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Diving for clues – New police team targets waterways

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Criminals who have used the Kanawha and Elk rivers as a ‘safe’ location to dump their weapons will need to find a different hiding place.

The Charleston Police Department has formed an evidence recovery dive team, which will enable detectives to search underwater to recover evidence.

“There’s a lot of water around here, and the team was definitely needed,” said Cpl. Dana Rowsey. He and Cpl. Herb Doss were responsible for starting up and heading the dive team.

“We have about 12 miles of the Kanawha River and about two miles of the Elk River in our jurisdiction along with boat ramps for recreational boating, commercial barges and vessels traveling on the river and several bridges.”

Officers have received several tips that evidence was discarded in rivers, lakes and ponds. They haven’t been able to search for this evidence, until now.

“Dive teams from other jurisdictions have had to be called to make searches. Now we can be called on to perform these services,” Rowsey said.

The team, composed of five Charleston Police Department officers, was started in late October. So far, the divers have worked only a few cases, including one in Rand, but they are eager for more.

“We are hoping to be instrumental all over the state. We are willing to go anywhere on a dive,” Doss said.

Most of the public – and even some Charleston police officers – aren’t aware of when the dive team is in the rivers looking for evidence, since the divers are usually out of sight.

Only Doss and Rowsey can go on the actual dives now, but the team’s other members, Patrolmen Jamey Noland, Tyke Hunt and Jason Webb, are going to dive school in the spring to become fully certified.

All three were selected for the team in part because of their previous “water” experience, including being former lifeguards.

“I’m already a certified diver. I have been around the water all my life,” said Noland. “I felt being a part of this team would make me a large asset to the department.”

Each dive requires three divers. The primary diver, or worker, searches for the evidence and the secondary diver, or safety, makes sure nothing happens to the primary.

The third diver remains on the surface and is called the topside. He records where evidence is found and communicates with the other divers using a “comm box” throughout the dive.

“Our team members are all qualified to perform these tasks, but for now, myself or Cpl. Rowsey have to go on the dives with them,” Doss said. “We really have a good group of guys here. They are really responsible.”

The divers have learned that patience is a virtue when it comes to underwater evidence recovery. Sometimes it can take a long time to find something, so the divers learn different sweeping techniques to use when they search for evidence.

“We have certain patterns to go by in order to thoroughly search an area,” Rowsey said. “We use the different sweeps depending on what the bottom is like, the visibility of the water and the size of the evidence.”

One pattern is the “Jack Stay” sweep, where divers run a line along the bottom of the water surface with weights on either end of the rope. Divers will search along the rope, then move the weight on the end forward when they reach it. Then they search back along the rope and move the weight on that end, Rowsey said.

“They move the weight back and forth so they are actually searching the area twice. It’s very thorough,” he said.

When evidence is found, the divers are taught how to measure the exact location. The secondary diver will run a tape measure from one end of the evidence to a stationary point near the water area.

“We use supports of bridges, trees, anything that is stationary that we’ll be able to use again,” Doss said.

The divers then tell the topside the distance between the evidence and the stationary object.

The underwater divers then repeat the process and measure the evidence from the other end to a different stationary object.

“It gives us a triangle and then we can say ‘OK, that evidence was found at exactly 13 feet 6 inches from this area,'” Doss said.

“We have the men measure the evidence in the water the same way that they would in a regular crime scene. We treat the different crime scenes the same,” Rowsey said.

The evidence is then put into a watertight container and brought back to the criminal investigation lab for minor forensics analysis.

“When we are recovering evidence from the water, we have to keep the object in the water it was found in because oxygen can taint and alter evidence,” Rowsey said. For major crime work, such as the recovery of DNA, the evidence is sent to State Police.

The Charleston Fire Department also has a dive team, but the two departments use their equipment differently.

“The fire department has a good dive team, but they are primarily a recovery team, which means they are looking for people. We search for small pieces of evidence,” Rowsey said.

Rowsey and Doss have both taken diver certification and training classes, and even worked as part of the team that has been excavating Queen Anne’s Revenge, the notorious pirate Blackbeard’s flagship that sank off the coast of North Carolina in 1718.

Rowsey was a deep-sea diver before he became a police officer. Doss had never made a dive before the North Carolina expedition.

They hope to bring their three patrolmen back next year to work on the ship.

“We learned more in that week than all of our classes and training together,” Rowsey said. “We worked hard that week, taking part of the collection of artifacts.”

While searching for evidence involved in crimes and hunting for pirate artifacts may seem like fun and games to most, the dive team members take their job very seriously.

“People don’t realize that this is work and it’s a constant threat every time we go into the water. A SWAT team isn’t in imminent danger until they are presented with their target. For us, we are in danger the second we hit the water,” Doss said.

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