Profile: Of Murder and Microscopes How botanist Jane Bock became a crime fighter
by Michelle Nijhuis
ON A FALL MORNING IN 1999, the body of 19-year-old Samantha Forbes was discovered on a golf course in the city of Freeport, on the island of Grand Bahama. Her throat had been slit the night before, in the midst of a tropical storm, and the heavy rains had washed away footprints, clothing fibers, and other evidence that might have helped identify the killer.
Police soon discovered that Forbes, who lived on the island with her family, had been seen leaving a bar the previous night with two men. When the investigators combed the socks and shoes of one of the men, they found tiny bits of grass, each no wider than a few strands of hair. To most people, these flecks of green would hardly be worth a second look. But the police thought otherwise.
The investigators placed a call to the University of Colorado campus, a cluster of ruddy stone towers almost 2,000 miles away in Boulder. Before long, botany professor Jane Bock was ensconced in a Bahamian forensic laboratory, peering at the grass through a microscope. With dozens of grass species documented in the Bahamas, and thousands known throughout the world, identifying the sample required a career's worth of knowledge.
Bock concluded that it was almond Bermuda, which covered the greens and fairways where Forbes's body was found. The groundskeeper at the upscale golf course had selected the grass for its ability to green up quickly after a rain, and it was a fortuitously unusual choice: None of the other golf courses on Grand Bahama used almond Bermuda. Bock's identification of the species, and her later testimony at the trial, placed one of the suspects at the scene of the crime and helped lead to the conviction of his companion.
Bock, 70, has been solving crimes through the esoteric art of forensic botany for 20 years. She calls it "botanical science applied to the interests of justice." She began as a traditional field botanist, spending time outdoors "stump sitting," with mouth closed, notebook open, and mind on the diverse and complex natural world. Those years of patient observation have enabled her not only to link suspects with crime scenes but also to pinpoint the dates and times of violent deaths, identify the contents of victims' last meals, and help shake confessions from stubborn subjects.
BORN JANE HASKETT, she didn't set out to become a crime fighter. When she entered college, she planned to become a chemist, like her mother and grandfather. But Haskett found her chemistry classes "so cut-and-dried," she says, that she switched to the botany department, where professors were eager to take students out of the lab. "We'd run out the back door, jump in some station wagon, and head off on a field trip," she says.
Haskett marched through three degrees, earning her PhD in botany from the University of California at Berkeley in 1966. At the time, there were few female doctorates in any scientific discipline, and she was one of only three women in her department. "Because of our gonads--or because of our hearts, I suppose--doctoral programs didn't consider women a good risk," she says.
While she was studying the ecology of the water hyacinth in the sloughs and ponds around Berkeley, Haskett met and married a zoology student named Carl Bock. They embarked on a long personal and professional partnership, drawing on each other's knowledge during their research--and regularly sparring over the relative merits of their fields. "I'll get up early and bring Carl coffee, so he can go out in the field and be an ornithologist," she says slyly. "He married well, and so did I. Thanks to him, I didn't have to learn to be an ornithologist."
Bock and her husband joined the University of Colorado's biology department in 1968, the department's first married couple. Through a research assistant, they met Frank Appleton, a rancher from southeastern Arizona who had decided to remove cattle from his desert grassland and turn it into a haven for scientific research. Bock went for a visit and was entranced by the region's rolling, nearly treeless valleys, jagged limestone cliffs, and abundance of native flora. "This is our kind of place," she told Carl. Within a few years, they established a fledgling program at what came to be called the Research Ranch. "The philosophy is to do nothing to the land and see what nature heals," says Bock. "It's a very exciting lab."
For more than 30 years, the couple has spent summers on the Research Ranch, investigating the ecological legacies of fire, grazing, and residential development. In a book about this work, The View From Bald Hill, they write that the landscape became "as familiar as the lines on an old friend's face." Meanwhile, the biology department at the University of Colorado was growing quickly, and each year the couple recruited a clutch of students they dubbed "the herd" to accompany them to the ranch. It was Bock's affection for those students that got her started solving crimes.
IN THE FALL OF 1982, Ben Galloway, a Colorado physician and medical examiner, found Bock's name in the University of Colorado course catalog and called her. Would she be willing to identify food plants found in the stomach contents of a murder victim? "Absolutely not!" she said. "I thought it would look bad and smell bad, and I'm a botanist--I don't deal with those sorts of things."
Then Galloway told Bock that the victim was a young woman, just out of college and an intern at a local radio station. Bock thought of her "herd." What if one of those students had been murdered? Would she turn down a chance at identifying the killer? Reluctantly, she agreed to help.
Forensic botany is nothing new. Bock likes to point out that Plato recorded Socrates' symptoms of hemlock poisoning and that when Charles Lindbergh's infant son was kidnapped and killed in 1932, an investigator caught the culprit by matching wood from a ladder used in the crime to a particular lumberyard. But beginning with her first case, Bock added a new type of analysis to this old science.
Though plant cells are tiny, they come in a very durable package. Their cellulose walls can survive freezing, boiling, chewing, and the rigors of digestion more or less unscathed. Since different sorts of plants can often be identified by the distinctive characteristics of their cells, Bock reasoned that she should be able to pick out the types of food plants eaten at the victim's last meal. She scoured scientific literature for help but came up almost empty. So the professor made a trip to the grocery store.