The Corvette Connection
Written by Chris Bily & Bill Sherlock   

Approximately a century ago, Edmond Locard postulated: “Every contact leaves a trace.” Forensic science was built upon this fundamental foundation. When we think of forensic evidence, we envision fingerprints, discharged bullets and cartridge cases, DNA, trace evidence, and other physical evidence routinely examined in the crime laboratory. From time to time, ordinary events can lead to the creation of extraordinary physical evidence that is unconventional yet valid and pertinent to a criminal investigation. The following is such a case.


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Background

In the early part of the 1990s, General Motors (GM) experienced a theft of 36 prototype tires and wheels along with their corresponding rotors from nine new Corvettes at their proving grounds in Milford, Mich. A prototype engine and transmission were also stolen. These items were valued in the 10s of thousands of dollars. Michigan authorities were briefed on the theft, but no immediate leads developed.

Later that same year, a Corvette show was held at McCormick Place, a convention center in Chicago, Ill. A Michigan State Police detective familiar with the theft happened to be at the show with his son. While perusing the various exhibits at the show he happened upon a vendor selling, amongst other things, Corvette tires, wheels, rotors, engine, and transmission that fit the description of the items that were stolen from the GM proving grounds. He reported his findings to the Chicago Police Department. Officers were sent to McCormick place and all of the items were seized as evidence (Figures 1, 2, and 3).


Figure 1 - Corvette tire and wheel


Figure 2 - Corvete brake rotor


Figure 3 - Corvette engine

Examination and Comparison

The evidence was submitted and assigned to the Chicago Police Crime Laboratory’s Firearm and Tool Mark section for examination and comparison. The initial examination yielded two significant findings:

First, the interior portion of the wheel hub, specifically the areas around the lugs, contained rust marks (Figure 4). Since the wheels were made of aluminum alloy, a material that is not subject to rust, the rust must have come from the brake rotors to which they were attached.


Figure 4 - The interior portion of the hub of the recovered wheel. The "52 LF" marked in blue corresponds with the vehicle's build manifest. Image courtesy the Michigan State Police.


Figure 5 - Close-up image of the lugs from the wheel. The discolored areas around the surface of the lugs, as indicated by the arrows, is rust. Image courtesy of the Michigan State Police.

The second finding of forensic interest was the paint transfer between the engine and the bell housing that connects the engine to the transmission (Figure 10).

The challenge in this case was to determine if, at some point in time, the wheels could have been connected to the rotors, and if the engine could have been connected to the transmission.

Wheel and Rotor Examination

The lugs on the wheels and the corresponding positions on the rotors were given letter designations. Examination quality photographs were taken. The photographs provided documentation of the shape and position of the rust and a means of macroscopic comparison.

In an attempt to protect the rust patterns on the rotors, fingerprint lifting tape was placed over each of the rust patterns. An interesting discovery was made during the comparison. The tape failed to adhere to the rotors and fell off. When the tape lifts were examined, they provided highly detailed outlines of the original rust patterns that were of superior quality for comparative purposes. After examination, it was determined that the four submitted tires and four submitted rotors had been joined together at some point in time (Figures 6, 7, 8, and 9).

Engine and Bell Housing Examination

The paint transfer between the engine and the bell housing that connects the engine to the transmission was inspected. Examination quality photographs were taken of the portion of the engine that comes into contact with the bell housing and the bell housing itself (Figures 10, 11, 12, and 13). A macroscopic comparison was performed from the photos and a physical match determination was made. Forensic comparison had shown that the engine and the transmission had been joined together at some point in time (Figure 14).


Figures 10 & 11 - An overview of the engine and a closeup shows the area where paint transfer occurred with teh bell housing gasket.



Figure 12 (top) - Shows the bell housing that connects the engine to the transmission. Figure 13 (bottom left) - Enlarged image of Figure 12. Figure 14 (bottom right) - An overlay of the physical match between the items depicted in Figures 11 and 13 (flipped) provided evidence that the engine and the transmission were attached at some point in time.

Conclusion

The determinations made in this case (the rust mark identification of the wheel lugs to the brake rotors and the physical match of the paint transfer between the engine and the bell housing) provided compelling evidence against the suspect. When faced with the evidence against him, the suspect pled guilty.

This case illustrates how the power of observation by the officer, the connection of independent events, and ordinary phenomena such as rust and paint transfers can lead to the creation of uncommon physical evidence and the resolution of the case.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Dr. Gerald Lang of West Virginia University for his edits and suggestions during the preparation of this article.

About the Authors

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it is a Forensic Science Instructor and Curriculum Designer with West Virginia University in Morgantown, W.Va.

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it is a retired Tool Mark Examiner formerly with the Illinois State Police Forensic Science Center in Chicago. Prior to that, Sherlock was a Tool Mark Examiner and Crime Scene Technician with the Chicago Police Crime Laboratory.

 
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Court Case Update

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