registration papers found in the abandoned wreck identified the owner as Frederick Dane from nearby Stevensville, Michigan.  Later that night, Officer Skelly died of his wounds while on the operating table.

When Berrien County sheriffs arrived at the Dane home, Frederick was absent, and his wife did not know his whereabouts.  While searching the residence, Dane’s true identity began to emerge.  On the second floor of the lavishly furnished bungalow, they found a small arsenal of weapons in a locked closet.  This cache included two Thompson submachine guns, around 1,000 rounds of ammunition as well as revolvers, sawed-off shotguns, hand grenades, and tear gas bombs.  In addition, they found several bulletproof vests, and over $300,000 worth of bonds stolen the prior month from a Jefferson, Wisconsin bank.  Laundry markings on the man’s clothing had the initials of FRB which led the police to quickly conclude that Frederick Dane was an alias for Fred R. “Killer” Burke.  A latent fingerprint recovered from a household object was identified as belonging to Burke.

After contacting the Chicago police to discuss their findings, the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department sent the weapons and ammunition to the forensic lab at Northwestern University.  Goddard quickly determined that most of the ammunition was of the same type used in the Massacre.  He then test-fired 35 bullets from the two confiscated Thompson submachine guns.  When they were directly compared to bullets recovered from the crime scene and decedents, Goddard concluded that the striation patterns matched!  Both of these guns had been used to kill Moran’s men.  With this data, the Chicago District Attorney’s office requested that Burke be captured and held for the grand jury on charges of murder.

The media attention surrounding this lab discovery catapulted Goddard to national fame and brought legitimacy to the fledgling science of forensic ballistics.  Additional lab testing by Goddard revealed that one of the Tommy guns had also been used in the murder of New York City mob boss Frankie Yale that occurred a few months prior to the Massacre.  Bullets recovered from Yale’s body were now directly linked to Burke who was the prime suspect.

Based on this cumulative evidence, Fred Burke was designated a public enemy and added to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives.  Four months later he was apprehended in Missouri based on a tip from an amateur detective who recognized him from a picture in True Detective Mysteries magazine.  Instead of being extradited to Chicago, the local authorities delivered Burke back to Michigan due to the airtight case against him in the murder of Officer Skelly.  This decision was also influenced by the fact that Michigan had no death penalty.  Based on the preponderance of evidence, on April 27, 1931, Burke pled guilty to the second-degree murder of Officer Skelly and was sentenced to life in prison.  He would fulfill his sentence at the Michigan State Penitentiary in Marquette registered under the alias of Frederick Dane. During his imprisonment he refused to implicate anyone else involved in the Massacre.  Approximately nine years into his sentence, he died of a massive heart attack at the age of 47.  He is buried in Marquette’s Park Cemetery under his real name, Thomas Camp.

Today, the Stevensville bungalow safe house used by Fred “Killer” Burke is still standing and the prison he resided in remains active.  In addition, the Tommy guns used in the Massacre have been retained as crime evidence by the Berrien County Sheriff’s Office.  They are occasionally shown at public educational exhibits.  The forensic ballistics analysis of the bullet striations so important to solving this incredibly atrocious crime remains a standard investigative enquiry used in today’s crime labs.  Currently, over four million digital images of striations have been incorporated into the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network, a database that catalogs firearms allegedly used in crimes.  These high-resolution images are downloaded and compared to new gun evidence which has resulted in more than 200,000 hits and countless violent crimes being solved. 

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