Ever since a Manorville carpenter was charged 2 1⁄2 years ago with killing two women in the early 1990s, a Suffolk prosecutor has said wood chips found on the bodies linked the victims to the defendant.
Yet throughout the trial of John Bittrolff, 50, no crime scene responder has testified about seeing wood chips and none have been visible in crime scene photos displayed in state Supreme Court Justice Richard Ambro’s Riverhead courtroom.
On Monday, forensic scientist Thomas Zaveski of the Suffolk County Crime Laboratory explained why to jurors — what’s been described as wood chips were actually minute particles, visible to the naked eye only as specks.
“You could vaguely see it, but you couldn’t make out the details,” Zaveski testified. To do that, he said he needed a stereo microscope to magnify it 100 times.
And no one can see them now, because except for a small number, the Suffolk Police Department destroyed them all in 2007. An officer testified last week that happened because they weren’t identified clearly as homicide evidence. The defense has suggested police destroyed the evidence deliberately to protect officers who were once suspects.
Bittrolff is charged with two counts of second-degree murder in the killings of Rita Tangredi, 31, of East Patchogue on Nov. 2, 1993, and Colleen McNamee, 20, of Holbrook on Jan. 30, 1994.
The largest of these particles was no more than a millimeter long, Zaveski said. That’s the width of a typical pencil point or pinhead.
“So it was like a speck of dust?” defense attorney William Keahon of Hauppauge asked during cross examination.
“It was very small,” Zaveski replied.
Zaveski testified he took photos of the particles when he examined them in 1994. But because he stored the undeveloped film with almost all the particles, they were destroyed together and no photos exist of them.
Since Bittrolff’s arrest in August 2014, Assistant District Attorney Robert Biancavilla has told three judges, this jury and the public that wood chips were key evidence in the case. In his opening statement, he referred to them as Bittrolff’s “calling card” and “signature style.”
At one point in his opening statement, he called them “particles,” but otherwise described them as wood chips.
During questioning by Biancavilla, Zaveski said fibers and hairs with little evidentiary value were stored in evidence, unlike the wood particles. Biancavilla asked why he stored evidence from both crime scenes together.
“For convenience,” Zaveski said, who added there was no sign on the evidence container that particles from both victims were in there.
Zaveski said the particles were of various shapes and colors. Some appeared to be metal foil, he said.
He told Keahon the particles “could have come from anything.” He didn’t test them, because he said that would have destroyed them.