Interview with an Expert: Dwane Hilderbrand

LAST YEAR, I RECEIVED AN EMAIL from forensic expert Dwane Hilderbrand announcing his bittersweet decision to leave forensic science after 45 years. His retirement became official at the end of 2019.

Dwane has been a part of the Evidence Technology Magazine team since the very beginning. In 2003, we asked him to join our editorial advisory board. We knew how to do the writing and editing and publishing and marketing. But we needed experts to make sure our focus and content stayed in line. Dwane was one of a brave few who accepted our invitation. Since then, he has undoubtedly spent countless hours reviewing content and calling me out when necessary. He has been and continues to be a cheerleader for our publication, and we thank him greatly for all of his support.

Dwane S. Hilderbrand stepped into his criminal justice career in 1975 when he started with the Identification Division of the Federal Bureau of Identification. In 1978, he accepted a position as Identification Technician with the Prince William County Police Department in Woodbridge, Virginia. In 1981, he moved to the Scottsdale (Arizona) Police Department in a forensic identification and crime scene position—and remained there until his official retirement from government service in October 2005. After retiring from public service, Hilderbrand worked with Ron Smith and Associates, Inc. from 2005 to 2009, and then opened his own forensic consulting business, Forensic ITC Services in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Over the course of his career, Dwane became an internationally recognized instructor and expert on a wide variety of forensic-related topics. He is one of the very few forensic professionals in the world who has earned professional certifications from the International Association for Identification as a Certified Latent Print Examiner, Certified Senior Crime Scene Analyst, and Certified Footwear Examiner.

In addition to his well-respected teaching style, Dwane is probably best known for his expertise in footwear examination. He was responsible for the first computerized Automated Shoeprint Identification System with the Scottsdale Police Department. He assisted with many footwear cases throughout the United States, as well as Jamaica and the Anguilla Islands. He authored Footwear, The Missed Evidence, a handbook designed to address the needs of the crime scene investigator in the areas of collection and recovery of footwear impression evidence.

At the beginning of his official retirement from forensic science earlier this year, I asked Dwane to answer a few questions about his career, his areas of study, and a little about his personal life.

—Kristi Mayo, Editor

Evidence Technology Magazine: What steered you toward a career in law enforcement and forensic science?

Dwane Hilderbrand: A very good friend of the family, Mr. Cecil Yates (FBI Agent, Retired). He was the head of the FBI Forensic Unit at Quantico back in the 1970s. He introduced me to a Mr. Robert Hazen, who once said to me, “How would you like to work in the field of the most dynamic physical evidence known to man: the science of fingerprints?”

ETM: What was your first job (ever)?

Hilderbrand: Wow, my first job ever was a gardener, but I was only 15. I would hire myself out to neighbors to work in their yards and gardens; apparently, I had a green thumb. When I graduated from high school, I went to work for Blake Construction Company. They were building the new FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC. I worked as a carpenter’s helper on the 25th floor. Funny thing: When I was hired by the FBI in 1975 as a fingerprint technician, I worked on the 25th floor of that same building for three years.

ETM: What was your first job in law enforcement?

Hilderbrand: I worked as a fingerprint technician for the FBI in Washington, DC. I then went on to the Prince William County Police Department in Virginia.

ETM: How did footwear and tire-track impression evidence become a focus of study for you?

Hilderbrand: I have collected shoes and baseball cards. Shoes just fascinated me. I still have most of my collection, from a pair of baby shoes dated 1863 to an autographed basketball shoe from Shaquille O’Neal — Size 24. I became interested in footwear and tire track as evidence in 1984 after working a home invasion. I started reading everything I could get my hands on. I did an interim training program through the Department of Public Safety in Phoenix, Arizona.

ETM: What key areas in footwear and tire track need additional study and development?

Hilderbrand: I truly feel we need more work and research on wear patterns. I believe they are unique to the individual — it is just a matter of proving it. The Podiatry Subcommittee has done a lot of work through the International Association for Identification, and they continue to move forward. Now, I don’t mean wear that causes an individual characteristic. I mean just a wear pattern. The main issue is that some outlines of a wear pattern can be seen in a 2D form, such as a countertop, but not in a 3D form, like mud.

ETM: What misconceptions do people typically have about footwear examination?

Hilderbrand: Great question! I think there are a lot of misconceptions. Footwear and tires are looked at as, “Well there are so many produced, how can anyone narrow it down to just one?” What they forget to realize is that narrowing it down to one shoe or one tire is only part of what we do. Footwear and tires can provide leads in the investigations by letting the investigator know what they are looking for. The evidence can link suspects or suspect vehicles to the scene. It will also assist in the reconstruction of the scene. I truly believe that this type of evidence is overlooked for two big reasons: 1) lack of proper training and education, and 2) the evidence is misunderstood or undervalued. And this means everybody, from the crime scene investigator to the attorney.

ETM: Which would you rather be doing: casework or teaching?

Hilderbrand: That’s a tough question. Both. I love bench work and I truly love to teach. Teaching is more like sharing. If we don’t learn to pass on what we know then the science can go stale. I have now created three online courses just to keep my fingers in the pie. I am afraid that the science may begin to drop and people will not care anymore. Footwear and tire track evidence has come a long way with the help of many examiners.

