All the small things

A single speck of glitter. A grain of sand. A fleck of gunpowder.

Items hardly noticeable to the naked eye, let alone consequential to the average person. They are items so insignificant that most of us pass right by them every day without so much as a thought to their existence.

Unless, of course, you are Edwin Jones. To Jones, the tiniest items on earth are his Disneyland.

“I have been collecting books about forensic science and microscopy since the middle 1980s and my library now has more than 2,200 books,” said Jones about his obsession with the microscopic. “I am also a card-carrying member of the International Sand Collectors Society. I collect and study sand samples from all over the world. Whenever a friend or relative gives me a sand sample, I will send them photos of anything which is microscopically interesting. I also use the stereo microscope and fine pointed forceps to make arrangements out of microscopic objects like seeds, gunpowder, electronic components, sand grains, glitter, microspheres, minerals and gemstones. It is really interesting stuff.”

Jones is a purveyor of all things small and seemingly insignificant. And he has developed those skills after more than 37 years in the professional sphere of forensic science. 

During a fascinating career that has spanned coast-to-coast, Jones received some measure of fame as a one-man crime lab doing a wide range of forensic work including crime scene investigation, drug analysis, trace evidence, firearms, and basic serology, among his many talents. Oh, and he is also well known for his microscopic art, using tiny, everyday objects, and molding them into elaborate designs.

He has written numerous papers and even authored a chapter in the official Forensic Science Handbook. His work on glitter in a murder case was featured in an episode of the TV series Forensic Files, while another homicide case involving his work on duct tape was shown on the TV series Cold Case Files.

And that, he recalls, is where his fascination with the microscopic world truly began. During the final 29 years of his career at the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office in California, he dove deeper and deeper into the forensic realm and the more he studied, the more eager he was to learn.

“(In California) I was assigned to the serology trace evidence section of the lab and started working on cases. I was already proficient in ABO blood typing, however I was not trained in isoenzyme typing which was state-of-the-art back in 1983. I trained in isoenzyme typing while working through the ABO level and doing all forms of trace evidence, which were mostly hairs, fibers, paint and glass,” Jones said. “In my first couple of years in Ventura, I attended a one-week class in Advanced Polarized Light Microscopy, a one-week class on Bloodstain Pattern Analysis, and a two-week class in hairs and fibers. Those three classes at that stage in my career were life altering.

“I not only became proficient with the microscope, I took it on as a hobby and became a member of the Los Angeles Microscopical Society. I also joined the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and started doing bloodstain pattern analysis in the laboratory and at crime scenes. In Fountain Valley I considered myself to be a criminalist in the field, in Ventura County I was a criminalist in the laboratory.”

Jones was born and raised in Glassport, Pennsylvania, as a diehard fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He attended West Virginia Wesleyan College in the late 1960s where he earned a degree in chemistry, before coming to Marshall University in 1971 to continue his studies. He attended Marshall from 1971 through 1973, honing the skills that would make him an expert in the field. In the final year of his studies, he transferred his credits and returned home, finalizing his master’s degree in forensic chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh.

While in Huntington, Jones was given a teaching assistantship where he taught freshman chemistry labs and biochemistry to nursing majors, while he concentrated on his own analytical chemistry studies with his thesis in biochemistry. He married his high school sweetheart his senior year of college in 1971 and welcomed a son while at Marshall, and later a daughter. He and his wife are still married today after more than 50 years.

During his time at Marshall, he also served as a student affiliate of the American Chemical Society, being awarded a fellowship working for a chemical tank truck company in Ashland, Kentucky, where he helped them perfect their waste management efforts.

“The tank truck company had to clean out the tanks when they were switching loads and the wash water was dumped directly into the Ohio River. The Environmental Protection Agency was brand new at the time and told the company that they had to treat their wastewater before dumping it,” Jones said. “My job was to help them create a water treatment facility. I researched the problem and learned the standard procedure for analyzing water. I scrounged through the chemistry department and set up a water analysis lab. I also gave instructions to the firm on how to control the pH of their wastewater and to set up a couple of 55-gallon drums to act as a pilot plant for wastewater treatment.

“They took me to another tank truck firm that had the same problem with the EPA in Louisville. That firm carried a lot of the same chemicals that we had to deal with in Ashland. I was able to communicate with the Louisville chemist and transfer a lot of his ideas into the pilot plant. It was exciting for me to do all of this work on my own. I remember visiting the old chemistry building many years after I left Marshall and seeing the water analysis lab with my handwriting still on many of the bottles.”

Immediately upon graduation, Jones was recruited by the Georgia State Crime Lab in Atlanta during a time that the city was going through a historic crimewave and became known, at that time, as the murder capital of the world.

Jones spent his rookie year in the business working in the firearms and trace evidence section as a microanalyst and it wasn’t long until he was thrust out of his comfort zone in the lab and onto real crime scenes.

“One day I was on my way to assist with a scheduled autopsy and a radio call came in that a deputy sheriff had been shot in the shower by his wife and they needed an autopsy on him right away. It was the first time I had seen a dead body. I remember my stomach churning and feeling nauseous. This man was walking and talking two hours before the autopsy and here he was in front of me,” Jones said. “A few hours later another radio call came in that there were two young victims in Savannah that were killed. I got home very late that night after assisting with four autopsies from four victims all shot by small caliber handguns. The smell of the embalming fluid was so strong it hurt my lungs and my eyes. It was a bit overwhelming.”

