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Pinellas County sheriff's deputy digs her job: forensic science

Things that are out of place and "different" catch Traci Erwin's attention.

Paying attention to those differences has helped Erwin find bodies and catch murderers, rapists and other criminals.

Erwin is so good at it that she was recently named Pinellas County's forensic science specialist of the year for her overall excellent work and her contributions to the investigation of the Rosemary Christensen murder and a Pinellas Park case of attempted sexual battery.

Not bad for a woman who sometimes faints at the sight of her own blood.

"It's mine," Erwin explained Monday about her squeamishness. Other people's blood doesn't have the same effect.

"I love this stuff. I absolutely love my job. It's not the most glamorous job, but 12 years later, I love what I do. Every day's different," she said.

Erwin, 34, is a Pinellas native and Seminole High grad who studied psychology at what was then St. Petersburg Junior College. She wasn't real thrilled with the major. When she transferred to the University of Florida, she added a minor in criminal justice. One of the classes was in criminal investigation.

"The bell went on," Erwin said. "It was very intriguing. It sounded like something I would like to do ... to be the person that might help bring the bad guy to justice, finding the one key piece of evidence."

She transferred to the University of South Florida, where she earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. Before she graduated, she interned for 14 weeks with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which then hired her.

That was in 1997. Two years later, she was called to work on the Rosemary Christensen case when the Belleair resident's co-workers at Century 21 in Indian Rocks Beach reported her missing. Christensen's husband, Robert G. Temple, was out of town and returned after several days, saying he thought she had left him.

Soon after, Temple left the state with his 22-year-old girlfriend. Last year, the girlfriend, then 31, called deputies and said she feared that Temple would kill her and her daughter. She told them Temple had killed Christensen and buried her in Gilchrist County, about 150 miles north of St. Petersburg. The girlfriend took deputies and Erwin to the property.

Erwin said the search covered an area about the size of a football field. Officers knew that Christensen had been buried in a plastic container with wheels and hoped metal detectors would help locate the body. Erwin used a long metal probe to stick into the ground in likely places.

She was talking to other officers, she said, when she looked across a road and thought, "Huh, that looks funny." She walked across and plunged her probe into the ground.

"It bounced. That was weird," Erwin said. She moved a bit and tried again with the same result and thought, "this is kind of odd." Erwin called a lieutenant and demonstrated for him.

"We didn't have to dig too far to find the corner of it," Erwin said.

They'd found Christensen's body. Temple is now in jail awaiting trial on murder charges.

Erwin found it hard to describe what it was about the spot that caught her eye. Dirt that has been disturbed never goes back to the way it was. There's always a depression, she said. And vegetation that's disturbed by digging also tends to be different, even years later.

"It didn't look like what was around it," she said. "Everything that looks different, you investigate."

That sensitivity to things that are out of place also helped in Pinellas Park. A custodial worker was attacked one night while working in a classroom at Pinellas Park Elementary School. She got away and called police. Erwin was called to the scene, as the Sheriff's Office handles forensics for the Pinellas Park police. Amid the wreckage caused by the struggle, Erwin noticed a crumpled paper towel on the floor nowhere near the classroom sink.

"It was out of place," Erwin said.

She picked it up and was able to raise a "pretty decent print" that was later matched to a transient. He was picked up in Hillsborough and is awaiting trial.

Erwin said she often hears people talk about the television show CSI as their favorite.

"You just smile," she said. "CSI is terrible."

The problem, she said, is that it's not realistic. People don't understand what forensics detectives and other officers have to see and experience. They don't understand the intricacy and delicacy of the work. And they don't understand the emotional impact.

"It's hard," she said. Especially "anything with children. Anything with animals. (The) abuse or death of either."

Those are things officers don't forget, she said.

"I think it's easier when you're actually there to focus on what needs to be done," Erwin said.

"When it gets hard is when you're done and you can think about it. ...

"You learn to deal with it."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8450.

Pinellas County sheriff's deputy digs her job: forensic science 05/12/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 13, 2009 10:46am]
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