ETM: How did the way you learned about your field influence the way you taught?

Hilderbrand: First, you need to love what you do. I loved my job since the first day I did it — and that’s still so. Many people do not realize how hard it is to walk away from something you love to do so much. I think anything you do influences you and others in a way to present anything to somebody. I have learned a lot of ways not to do something or learned a few tricks along the way that I can pass on to others. I learned a long time ago that ability is what you are capable of doing, motivation determines what you do, and attitude determines how well you do it. Take all of that, and apply it to teaching. Parker Palmer said it best in the book The Courage to Teach (1998): “We become teachers for reasons of the heart. But many of us lose heart as time goes by. How can we take heart, alone and together, so we can give heart to our students and our world—which is what good teachers do.”

ETM: What techniques can instructors utilize to foster growth in up-and-coming forensic scientists?

Hilderbrand: I have always tried to teach with these two sayings in mind. I think they are very powerful in their meaning. There are instructors who need to understand that not everyone learns the same way or at the same speed. We cannot expect students to always do it our way.

The first saying, to paraphrase Plato: Education is not the practice of putting sight into blind eyes; it is the craft of turning the soul from the shadows of ignorance toward the light of truth!

And the second saying, from Benjamin Franklin: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

ETM: What advice would you give to someone considering a career in forensic science?

Hilderbrand: Go for it. Forensic science has been a wonderful career path for me. But things have changed over the years since I came into forensic science. Seek out your degrees. Get involved with committees and sub-committees. Visit crime labs and ask questions. Make a decision as to what do you want to do — crime scene work or lab work? I look at it this way, during an interview I was asked, “If we hire you, what are your goals?” I smiled and said, “Who is my boss? I want his job.”

ETM: What personal qualities do you think can help a person realize a long career in forensic science?

Hilderbrand: That depends on the person. Like I said before, you need to love what you do and choose your field wisely. Crime scenes… you need thick skin. You are going to see a lot of things the average person will never see. Death is terrible but inevitable. It is amazing what a human being can do to another human being. Even today I still see “dead people”. There are some scenes I cannot get out of my head. You learn to deal with it.

If they are seeking lab work: patience, times are changing — some changes good, and some not so good.

ETM: How has forensic science changed over the course of your career?

Hilderbrand: Oh my, from the 4x5 Crown Graphic camera to today’s digital. Computers and software, and what they can do for us. I remember getting the first computer in our lab. Wow, I thought, we have a 40 MB hard drive, this is cool. (Stop laughing.)

ETM: How have attitudes and perceptions toward forensic science changed?

Hilderbrand: I think people want to believe in forensic science, but we now have to prove the hard truth of it, especially in courts. When the Daubert standard was introduced, we hated it. Personally, I encouraged it. It made us do our jobs. Jurors are people too. They watch TV and many believe what they see. We also need to work with attorneys. To help them with our sciences. I used to teach my students that making a positive identification and stating that — that is a very powerful statement.

ETM: What challenges do you see the profession facing in the next ten years? How can those challenges be met?

Hilderbrand: I think the way we do things is going to change. OSAC is making that happen, and in many cases I truly believe in it. We need to be on the same page. I see a lot of crime scene people still not documenting, collecting, and even preserving footwear and tire track evidence correctly — and then they don’t understand why the lab can’t do something. I once saw a beautiful photograph of a footwear impression, but the comparison could only go so far since the person that took the image did not include a scale. We try to teach crime scene people that, when dealing with shoes especially, there is very little wiggle room. Half sizes change by 1/6 of an inch and whole sizes by 1/3 of an inch. That means the image I am looking at could be a size 9 and you gave me a size 9 ½ shoe. To me, as an examiner, that is a big difference between the shoe that could have made it and the shoe did not make it.

I think the new OSAC guidelines will change a lot of this.

ETM: What do you look forward to in retirement?

Hilderbrand: I love being a grandpa and we are expecting our second. I’m just looking forward to being the best grandpa I know how. Teaching him to hunt and fish, and just learning to enjoy the outdoors.

ETM: Tell us a little about your family.

Hilderbrand: That’s an easy question. I love to talk about my family!

I am a resident of Scottsdale, Arizona. My wife’s name is Donna and she is an accountant. She is very good at what she does. There is no one I would rather be with than her; she is my best friend. We have been married for more than 35 years. We have two wonderful grown children: Jennifer Lynn and Jason Christopher.

Jennifer started out as a professional photographer for USA Today Sports. She was very good and received many awards. I remember sitting at the dinner table one evening and Brad Ziegler, a pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks, called her. He wanted to purchase a photograph she did of him. During the All-Star Game here in Phoenix, she was given an autographed ball from pitcher Heath Bell and was told to give it to her dad. Jennifer is now a great kindergarten teacher.

Jason Christopher is a Sergeant with the United States Marine Corps. Jason has become a good Marine earning his Sergeant status in less than three years. He has earned a few citations and metals for his service. He has been deployed twice, once to the Middle East.

And we have our grandson, Noah James. We are expecting our second grandchild in June 2020.

ETM: Dwane, we wish you the best in all your adventures that lie ahead.

This article appeared in the January-February 2020 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
You can view that issue here.

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