Next month, Professor Yossi Almog will be the recipient of the highly prestigious Lucas Medal, awarded by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences at the International Association of Forensic Sciences in Hong Kong.Time: Sunday morning, 9 am. Location: Jerusalem. The room is small, almost claustrophobic; a fan whirs in the corner. A motley collection of souvenirs line the walls: two dark, mocking, Chinese masks; a brightly-colored Japanese print; a meticulous drawing of a brick-building hangs beneath a framed photograph of the same edifice.
And there, in front, wedged behind his small desk, is a genial, broad-shouldered man: an Israeli scientific sleuth – a man who has been pivotal in revolutionizing the way many crimes are solved around the world.
Meet Professor Joseph “Yossi” Almog of the Hebrew University’s Casali Institute for Applied Chemistry – formerly Brigadier-General Almog of the Israel Police Department.
Next month, Almog will be the recipient of the highly prestigious Lucas Medal, awarded by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences at the International Association of Forensic Sciences in Hong Kong. Only the third person to have received this accolade, Almog’s predecessors are the founder of DNA-based testing for forensic purposes, Sir Alec Jeffreys, and Dr Alan Curry, who established the science for investigating illegal uses of poisons and drugs.
As any viewer of the popular TV show CSI-Miami knows, the science of forensics has advanced greatly over the years.
All these advances are possible because of one basic fact: People leave traces of themselves everywhere. Skin scales that constantly cascade from our bodies (tens of thousands of them falling from each of us every hour); oils and chemicals which ooze from our pores and are smeared on everything we touch; and even the odors that leak from our bodies and hang in the air. No one leaves a room without leaving a unique trace of themselves.
Thanks to the advances in forensic science, many of those traces can now be analyzed and identified, making it harder than ever for criminals to preserve their anonymity.
“It used to be more of an art than a science – we gave it the scientific touch,” explains Almog, reflecting on the transformation that took place in the 1970s in the detection and identification of latent finger prints – those invisible prints lurking on absorbent surfaces such as paper.
This was the period when Almog first moved into the field of forensic science, which he invested with his expertise in organic chemistry.
His interest in chemistry began in his late teens and grew out of a “love of cooking”. He was later inspired to specialize in organic chemistry following a lecture by Nobel Prize winner Robert Burns Woodward, who described the thrill of designing and creating new substances with wonderful colors, smells and crystals.
In 1974, Almog was doing post-doctoral work at a science lab at MIT. At 4:30 one morning he received a phone call that changed his life and also the world of forensic science.
The voice at the other end was that of Brigadier Kaplan, head of the Israeli National Crime Lab phoning from Israel; he had miscalculated the time difference between the two countries. But it was urgent.
Come now and help set up a scientifically-based forensic laboratory in the Israel Police, Kaplan told Almog. Ten minutes later he was preparing to return to Israel.
In his new capacity, Almog began work on designing novel chemicals that combined with the tiny amounts of amino acids found in the secretions from glands on fingers and palms. It was a completely new approach to forensic science – one that was subsequently adopted in other laboratories throughout the world.
Almog directed the forensic science unit of the Israel Police for 16 years, concentrating on generating a battery of specially designed ‘detective’ chemicals to use in the identification of criminal activity.
Then, in 2000, he returned to academia when invited to establish a forensic chemistry research group at the Hebrew University – which does research in close collaboration with his former unit in the police.
“It is teamwork, always teamwork that brings the successes in forensic sleuthing and forensic research and development,” Almog told ISRAEL21c.
And that team can extend half-way round the world there has been tight collaboration with the US Secret Service in Washington DC, with the FBI and the US ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau). The HU team has also worked together with some local labs in the United States, notably the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, The Center of Forensic Science at Texas Tech and the State Forensic Lab in New Haven, Connecticut.
A major success of Almog’s team was the development of a highly sensitive fluorescent compound whose glow reveals the ridges of latent fingerprints on many types of paper, including forged banknotes, newspapers and letters.
This method was used by the team in 2001 to identify the assassin of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi; the murderer’s prints were found on a newspaper.
One revolution that Almog has initiated is the subject of field testing. When a shooting occurs, gunpowder is left behind. The problem is that these tiny metallic particles rapidly fall off the hand so that a couple of hours after the shooting, no trace remains.
The answer, Almog insisted, was to move the laboratory to where the action is – the scene of the crime. Police in Israel now have spray cans of Ferrotrace. A quick spray on a suspect’s hands and the microscopic traces of iron that are transferred to the hand when a gun is held are immediately revealed in a distinctive reddish pattern. An expert can even identify exactly the type of gun held.
Nowhere is it more urgent to have instant analysis than in the transport of hidden explosives. Sniffer devices are one of our first lines of defense to prevent explosives from sneaking their way onto airplanes, buses and into public buildings. And of course one type of sniffer has a wet nose and a wagging tail. But he needs careful training and the demand for canine sniffers far exceeds the supply.
Almog and his colleagues have worked extensively on portable ETKs (explosives testing kits) which are now widely used to detect traces of explosives in the field. They were used by the FBI in the search for explosive traces following the Al Quaida bombings at US embassies in East Africa in 1998.
“Recipes for making new explosives are readily available on the Internet, and it’s hard to control the everyday chemicals they use to make them,” Almog explains.
Forensic scientists have to work hard to keep up with the bomb-makers, and not unlike CSI’s Horatio Caine, Almog has proven his mettle as next month’s award will attest to.