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In courtroom, life imitates TV

The Baltimore Sun

A Hampden woman met a man through Myspace.com, then disappeared after their first date. Police zeroed in on a suspect through cell phone records and eventually realized that a portion of the fatal beating was recorded on her voice mail.

In a taped confession to police, the man described the grisly steps he took to disguise his victim's identity -- and explained that he learned how to cover his tracks, in part, from a popular television cop drama.

Such shows as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation promise fiction ripped from the headlines, but the case unfurling this week in a Baltimore County courtroom seems to be an instance of crime following television's lead.

"Just CSI, I guess," was UMBC student John Gaumer's answer, when detectives wondered where he had learned to manipulate evidence. "I'm a science major."

Gaumer, who had never before been arrested, is charged with killing Josie P. Brown, 27, and leaving her body near a highway interchange. After confessing to the crime, he told police he sliced off the woman's fingertips and cut out her jawbone and teeth. He says he cleaned his clothes and his car and sent e-mails to his victim as if she were alive.

Last year, another Baltimore County man cut off his victim's fingertips. In February, the burning body of a slaying victim was found on the side of an Anne Arundel County road. In Ohio, a killer burned his victims and washed his hands with bleach -- and authorities pointed to the influence of high-tech police shows.

"Movies and videos like these show how police gather evidence," said Clint Van Zandt, a former FBI analyst. "Then you have offenders going out with the knowledge of what the police are looking for."

Forensics savvy

From rapists who force their victims to bathe to murderers who lay blankets in their getaway cars, criminals are more savvy about forensics thanks to police shows on TV, Van Zandt said.

This week, a 25-year-old Ohio man was sentenced to two life terms without parole for the murder of a woman and her elderly mother. The man was a CSI fan who tried to cover his tracks using techniques he had learned from the show, said assistant prosecuting attorney David Toepfer.

The man burned the bodies and his clothes, then tried to wash DNA evidence from his hands with bleach. He lined his car with blankets and carried away his cigarette butts from the murder scene, Toepfer said.

"Part of the reason that he was so concerned and so aware of things like blood and DNA was because he had an awareness from these shows," the prosecutor said.

In the Baltimore area, extraordinary steps have been taken to conceal a victim's identity in homicides, according to authorities.

In September, a jury found a 34-year-old Overlea man guilty of first-degree murder in the 2005 death of his 29-year-old neighbor. The victim's beaten body was found in the bathtub of her burning apartment. Her fingertips had been cut off.

The body of a 50-year-old Baltimore man was found burning by the side of a Millersville road in February. His girlfriend and her two sons were charged in his death after bloodstains were found in her house -- under a rug that had been bleached.

Jay Tobin, director of the Maryland State Police forensic sciences division, agrees that television shows such as CSI and its spin-offs have influenced how criminals behave.

"When everyone became aware of fingerprints, people at crime scenes started wearing gloves," said Tobin, who oversees the state police crime lab. "When people heard that you leave fingerprints on the inside of surgical gloves, they stopped taking them off at the scene and leaving them there.

"Today, everyone knows about DNA, and I think [criminals] do think: 'I won't spit, leave semen or blood,'" said Tobin.

Gaumer, in addition to attempting to mangle Brown's body beyond recognition, showered, washed his clothes and wiped down his car's interior, according to taped police interviews played in court. Still, cell phone records led investigators to the 23-year-old college senior.

And he led them to the woman's body in woods just off the exit ramp from Interstate 95 onto the Beltway near Arbutus.

Gaumer told investigators that he took the single mother to dinner, and they dropped in on several bars in the Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood. Police first contacted Gaumer on Jan. 30 -- 32 days after the date and 19 days after Brown's family reported her missing.

During that telephone interview, Gaumer told a city police detective that the date had gone well and that he had dropped Brown off between 12:30 a.m. and 1 a.m. at her home.

But a detective in the city Police Department's missing persons unit testified yesterday that call logs showed that Brown's phone was moving south, out of the city and toward Arbutus, after midnight.

Also, about two days before police first contacted Gaumer, investigators had been able to determine that a 42-second voice mail message left on Brown's cell phone after midnight came from Gaumer's cell phone.

Struggle recorded

A county prosecutor told the judge Wednesday that the apparently inadvertent call captured a portion of Brown's struggle as Gaumer beat her to death. The recording -- played in court yesterday -- revealed a series of thumping noises and brief bursts of a woman's muffled screams.

In his confession, Gaumer said he sexually assaulted Brown and beat her with a stick after she changed her mind about going home with him.

When police searched his apartment they found crime movies, including one about serial killer Ted Bundy. The biochemistry major also had a poster about DNA, which he said was for school.

Defense attorneys have asked Baltimore County Circuit Judge Mickey Norman to prevent prosecutors from using at trial statements that Gaumer made to city and county police.

The pre-trial hearing is scheduled to resume today.

Gaumer is scheduled to go to trial in January. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Kenneth W. Ravenell, a Baltimore defense attorney, said he thinks shows such as CSI have had more effect on jurors and -- he points out with some pleasure -- prosecutors.

"They'll often stand up in their opening statement and tell jurors the case isn't like CSI and then tell them what evidence they don't have," said Ravenell. "I love it."

A spokeswoman for CSI denied a direct link between the show and real-life crimes.

"Society as a whole is often influenced by what they may see or hear on television or elsewhere, but we think our audiences are sophisticated enough to distinguish between reality and fiction," CBS spokeswoman Kate Fisher said in a statement.

Access to details

While it's possible for criminals to glean information about how to cover up crimes from books, other media and friends, the popularity of television shows provides details about DNA, cell phone and record tracking to the masses.

Knowing to remove a fingertip so there won't be a fingerprint "is not common knowledge," said Tobin. "It's the kind of information picked up on shows like CSI."

"Twenty years ago, you would have never thought of anybody removing a person's jaw or taking their fingertips off," said Richard M. Karceski, a Towson defense attorney.

"It is truly a burgeoning situation. You see it from the ground floor up when you interview clients about a case involving forensic evidence, they know far more about this than they ever did before."

But Karceski added that he thought few murderers were actually influenced by police shows. And those who do try to cover their tracks usually find that their attempts backfire, he said.

"In the end, doing two or three things to hide evidence -- being nitwits as criminals usually are -- they do four or five other things that point in the other direction, stupid mistakes," he said.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com jennifer.mcmenamin@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Laura Barnhardt and Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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