The OSI Forensic Science Program – Yesterday and Today

  • Published
  • By Dr. Deborah Kidwell
  • OSI Command Historian

The resolution of violent crime is one of the Office of Special Investigations’ top mission priorities. Most homicides are resolved because either witnesses come forth to identify the perpetrator or overwhelming evidence points to the identity of the murderer. After 1974, OSI could also call on the expertise of its Forensic Science Consultants (FSCs) for assistance in the processing of evidence and resolution of particularly difficult cases.

In the early 1970s, OSI’s staff included a Medical Services officer who was specially- trained in forensic pathology. However, there was no specifically designed program within the organization that allowed agents to be trained in forensic science. That changed in 1972, when the Criminal Investigations Directorate recruited candidates to attend a masters program in forensics at George Washington University in downtown Washington, D.C. Capt. Michael A. Thomson was one of the first special agents selected for this program, and he later helped develop OSI’s Forensic Science Program, which today is hailed as the best among the Military Criminal Investigative Organizations.

OSI FSCs have been called upon by top federal law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) because of their established record of excellence and proficiency in the forensics community. In the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 12 Americans and several hundred others, four OSI FSCs were called upon by the FBI to aid in collecting evidence at the disaster scenes.

The FBI readily called on OSI’s expertise in these bombing cases in part due to the fact that Special Agent Kirk Stabler (later OSI’s 18th Commander) had recently completed a year-long internship at the FBI Lab’s Chemistry Unit, where he conducted a study on explosives residue found aboard commercial aircraft. The FBI immediately recognized his expertise in working with more than 2,000 bomb residue samples and asked him to direct their Baltimore Field Office Evidence Response Team to collect evidence from the Embassy blast. SA Stabler’s experience later led him to develop specialized search kits to be used when processing explosive evidence.

The FBI again called upon OSI FSCs to assist in a crucial investigation, this time the worst terrorist attack to take place on U.S. soil in its history: Sept. 11, 2001.  Following the attack on the Pentagon, FBI Evidence Recovery Teams began assembling there for what would be a painstaking investigation. To augment the FBI teams, military agents from all of the services were on-hand to aid in evidence collection. 

OSI became a crucial member of the recovery teams because of its unsurpassed skill in forensic science and other technical skills. OSI special agents were specifically requested by name by FBI team leaders because of their proven skill in identifying human remains, aircraft parts, and explosives residue.  Special Agents Renae Hilton and Dawn Vincent were two such individuals. SA Hilton later received a national-level award from the Women in Federal Law Enforcement organization in part for her role in the 9/11 investigation.