Opening the Case on the American Sherlock

Kate Winkler Dawson reports on an early master of forensics

Murder is Kate Winkler Dawson's business.
The UT-Austin lecturer, journalist, and documentary film producer has spent decades reporting on and studying violent crime. Now she's written a true-crime tale about the early days of criminal forensic investigation, American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI.

Kate Winkler Dawson

The daughter of a UT criminal law professor and a clinical psychologist, Dawson credits her interest in crime reporting to her parents, as well as an assignment covering the Chandra Levy disappearance in 2001, when Calif. Representative Gary Condit was suspected of having murdered the missing intern. “That was my first really big deep dive into a crime story,” she says.

Dawson also worked with the Texas Center for Actual Innocence, a nonprofit founded by her father to investigate wrongful convictions. For several years after her father's death, Dawson co-taught the clinic, connecting law and journalism students, and it opened her eyes to the presence of flawed, even false scientific evidence in the courtroom. “Before I started getting involved in the clinic,” she says, "I just had no idea how much junk science there was out there."

The science applied by the subject of Dawson's new book, however, was hardly junk. American Sherlock examines the life of Oscar Edward Heinrich, who consulted on thousands of criminal cases in California and the West. He solved baffling cases with rigorous logic and meticulous note-taking, often astonishing the police and the public with his deductive reasoning. Heinrich developed a host of tools that police still use today: criminal profiling, ballistics, fingerprinting.

In one case, he predicted that a kidnapper would be a baker by trade, based on the way he hand-wrote the letter "B." When the DeAutremont brothers shot up a train in Oregon, Heinrich helped track them down. The men had left behind pants that indicated to Heinrich that police should look for a lumberjack.

Dawson learned about Heinrich from an encyclopedia of crime, which mentioned a botched 1923 train robbery in Oregon and the amazing scientist who solved the case. Dawson knew she had hit the research jackpot when she saw materials Heinrich donated to UC’s Bancroft Library, a collection containing more than 100,000 items, from still-loaded firearms to lockets of victims' hair. “I had to petition UC Berkeley to open up his collection. It was more than a hundred boxes, and it’s been locked away for 65 years,” Dawson says.

An expert witness for many high-profile cases, Heinrich presented devastating testimony against silent-film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in his murder trial. If solving the Oregon train robbery was his most impressive feat, Heinrich's biggest failure was certainly Arbuckle, according to Dawson. “After looking through all the evidence and reading all the trial transcripts, I absolutely believe Arbuckle did not kill Virginia Rappe, accidentally or otherwise," she says. “I think Heinrich was convinced this was the right way to get this actor who lived in this lifestyle Heinrich didn't approve of. It ruined Arbuckle's life.”

In addition to consulting, Heinrich worked with Berkeley’s police chief to create the first criminology classes in the country. “Heinrich taught thousands of people who would go on to make their own impact in the world of criminology,” Dawson says.

Much has changed in forensics since Heinrich's day. Juries in his time often were bored or confused by the science. Today's jurors weaned on Law & Order and CSI shows expect it. “There's something called the CSI Effect,” Dawson says. “Juries think they're going to see a CAT scan of a brain, DNA evidence, and somebody in a white coat saying, 'This guy did it!'”

Dawson's next project features a series of true-crime podcasts. While still negotiating details, she’s starting with an 1800s serial killer. “I interview family members who still live on the farm where four people died 150 years ago.”

In addition to recording podcasts and writing books – prior to American Sherlock, she wrote Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City – Dawson continues to teach, and she remains enthusiastic about that work. “Students are so excited about the world," she says. "They realize that this is an incredible time to be a journalist. It can be frustrating, but ultimately we are valued, accuracy is valued, and storytelling is valued.”

Kate Winkler Dawson will talk about and sign copies of American Sherlock Sat., Feb. 15, 5pm, at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar. For more information, visit the BookPeople website.

American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI

by Kate Winkler Dawson
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 336 pp., $27

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