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Feet on the Ground

I was solving the puzzle on the inside of a Pearl Beer bottlecap the other night, an old black and white Sherlock Holmes movie playing in the background, when something one of the characters said started nagging at me. Eventually I asked myself, "Self, just what can you tell about someone from his tracks?"

"Well," says I, "you can tell a helluva lot - starting from how tall he is to whether or not he's lying to you."

Don't hate me because I like Pearl Beer.

I digress. What's the gender of your subject? How tall is he? Is he carrying a lot of weight on his back?

Tracks are clues, the most clues a perpetrator will leave behind. One every thirty inches or so and as conclusive as finterprints. - Sherlock Holmes

Let's look at height. I’m not saying you can get an exact measurement down to the half-inch like a physician might take, but you can certainly get in the general vicinity. By and large, with most adults, the length of a complete footprint, measured in inches is about twice a person's height. Don't believe me? Try it. If you measure a 12 inch footprint, toe to heel, the person who made it is going to be pretty close to 6 feet tall. I measured the footprints of an entire infantry squad a couple of years ago, and with one exception this method of estimation held true.

Now, that one exception is an apt demonstration of why I emphasized adult earlier. Juveniles, particularly juvenile males, will rarely fit this profile. This is because of incomplete post-pubescent growth. If you've got a teenage son you know what I mean. He's 13, maybe 14, with these huge (typically stinky) flipper feet at the end of his legs that make him look like Ronald McDonald. Juvenile females aren't quite as problematic, but measuring their prints and determining a height can still be problematic.

Footprints are generally not used sufficiently by investigators of crime. Experience is needed... Once the eye has become accustomed to observe minute details a composite picture of interesting facts will stand out very clearly... - Modern Criminal Investigations, Söderman/O'Connell, 1940

Physical ailments or disabilities are another, more obvious example of what can be learned. Does the person walk with a limp, or is there a shuffle in their gait that translates as a longer, shallower toe drag?

You can often tell the physical condition of a subject with regard to intoxicants or medical condition. Do the tracks portray someone that's staggering or walking with a purposeful stride? Is there an overall continuity of direction and intent, or do the prints move aimlessly about and change course for no discernable reason? What about they say about the individual's response to the terrain? Do they avoid obstacles or change course suddenly, far after a typical person would do? Perhaps they have to reverse course, or change direction at the last minute - this could mean the person is dazed, inebriated, or unfamiliar with the area. Any one of those attributes could be important to putting a suspect at the scene of a crime, eliminating them from the suspect pool or even just accounting for their actions.

Sherlock Holmes: These two set of footprints lead to the alcove, where we shall find a lady of high breeding, accompanied by a gentleman with a pronounced limp.

Dr. Watson: Astounding, Holmes!

Sherlock Holmes: Hmm... Eileen Adler and Sir Reginald Mustry. This is a surprise.

Eileen Adler: Happy Birthday, Sherlock.

Sir Reginald Mustry: Remarkable, Holmes! I injured my ankle just yesterday.

- Sherlock Holmes' Surprise Party, Saturday Night Live

In Falkirk, Scotland, in 1937, a thief was discovered inside a shop in his stocking feet. He'd left his shoes outside by the drainpipe he'd climbed to get inside. There having been two previous, similar robberies as yet unresolved, police consulted a pathologist named Sir Sydney Smith and asked if he could determine whether footwear found abandoned at the previous scenes had been worn by the same man - he advised that they were, and explained how, including his observation that the right and left shoes showed signs of different and unequal wear, which led him to believe the suspect had a deformity in his left leg.

Afterwards, Sir Smith wrote, Also, from an examination of his footwear, I was able to build up quite a distinctive picture of the man... he walked with a limp... The burglar, who subsequently confessed, had suffered polio as a child, with spinal curvature and a shortened leg.

Perhaps they can tell the tracker whether a person is lying. During his trial, the Jeremiah Locust defense claimed that he was off his insulin (he was diabetic) and intoxicated when he shot and killed NPS Ranger Joe Kolodski on Father's Day, 1998, at Big Witch Overlook in the Great Smoky Mountains. Trackers went back and painstakingly accounted for his travel and actions after the murder (in very rough terrain), taking casts of the prints and photographing them in place. They were able to successfully illustrate beyond any doubt based upon track evidence that Locust was in complete command of his faculties, thus negating this defense. The result? The conviction of a cop killer.

You might note also that it was tracking that allowed for the recovery of the murder weapon and track evidence that first put Locust at the murder scene.

It is also crucial to note in the Kolodski murder case that the trackers were not only able to interpret what the footprints were telling them, they were able to understandably articulate and explain their findings to the judge and the jury. If you want to do more than run a fugitive down it's critical that you be able to read the tracks in the context of the environment, the conditions and the case. Baden-Powell made the case over a century ago and that truth remains the same.

Being able to track is of little use unless you can also read the meanings of the racks. In tracking you find a lot of small signs, and then comes in the art of 'putting this and that together', and so getting information from them.

These are just a few of the things you can learn by examining and understanding a set of tracks. We'll look at more in the future.



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