Virtual reality crime scene investigations now a reality
After the mass shooting in Hesston last year, Kansas Bureau of Investigation Agent David Klamm and other officers took 60 three-dimensional scans of the bloody crime scene at the Excel lawn mower factory.
Klamm and fellow officers merged those scans into one, creating a three-dimensional image of the entire shooting scene – thousands of square feet.
Not long after that, Klamm retired and took a job teaching at Wichita State University, where he met aviation scientists with the National Institute for Aviation Research. They introduced him to what they say is the biggest virtual reality cave in the world. It is 39 feet long, big enough to hold the interior of a virtual business jet.
Klamm’s mind started racing about how he could use the cave with crime scene scans like those from the shooting in Hesston.
Since then, he and the aviation scientists have created something never done before, he said. They now make large-scale recreations of crime scenes that people, including detectives and possibly jurors, could walk through, with bodies and blood stains and bullet holes still in place.
With that, Klamm said, the history of crime scene investigation possibly was rewritten, right here in Wichita.
This is almost beyond cutting edge.
David Klamm, former KBI agent.
It’s not quite Star Trek’s holodeck, where space travelers could live in and touch everything in a virtual world, Klamm said. “But it’s getting there.”
“The guys over in NIAR kinda seem to take this stuff matter of factly,” Klamm said.
“But to an old cop/crime scene guy like me, this is almost beyond cutting edge.”
Too real for jurors?
Not so fast, said Richard Ney.
He’s a defense attorney, in Kansas and elsewhere.
Courts don’t allow jurors to step over bodies in real crime scenes, let alone virtual crime scenes, he said.
The 3D realism created in that cave, so exciting to Klamm, could turn jurors into witnesses, perhaps traumatized, Ney said.
To better explain Ney’s concerns, let’s first look at why Klamm seems happy.
NIAR’s cave has shown him that investigators can now create the biggest and most sophisticated crime scene re-creations anyone has ever done.
With the Hesston shooter dead, the scans Klamm took were not needed for a trial.
Had there been a trial, viewers (including jurors) could have stepped into the cave and walked the factory floor, Klamm said. The images would have been built using the 60 scans Klamm and his fellow officers made after the crime.
No one else in the world is doing this.
David Klamm, former KBI agent
They could walk past virtual desks as big as the real ones that frantic Hesston employees hid under during the shooting. The jurors could see desk papers and pens still in place.
They could see virtual markers on the factory floor where three people died, where 14 more were shot, where bullets hit walls. They could see blood stains.
Pre-scanned 3D images of buildings used in NIAR’s cave could improve how crimes are investigated, how evidence is shown in court, how police can be trained, and how SWAT teams and other tactical units could break up hostage situations or school shootings, Klamm said.
Wichita police have scanned crime scenes for several years, including at recent homicides and officer-involved shootings, said Sgt. Rod Miller.
Combining those scans with NIAR’s cave could elevate police work to new sophistication, he said. They could use those scans to better train officers, for example.
“I checked,” he said. “No one else in the world is doing this.”
Crime through 3D goggles
Klamm, Miller, and scientists Jeff Fisher and Chris Rempe gathered at NIAR’s virtual cave recently.
Fisher and Rempe run labs at WSU for NIAR, which created the cave last year for $3.8 million, half of that from the Economic Development Administration, half from WSU.
They called up a 3D image of a crime scene focused on a pickup truck parked in snow beside a highway overpass.
The driver’s side door was open and had glowing virtual trajectory rods stabbed through the door, showing the path of bullets.
Klamm declined to identify the crime scene.
The scientists handed a newspaper reporter a pair of 3D goggles, with reflective bulbs sticking out of the top and sides.
The reporter walked into the cave – as though walking up to the pickup truck’s door, from 20 feet away.
One of the scientists then toggled switches on a remote control – and the reporter felt as though he floated over the pickup, from 20 feet up. He could see blades of grass, and footprints in the snow.
This could change how hostages could be rescued, and how detectives and other police officers are trained, Miller said.
Trainers could walk detective trainees through 3D images from real crimes. They’d learn more, Klamm said.
