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Surprising Ways Criminal Investigators Solve Mysteries

Are you a fan of forensic crime shows and mystery murder cases? Love a good cold case solved by DNA evidence? You may have watched all the 'NCIS' in the world, but the real surprising ways criminal investigators solve mysteries may leave you more than a little shocked.

By Caesar FinklePublished 6 years ago 5 min read
These days, solving crimes is all about science.

No longer can a police officer dust up some fingerprints and find the culprit. Any law enforcement officer in the United States will tell you that a crime scene is only as good as the science that goes into the murder case, and DNA samples, semen, saliva and other forensic evidence are king in solving crimes. Think you know a thing or two about the topic? You might find yourself raising an eyebrow at these surprising ways criminal investigators solve mysteries.

Plant(ed) Evidence

Yes, plants can lend some very interesting information to a crime scene.

Criminal investigators can find evidence through a lot of odd ways, but one of the surprising ways criminal investigators solve mysteries is through plant evidence. For example, take the 2002 murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Suffolk, England. Located at the crime scene were some stinging nettles that were growing new side shoots. The investigator knew this only happens if the plant’s been trampled underfoot, and so by investigating the new growth on the plant, they were able to uncover that the plant was trampled about two weeks before, giving them a timeline for the crime. Then, they used the pollen and soil samples from the crime scene to lead them to the convict. A story fit for one of the top true crime podcasts of 2018!

Bugs, Bugs and More Bugs

Maybe you’re not studying biology or botany for a career, but want to have useful skills that a law enforcement officer might call on in the future. If you’re studying entomology, you could be in luck. One of the surprising ways criminal investigators solve mysteries is through not just looking at the surrounding plants and everyone’s DNA samples (even those of the cat), but also looking at the creepy crawlies that are hanging about. Even they can lend some important evidence to the situation. For example, take the case of Vincent Brothers in 2003. He was eventually convicted of murdering his entire family when an entomologist discovered that the bugs stuck to his car were from the area of the murder…not the area that he said he was in as part of his alibi.

Animal DNA

You never thought man's best friend would betray you in such a way.

Yes, you probably already know that DNA samples can lead to solved cold cases and any case, really, but what about animal DNA samples? Yep, even that’s a big help in some instances. For example, in another U.K. case, the murderer actually took cat hair (mistakenly, on his clothes) with him to the murder scene. The investigators took the cat’s DNA samples and used it in the criminal trial, a first in the court systems when it occurred in 2012.

The Doe Network

If you’ve never heard of the Doe Network, but you love reading the best investigative journalism books, you might want to check this one out. Recognized as part of the Responsible Volunteer Community by the United States Department of Justice, the Doe Network is a website that connects volunteer investigators all around the world with the information on missing and unidentified people. Others post the information they find on those people, hoping to help solve these cold cases. Since the network was established in 1999, criminal investigators have been able to use it to solve at least 60 cold cases and find hundreds of missing people, thanks to a little help from bored internet strangers.

Social Media

Social media is a boon to data-hungry investigators.

Similarly and more recently, one of the surprising ways criminal investigators solve mysteries is through social media. Now, many investigators immediately get a giant data dump from social media related to a case, to learn more about a victim and pick up clues that would otherwise go unreported or unrealized. Social media can help investigators determine a relationship between two people, inspire others to get in on an investigation, and see what is happening around or near a victim during the time of a mystery case.

Scents and Smells

As gross as it may seem, one of the surprising ways criminal investigators solve mysteries is through the smell of dead bodies. While it’s a relatively new technology and something still in the works, scientists are looking to create forensic tools that can detect chemical gases emitted by corpses, enabling investigators to detect and find corpses faster and easier. In another type of crime, arson in this case, investigators will bring in “sniffers” to determine the chemicals an arsonist uses to start their fire. There are no bounds to the work a good nose can do for forensic science!

Xbox Digital Surveillance

"They'll never think to look for my crime here!"

While your Xbox might be the last place you’d try to hide the details of your crime, that misconception makes it the perfect place for real criminals to actually do so. More illegal activity is being traced to Xboxes containing illicit data, and so now digital forensic specialists use specialized tools to gain access to hidden files on Xbox hard drives. These tools can also record Xbox live sessions, for use in playback during court cases.


Yes, glitter is one of the most surprising ways criminal investigators solve mysteries — though it isn’t very often. Still, criminalists have argued that glitter is a great way to trace criminals to crime scenes, as it’s an ideal contact trace that’s easily collected, characterized, and searchable. Plus, it’s resilient to erosion. Now, this all depends on there actually being glitter at a crime scene, but it’s not so far-fetched. A 2001 murder was solved when a murderer was traced to the scene of a crime via glitter, as the victim had glitter on her jeans and bedspread that was later found on the killer.


Who knew glitter and dandelions had so much in common?

We all hate hay fever, but you might just appreciate it if you ever need a murder solved. Pollen has been used in forensic science because of its ability to cling to clothing and hair…giving criminal investigators the ability to track criminals back to a certain spot. Pollen is difficult to destroy and doesn’t decay easily, making it, like glitter, a perfect contact trace.


While you might think the only surprising ways criminal investigators solve mysteries include some cold, hard facts, there are a few instances where they’ve used something a little more intangible to solve a case. Take the case against Lucia de Berk in 2001 in the Netherlands. She was working as a nurse at three different hospitals, where it was noticed that she was present at a suspiciously large number of deaths. The investigators used statistics to convict her, saying that the odds of it being a coincidence were 1 in 342 million. However, in a surprising decision fitting for one of the best investigative journalism movies, statisticians later said it was really 1 in 48, and so she was exonerated in 2010.


About the Creator

Caesar Finkle

Journalist and fine woman connoisseur from Danbury, Connecticut.

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