A shooting reconstruction is an investigation within an investigation, a forensic riddle within a criminalistics mystery. A round from a firearm has its own story to tell, from rifling to gunshot residue and stippling, to cartridge ejections, ricochet, and fragmentation. Microscopic details determined in the blink of an eye can dictate the course of a criminal case, both motive and the modus operandi.
Edward Hueske literally wrote the book on the science of firearms perfectionism: Practical Analysis and Reconstruction of Shooting Incidents. It employs diverse skills from geometry and trigonometry, to chemistry, to common sense.
Hueske, based in Texas, published the second edition earlier this year. But after 42 years of scrutinizing guns and crimes, one of the nation’s foremost ballistics experts is still learning from each shot fired.
“This is a huge field that encompasses all sorts of sub-disciplines,” Hueske said, in an exclusive interview with Forensic Magazine. “Anybody who thinks they’ve figured this out better hold on to their hat – the next case might just separate you from that thought in a big way.”
It’s not about having all the expertise committed to memory – it’s about understanding what is required to properly document a scene, and crunching the numbers as the investigation proceeds, he said.
Major cases, both prosecution and defense, have featured the laser-like insight of Hueske over the years.
Most recent was the murder trial of Paul Tanner, Sr., a wealthy businessman convicted this year of gunning down his son and grandson at their Texas home. Hueske testified for the defense, and found 18 things that were deficient in the police investigation – and effectively disproved the gun recovered was the murder weapon. Despite the conviction, some experts say the case is ripe for reversal on appeal.
Others include the 2014 homicide conviction of Markus Kaarma for the death of a German exchange student in Montana. A jury found Kaarma purposely lured the teenager into his garage and blasted him twice with a shotgun, based on Hueske’s ballistics findings. Another major case was a 48-round shootout between police and a member of the Aryan Brotherhood at a Texas trailer park in 2009.
Moving Shooters and Disintegrating Bullets
The major challenge can be shooters and victims who dynamically move through a scene during a crime, as well as the changing directions of bullets – which may even potentially disintegrate along their path. All of it adds up to a four-dimensional reconstruction which can take years to fully grasp, in some cases (e.g., the John F. Kennedy Assassination, and the Trayvon Martin case).
“They don’t bring me a case that’s easy and straightforward. If there’s no question about trajectories and point of origin and all that sort of thing. I get the tough ones,” Hueske said. “Bullets do strange things with intermediary targets… I enjoy the challenge. It keeps me on my toes.”
Hueske also made a notoriously gruesome find while a supervising criminalist in the Arizona Department of Public Safety. He was the first to open John Famalaro’s freezer in Arizona in 1994 to find the body of Denise Huber, a young woman killed three years earlier in California. The sensational story grabbed national headlines for years – though the criminal case was transported to California, based on blood stains found on the West Coast.
“Practical Analysis and Reconstruction of Shooting Incidents” can be considered three books in one. While there are complex methodologies for determining shot angles using mathematical principles, Hueske also incorporate common-sense investigator case histories – as well as occasional folksy Texan anecdotes illustrating firearms culture in America, and Hueske’s observations at scenes over nearly a half century.
Smartphones have been one of the revolutionary advances to the forensic discipline, Hueske contends. Apps such as Theodolite, provide precise measurements and geolocations that can be handheld and easily accessed.
“The next big advances are already here,” Hueske said.
‘Business is Booming’
Years of teaching have produced disciples who have learned their craft from Hueske.
John Paolucci, a retired NYPD detective, met Hueske years ago through training. Immediately after completing the course, Paolucci was at a crime scene with a bunch of other detectives. Most of the group was looking for the ricocheted bullet in a single direction. But Paolucci went the other direction, based on what he had learned about the twist of the rifling of the shot. He was the one to find the crucial round.
When he called up Hueske to crow about the success of the method, the teacher was typically droll.
“He said, ‘You’re kidding me – this stuff really works?’” Paolucci recalled, with a laugh. “That’s the kind of guy he is. You never felt he was preaching to you. He’s a hero of mine – I’ve learned a lot from him over the years.”
Unlike most other forensic experts, Hueske has also had experience from the other side of the shooting equation. As gunman Charles Whitman took aim and fired down at students from the Tower at the University of Texas on Aug. 1, 1966, Hueske was one of the young students taking cover. It did not inspire his eventual career – but it later informed him of some details of what happens amid a shooting incident.
“I did learn a few things – like not recognizing the shots, because they’re not in their proper context,” said Hueske. “When I read witness statements, and they say they though they heard firecrackers, I can relate – because that’s what I thought.”
Still based in Texas, Hueske finds time for five grandchildren – and for a wife who has been endlessly patient with his career-long firearms fixation.
But he doesn’t get much leisure time otherwise. Shooting reconstructions, unfortunately, are booming in America. Hueske, who had a stint at the University of North Texas and still occasionally teaches, has more work than he knows what to do with, from cases nationwide.
“Shootings are rampant. I cannot accept any more cases. My business is booming,” said Hueske.