After a brief, yet eye-opening stint in Georgia, Jones transferred to the city of Fountain Valley, California, where he would continue to perfect his craft. But instead of a continuous stream of homicides, Jones was able to hone his skills analyzing controlled substances and less violent crime scenes such as burglaries.

“Our family moved from Atlanta to Fountain Valley where I became a one-man crime lab for double the pay and significantly less serious crime,” Jones said. “For the next seven years I worked with the property clerk and the identification technician to handle all of the property, photography, fingerprints, crime scenes and crime lab duties for the Fountain Valley Police Department.”

In 1983, after seven years in Fountain Valley, Jones worked his way a few hours north to Ventura County, California, where he would spend the next 29 years of his life.

He began work analyzing marijuana before working his way to more serious crimes such as murder and rape. Later in life, his work became the focus of numerous lectures, papers, and presentations, with some of his more prominent work finding its way into the Forensic Science Handbook edited by Richard Saferstein, among other publications.

“Richard Saferstein was the most prominent and respected name in Forensic Science from the 1970s until his death in 2017. Most forensic science programs use Criminalistic: An Introduction to Forensic Science and/or the Forensic Science Handbook as their main textbook,” Jones said. “Richard heard about my workshops and in 2000 he contacted me to take over the chapter titled ‘Analysis of Body Fluids in Sexual Assault Cases.’ I’ve done a few more seminars on the subject even since I have retired.

“I was invited by McGraw-Hill to write an entry in the 2003 Science and Technology Yearbook on Forensic Microscopy. Other books have contained pictures and stories from my cases. One book, ‘Angels Are Watching’ by J.D. Berger, contains a chapter that sums up my testimony about glitter, bloodstain pattern analysis, accident damage, paint transfer, soil analysis, plastic comparison, and crime scene reconstruction. And there are many others.”

His study on glitter at crime scenes in particular caught the eye of the television show the Forensic Files as the episode “All that Glitters is Gold” features much of his work.

“Glitter is an ideal form of trace evidence because it is small, hard to clean up, resists degradation in the face of environmental insults and is relatively uncommon in most environments,” Jones said. “That episode features the story of the Megan Barroso and Vincent Sanchez homicide case. I have a speaking role in the episode which features the role of glitter in solving the crime.”

His work was also featured in an episode of The Cold Case Files about analyzing duct tape to solve a crime that had went unsolved for more than a decade. The DNA recovered from the ends of a 20-foot strip of duct tape was used as the key evidence to convict the suspect.

Of course, one of the most prominent cases and the first case using DNA to be adjudicated in California was the Axell case, of which Jones played a major role in solving and convicting the murderer. It was also the case that set the precedent for DNA use in cases in California.

“Lynda Axell was a drug user with 18-inch-long hair which changed in color from black near the roots to a sun-bleached yellow near the tips. George White was an elderly gentlemen employed at the Top Hat hotdog stand in Ventura. George was found stabbed to death and in the victim’s hands and around the crime scene were more than 60 very long, dark hairs,” Jones said. “The case was assigned to me and the detectives started bringing me hair samples from every longhaired person that lived or worked in the area. It was easy to compare the hairs because the color change in the hairs from the crime scene was rare. After rejecting several subjects, they brought me a sample from Lynda Axell. After talking with the District Attorney, it was decided to submit the hairs for DNA.

“DNA typing identified Lynda as the source of those hairs. An extensive hearing was held to find out if DNA was reliable and used properly in this case. The world’s leading experts, who were both for and against DNA, came to Ventura and argued about the usefulness and reliability of DNA typing. DNA passed the hearing and Lynda was convicted. The Axell case is still the precedent for using DNA in California.”

From the classrooms of Marshall University, to his role as a microanalyst in Georgia, a criminalist in Fountain Valley, and forensic scientist in Ventura, the journey of Edwin Jones has been one of both discovery and determination. During his career he developed a desire to pursue trace evidence because, as he put it, “it would not be repetitive and required a strong knowledge of analytical chemistry.”

An example of Edwin Jones’ microscopic art

Little did he know at the time that he would continue working with trace evidence throughout the entirety of his career. And with his retirement, gone too was a dying breed of forensic scientist skilled in multiple areas of the craft.

“The role of a generalist, or someone working in multiple areas of forensic science, has unfortunately stopped and the role of the specialist dominates in the field today,” Jones said. “Very few people starting in this field today will do crime scenes, forensic biology, trace evidence, controlled substances analysis, firearm and toolmark identification, tire and shoe print analysis like I did.

“A couple of years after I retired, trace evidence was abandoned in Ventura County, and they will now send any trace evidence that has been collected out to another lab. Like all things, change is a part of life.”

As for the school that gave him his start, since his time at Marshall in the 1970s, the university has become known as one of the top destinations for the study of the forensic sciences and Jones says it is a welcomed sight to see his alma mater leading the way in the field.

“I have visited the Forensic Science program a few times at Marshall, both before and after the new building,” Jones said. “I also attended a few hospitality rooms sponsored by Marshall at the 2016 American Academy of Forensic Sciences seminar in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the 2020 meeting in Anaheim, California. One of our student workers from Ventura actually graduated from Marshall and one of the graduates was hired into the DNA section at the Ventura lab.”

Today, Jones’ work continues to be studied and analyzed and his expertise continues to make a difference in the fight against crime. A fact that is hard for him to believe even today.

“I was a C student with a 2.4 grade average at WVWC,” Jones said. “Once I got to Marshall, the graduate level chemistry classes, teaching the labs, starting a water analysis lab, creating a functional pilot wastewater treatment plant and finishing my thesis all gave me the confidence to succeed later in life.”