Or, he said, police could pre-scan the new airport building, the banks, and the schools of Wichita, then put those 3D images on file with their tactical officer team.
If a hostage situation unfolded at a school, months or years after a scan had been done, commanders could call up the 3D file image and use it to help officers entering the school, Miller said.
“This could save lives,” Miller said.
“We’d be able to tell officers on scene how many doors are in that hallway. Do they have arterial hallways that connect? Where are the exits?”
Jet cabin images
NIAR is one of the world’s premier aircraft safety and performance testing labs.
More so now. Last year, in WSU’s new experiential engineering building, NIAR scientists, including Fisher and Rempe, created the virtual cave. It can stretch, like an accordion, to 39 feet.
“The size of the cave is the size of the interior of a business jet,” said Fisher, NIAR’s Virtual Reality Lab manager. “In there we can create a true, one-to-one-scale image of what every detail of the jet cabin looks like.”
They quickly realized its value for crime investigation last year, when they met Klamm.
Klamm arrived at WSU to teach forensic science only months after the Hesston shooting and his retirement after 30 years at the KBI. Shortly after that, Kristin Brewer, director of WSU’s criminal justice institute, told Klamm that WSU wanted to shake up the teaching of forensic science at WSU. Klamm told her he knew crime scenes - and how to scan them.
A light went on. They got to talking about something Klamm seized upon immediately: NIAR’s virtual cave.
Klamm approached the NIAR scientists.
Klamm thought: What if they stuck 3D crime scene images into their cave?
You could make yourself the size of an ant.
Jeff Fisher, NIAR’s Virtual Reality Lab Manager
“You could see bloodstains; you could see blades of grass,” said Fisher, the NIAR scientist. “You could see everything.”
The cave technology is adjustable in perspective, too, making the viewer himself either huge or tiny in relation to the grass blades and bullet holes.
“You can stand in the grass at a crime scene, and you could make yourself the size of an ant,” Fisher said.
“Or the size of a giant.”
Everyone realized this was a big idea, Klamm said.
When the KBI got into scanning seven years ago, he said, only 60 police agencies in the U.S. were doing 3D crime scene scans.
Now, 500 to 1,000 departments do it, but they don’t have NIAR’s cave.
“It’s pretty impressive, what we can do,” said Rempe, who runs the reverse-engineering laboratory at NIAR. “You can walk around a scene, taking measurements and cross-sections, drawing rods that show trajectories of bullets, and where there’s a bullet hole.”
“It could help us free innocent people from even being charged,” Miller said. “This can definitely prove or disprove someone’s story.”
But about jurors at crime scenes, Ney, the defense attorney, raises concerns.
“I’m not faulting them for what they’re doing,” Ney said.
He also raised no objections to how police can use virtual caves and scanners to train officers, or prepare for school shootings.
Jurors are a different matter, he said. Ney cited a 2001 Pennsylvania murder case, Commonwealth vs. Serge, often mentioned in case law regarding computer-generated animations used in court.
The conviction of the man who killed his wife in that case was upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. But Serge’s challenge, and the arguments and case law that came after, make it clear that cave animations for jurors are not a given.
Defense attorneys in Serge’s case argued that prosecutors used animations not only to show jurors images but to show “their theory” of the crime. Not fair, Ney said.
They saw the bodies, right?
Richard Ney, defense attorney
Also not fair: The images, when they look gruesome.
“So now a juror can kneel down and look into a corpse’s face, and walk through the blood?” Ney said.
Ney referred to the torture and killing of the Otero family by the BTK serial killer in 1974.
“Imagine making a scan of the Otero murders,” he said. “The police who saw that scene said it haunted them for the rest of their lives. The virtual reality of the Otero house – are you up for that?”
“If I had to defend the Hesston shooter, the first thing I’d do is call in the first responders,” Ney said.
“The police and EMS rescuers who went through that scene. They saw the bodies, right? I’d ask: Did it affect them? And I’d tell the judge: Hey, of course it affected them.
“They probably had nightmares for months after that scene. Now we’re going to let jurors see it?”
Klamm and other investigators say there is much to do before this new virtual tool becomes common.
“But everything about crime scene investigation will be different now,” he said.