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In retirement, forensics expert's business is booming

Groton — For Jim Streeter, it’s the "feathering” and “patching,” the nicks and cuts that tell the tale.

Streeter, the town historian, former town mayor and retired state police forensics examiner, has spent the last decade in private practice, examining thousands of “questioned” documents and hundreds of crime-scene impressions left by the likes of footwear and tires.

He's 75 now, and “business is booming,” Streeter said Thursday in an interview at the Pleasant Street home he and his wife, Irma, share. His North East Forensics office fills a room on the second floor, its bookshelves bending beneath the weight of textbooks and how-to tomes. Manila folders are stacked high, and computer keyboards and a microscope are well within reach.

Streeter’s currently involved in more than a half-dozen active court cases, including one in New London Superior Court in which Mohegan Sun’s corporate parent is suing the owner of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators over an unpaid gambling debt. The plaintiff’s attorney asked Streeter to authenticate signatures on a series of bank drafts by comparing them to the “known signatures” of Eugene Melnyk that appear on other bank drafts and in photocopies of Canadian passports, a casino credit application and another document.

A court filing indicates Melnyk has denied signing some of the bank drafts, all of which total $900,000.

Streeter was unable to comment on the case, but a report he submitted last month shows he found it was “highly probable” the signatures on the bank drafts and the other documents “share common authorship.” The fact that he examined photocopies rather than original documents precluded a more definite opinion, he wrote.

Nearly a decade ago, in another local case, Streeter was asked to analyze the signature of Michael Thomas, then the chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, who’d been sued over his alleged failure to repay a $1 million bank loan.

Citing “unexplained differences” between Thomas’s signatures on checks and handwriting samples provided by Thomas, Streeter testified he couldn’t say “with any reasonable degree of scientific certainty” that Thomas had signed the checks. He also acknowledged that he couldn’t say Thomas had not signed the checks.

Streeter said analyzing signatures and other handwriting accounts for about 80 percent of his work. It involves examining samples under a microscope, comparing pen strokes and the formation of letters as well as such signs of potential forgery as blunt endings, “feathering” — the spread of ink from a stalled, hesitant pen — and “patching” — the filling in or retracing of a stroke.

“Now some of this might occur with someone who has a tremor,” Streeter said. “A person’s handwriting can change over time, too. In making an analysis, I would want to look at a subject’s age, medications. I would want more information.”

Remember, he said, that no one signs their signature exactly the same way twice, which means a perfect match of two signatures almost certainly indicates forgery, perhaps by photocopying. Streeter recalled making the point by having an apprentice sign his name 1,000 times and compare the signatures against a transparency. No two were alike.

In relatively rare instances, Streeter is called upon to analyze impressions left by footwear and tires and, rarer still, in cases in which tools have left marks on a body or body parts have left an imprint.

“About 80 of us in the world are qualified to do it,” he said, referring to footwear analysis.

Streeter consulted with defense attorneys in the case of Aaron Hernandez, the late New England Patriots player charged with murder in Massachusetts. Streeter examined evidence gathered in the case and suggested to lawyers that they not contest the state’s “textbook examination” of tire tracks left at the crime scene.

It was impossible to determine whether footwear impressions collected at the scene were made by a shoe worn by Hernandez, Streeter said.

“They had a picture of a shoe they thought made it (the impression), but they didn’t have the actual shoe,” he said. “Hernandez had about 20 pairs of shoes in his closet.”

When matching a photograph of an impression to an actual shoe, it’s largely inconclusive unless there are distinctive marks in the shoe’s surface.

“Even if the shoes are the same size, shape, design, if you don’t have nicks and cuts in them, it’s very general,” Streeter said. “At best, I can say a particular shoe made an impression. It’s up to investigators to put (a suspect) inside of that shoe.”

Analyzing footwear impressions at a crime scene means studying all the impressions, including those that may have been left by responders — police, firefighters, detectives. If investigators develop a suspect, they must try to acquire that suspect’s footwear.

“It’s important to eliminate the other impressions,” Streeter said. “If police haven’t provided ‘elimination prints,’ you can’t say definitively that the suspect was there.”

After serving as a Groton City police officer for nine years, Streeter joined Electric Boat in 1976, becoming chief of investigations for EB's parent company, General Dynamics. In that capacity, he traveled to General Dynamics facilities around the country, investigating fraud, forgeries and other cases that involved handwriting analysis. Near the end of his 17-year stint, he founded a private agency that conducted questioned document and forensic examinations.

He met Henry Lee, the former Connecticut state criminologist tasked with upgrading the state police’s forensics capabilities, who persuaded him to join the department’s Division of Scientific Services, where he spent 15 years, retiring in 2009.

During his career, Streeter has conducted examinations and rendered opinions in court cases in more than two dozen states as well as Canada, Cyprus, Portugal and Taiwan. His association with such experts as Lee and Bill Bodziak, a leading authority on impression evidence, led to his peripheral involvement in investigations of the O.J. Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey murders as well as the death of Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster.

Streeter has long been involved in local government, serving as a Groton Town councilor and mayor, Representative Town Meeting member and Groton City councilor and deputy mayor. He’s affiliated with numerous civic and historical groups, and writes about local history for The Groton Times.


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