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Questioned Documents Experts

Getting Physical
Our Hardcopy Forensic Experts


Writing revealed on lined paper with ALS
The FBI Questioned Documents Unit may be best known for handwriting analysis.

Today, it’s forensic science 101. But back in the early 1930s, when Bruno Hauptmann left a series of ransom notes after snatching (and later killing) the Lindberghs’ 20-month-old son, he probably never realized that painstaking analysis of his handwriting by the emerging FBI Laboratory would add to the volumes of evidence and help convict him of the sensational murder.

More than 75 years later—even in this digital age—our ever-expanding ability to glean clues from a whole range of physical documents and materials is essential to solving our cases and often those of our partners.

“We’ve worked just about every major case,” said Diana Harrison, who heads what we call our Questioned Documents Unit (QDU) in the FBI Lab, “because every investigation has a paper trail.”

The unit’s 17 forensic document examiners, for instance, pored over charred documents after the 9/11 attacks to help identify the hijackers. They pieced together shredded documents in the Enron case, analyzed cryptic notes from Kansas serial killer Dennis Rader, and compared outsoles on size 12 Bruno Magli shoes as part of the O.J. Simpson murder investigation. The list goes on and on.

Known mainly for its handwriting analysis, the unit actually performs 25 different types of exams—all without tainting or destroying evidence. Its examiners are skilled in analyzing inks, papers, plastic bags, tire treads, and typewriters (still in use more than you might expect). The unit also maintains extensive databases of bank robbery notes, anonymous letters, shoe prints, and fake checks—quite handy when comparing and contrasting clues from across the nation.

Babe Ruth's signature looks authentic, but examiners found that the ball's cork center design was too modern to be used during Ruth's era.
Babe Ruth’s signature looks authentic, but examiners found that the ball’s cork center design
was too modern to be used during Ruth’s era. See photos.

A few more examples of the unit’s capabilities:

  • A single match left at the scene of an arson can be compared to a matchbook found on a suspect, and, based on analysis using a variety of equipment and techniques, examiners can often determine with a high degree of certainty if the match found at the scene came from the suspect’s matchbook.
  • Using a device called an Electrostatic Detection Apparatus, examiners can find indented, or “secret,” writing that may be invisible to the naked eye. Pete Belcastro, a veteran QDU examiner, provides a real-life example: when a bank robber handed a teller a note demanding money, he didn’t realize that it secretly gave away his identify. When he had earlier scribbled out his name and address on a pad of paper, it made an impression on the piece of paper below it, on which he later wrote his robbery note.

One of QDU’s biggest cases was Operation Bullpen, a huge sports memorabilia and celebrity forgery ring that began in the mid-1990s. The crooks hired art students and gave them months to perfect the signatures of Mickey Mantle, Elvis Presley, and many others. The forgeries were “very, very close” to the authentic signatures, Belcastro said, but the bad guys hadn’t thought of everything. In one case, a vintage-looking baseball with Babe Ruth’s signature seemed like the real thing on the outside, but when examiners cut the ball in half, they found a cork center not used in the Bambino’s era.

“We take a great deal of pride and satisfaction in the scientific work we do,” Belcastro said. “And it’s nice to know that what we do makes a difference.”

- Questioned Documents Unit