Lots of criminals think that if they throw the evidence in the James, it's gone for good. The Richmond Fire Department Dive Team is here to prove them wrong.
River's Worth of Evidence
It's cold, the water is moving very fast, and it's pitch dark. You can't make out your hands in front of your face. Wires, fishing line and who knows what else keep threatening to entangle you. Beneath you there is muck, sand and rocks. It's the bottom of the James River, and it's hardly the best haystack in which to find a needle. But finding that needle, in the form of a gun, knife, body or anything else that may be used as evidence in building a case against a criminal, is the unglamorous, hazardous job of the Richmond Fire Department's dive team. The James River's often-churning waters have long been the province of the city's Fire Department. The RFD's Rescue Team saves stranded swimmers, kayakers and others who run into trouble on the river's often turbulent waters. And when there's an accidental drowning or a suicide, it's the rescue team that gets called in to recover the unfortunate victim. Since last fall, the 21 firefighters of Richmond's dive team, which formed in 1984, have been specializing in recovering more things from the river than just bodies. They've become an investigative team, called in by the Richmond Police and the Virginia State Police to assist in underwater criminal investigations. "Anywhere there's crime and there's water, that's a perfect place for the criminals to dump evidence," says Capt. John Harkness, who's in charge of the dive team. But as easy as it is for evidence to end up in the river, it's no easy task to recover it. The James varies wildly in its depth and temperature, depending on the season. Harkness says that frequently his men don their SCUBA gear, wetsuits, fins, gloves, oxygen tanks and respirators to search in fast-moving, cold water. There's usually no visibility, and the searches are done by feel alone. Recently, the team acquired respirators with built-in radios that enable the divers to communicate with each other and the team members coordinating the search on land. That makes it a little easier on the divers, but it's still no picnic, Harkness says. "It's probably one of the more stressful things we do," Harkness says. This from a man whose job on dry land is to climb into buildings that are on fire looking for people to rescue. Sgt. Mike Berry, the Virginia State Police dive team operations coordinator, trains the dive team in underwater criminal investigation. As part of the training, he tells his students to pick any spot on the river for a practice search. There's always something to find. "Pick anywhere, and I guarantee we'll find criminal evidence," Berry recalls telling the Richmond firefighters. During last fall's training, Richmond's divers selected the waters on either side of the 14th Street Bridge and one side of the Lee Bridge. They were amazed at what they pulled up from the James: a laundry list of weapons and loot that included 12 firearms (among them a TEC-9 machine pistol), a child's bike, adding machines, knives, a slim jim, keys and a money box. "It really surprised everybody when we did that class," recalls Harkness. Berry's class goes over diving skills like search patterns and how to remain calm in hazardous river conditions, which can include chemical contaminants, entanglements like underwater cables and barbed wire, and cold, swift water. It's not a job he takes lightly. Berry says that every year, at least one public safety diver dies in the line of duty. "It can get eerie," says Bryan Elrod, an eight-year veteran of the RFD who's been on the dive team for two years. "You try to be safe, and not get tangled up in anything." In addition to learning how to operate in dangerous conditions, the divers learn how to secure evidence and preserve the chain of evidence necessary to make a court case. Aside from running an effective search, Harkness explains that the priority is to preserve the evidence. To do that, found items are sealed underwater in a tube made from PVC pipe, and then once on dry land, they are placed in evidence bags. Berry, the state policeman, says that guns and stolen goods found underwater can retain fingerprints for as long as five days, depending on the conditions of the water. And a gun can yield a ballistics report years after it's been submerged. "In [the criminal's] mind, they think [the evidence] is all gone, but if you have a good rescue team in the area, then it's not," Berry says. He counts the Richmond team as one of the best in the state. For Harkness, criminal investigation was a logical extension of the rescue and recovery work that his SCUBA divers have undertaken since the dive team's formation. He says that when the river is up and the weather is nice, they get called out on a rescue nearly every day, but the team averages about 50 calls per year. Harkness proudly states that they haven't had an accidental drowning on the river in two years, although the team has recovered the bodies of a few suicide victims. Since their investigation training, Harkness estimates he's been called out a couple times per year to help the city and state police in evidence recovery. It's still a limited role, but it's growing. And David Martin, the Richmond police lieutenant in charge of homicide and violent crimes, is glad that the team is available to assist in underwater investigations. Recently, Martin cites the well-publicized case of the murder of Edward Northington, whose severed head was found near the pump house. Martin says that although police officers first spotted the headless body in the water, the dive team recovered the corpse. In addition, the team searched, although unsuccessfully, for the weapon used to murder Northington. "I couldn't speak high enough [about] them, they assist us in so many ways," Martin says. "In a lot of cases, we would never recover the evidence if it's been thrown in the river without their assistance." Berry echoes Martin's praise of Harkness' leadership and dedication, and the team Harkness has assembled. "When it comes to searching, man, they were animals," Berry says. "It's nice working with a team at that level." Berry explains what that level is. "The goal is to do a search with such detail that you can get out of the water, look the investigator in the eye, and say 'It's not there,'" Berry says. That's vastly different from saying, "We didn't find anything," Berry explains, and it comes with expertise, training and experience. That skill level enables an investigator to "clear" that area, and continue the investigation elsewhere. Berry says that about a month ago, his state police divers and Harkness' team worked together with the Richmond Police on the search for a murder weapon in the river. Berry can't reveal any specifics of the case, but praises the way the Richmond team went about their work. "The Richmond team is impressive, "Berry says. "Once they get in, they're going to work for you, and they're going to work all day long." After a long, arduous search, Berry recalls, the Richmond team came out of the water to meet with the investigators. Their report was simple, Berry recalls with satisfaction: "It's not