Monday, March 12, 2018

Interview With Forensic Expert Geoff Symon

Recently, a few lucky local attendees got to hear a talk by noted Forensic Expert Geoff Symon.
(Writeup here)

It was sponsored by the Sisters in Crime, and as mystery writers, we were enthralled to hear about the everyday workings of a real-life pro who examines crime scenes for clues. And we learned a lot!
As you can see, he has quite a resume:

Geoff Symon is a 20-year Federal Forensic Investigator. His participation in high-profile cases includes the attacks on September 11, 2001, the War in Iraq, the Space Shuttle Columbia explosion, among countless other cases. He has direct, first-hand experience investigating cases including murder (of all types), suicide, arson, kidnapping, bombings, sexual assault, child exploitation, theft and financial crimes. He has specified and certified training in the collection and preservation of evidence, blood spatter analysis, autopsies and laboratory techniques. His Forensics for Fiction series has become the go-to resource for genre authors.

Let's find out more about his work...

Q. Tell us how this profession chose you, and why one should choose a major carefully.

A. My origin story is literally one of being in the right place at the right time. With an economics degree, forensics wasn't on my radar before it fell into my lap. The story itself is too involved to recount here, but the highlights include: Taking a US gov't job in South Korea, transporting a dead soldier's body to Okinawa for autopsy, a forensic pathologist taking note of me and a federal forensic program seeking recruits.
Today is much different than 25 years ago. Now my all-encompassing forensic training and experience doesn't really exist anymore. Today, most forensic jobs are incredibly specific, and one must choose to be an evidence technician, a lab specialist, or specialize in a particular case type. Also, most agencies tend to promote their own folks into forensic positions. This way, they instill loyalty in those that they invest the training so that those specialists stay on with that agency.

Q. What are your forensic specialties?

A. I've had a very blessed career. I've had jobs that specialized in crimes against children, crimes scenes and evidence collection, autopsies, blood spatter analysis, and so on. Many of my jobs required close work with forensic lab work, so I also have a solid knowledge of the laboratory side of things, including toxicology, histology and DNA analysis. My cases have involved firearms, explosives, kidnappings, death, blood, poisons, injuries, arson, pathology, sex crimes and thefts.

Q. What's a professional achievement you're proud of?

A. I was honored by the head of NASA after the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy. I was part of the multi-agency task force set up to deal with the multi-state scene. I was in charge of the astronauts' remains retrieval and identification. The head of NASA wrote me a personal commendation and presented me with the mission patch. It's one of the most emotionally valuable items I own.

Q. What's the top few things TV/films/books get wrong about forensics?

A. - Time of Death estimations ("He died between noon and 12:15").
- Investigator's roles (Access to records/field work vs lab work/working around the system).
- Investigative procedures (Quick resolutions/interview techniques/not wearing proper protective equipment)
- Overreaching forensic advances (Super computers/holograms/incorrect specialty application)

Q. Do they get anything right?

A. Some do. It depends on the show. For the most part, though, most forensic-oriented shows rely on the drama side of things over the boring science-side. Ratings speak and that makes sense. Production always wins over realism.

Q. What are your favorite films or TV shows depicting your work?

A. For realism? I love Forensic Files, Medical Detectives and the like. They do a pretty good job condensing real crimes down to their interesting parts. I pass on most on-going dramatic series, though. I spend too much time thinking "nu-uh!"

Q. What top three things should authors know about forensics?

A. 1) Although story requirements necessitate that only one character does all of the forensics, in reality "forensics" is covered by a multitude of specialists.
2) That stories have law enforcement agents (detectives/sheriffs/troopers/agents) and lab analysts work one case at a time. A story tends to focus on one crime or culprit because anything more is distracting. In real life, detectives and lab techs work multiple cases at once. They have to. There's too much to do to focus solely on one investigation until its completion. Rarely can an investigator drop everything for the sake of one case.
3) Forensics is not quick. Most stories require a building of tension which means as the reader gets closer to the finale, the ticking clock speeds up and hearts beat faster. So, their forensic work and results occur in a rather expedient fashion. In reality, forensics takes time. Processing crime scenes for evidence can take hours or days, and lab work can take months before results are reported.

Q. At social events, do some people pull away when they hear what you do?

A. I seem to have one extreme or the other: either they shy away or they can't get enough!

Q. How did you end up in the writer's arena?
A. I live with a writer, so I've lived the writer's spouse's life for a long time. I've seen the turmoil that is writing firsthand. I've seen the frustration. I've answered the "what kind of death would..." questions. Soon fellow writer friends started asking questions. One day, on one of my many "that would NEVER happen!" moments, my partner suggest that I offer my expertise to writing groups. Shortly after, I started presented at author conventions and meetings.

Q. What services do you offer to authors?

A. Whatever they need. I'm always available to answer basic or direct forensic questions for any author. If the question becomes more involved, requires research on my end, or is more plot focused than a simple question, I offer consultations for a small fee. In those situations, I'm at the author's disposal with whatever help they want/need for their story. I also provide in-person classes at various conventions and author groups, as well as online classes for those who can't physically attend. I've also started my Forensics for Fiction series, in which each book covers one forensic topic as a one-stop research tool for authors.

Q. Is there a question authors ask that you dislike?
A. Yes, and unfortunately it's my most common question. Often, authors will approach me and share their entire book with me, explaining how they created the cleverest, most difficult crime. They tell me they're at the point they need to wrap things up, and ask how they can solve their crimes. Sometimes, we can come up with something, but mostly, when writers write an unsolvable's unsolvable. Having the perfect evidence that resolves everything magically appear so that the story wraps up nicely, often times is unbelievable. Why wasn't that evidence found before? How can it be that conclusive? It opens the story to logic leaps, which, in my opinion, is the fastest way to lose the reader. I always advice writers should SOLVE THE CRIME for their stories BEFORE THEY COMMIT it (on paper). That way the evidence needed for the solution can be addressed early in the book, even if it's overlooked or misinterpreted.

Q. Is there a particular audience member that you prefer in your presentations?

A. I strive to be helpful to anyone who wants to learn about forensics. Crime can be found in any genre, so I try to be accessible to all authors, whether they're writing pure police procedurals or merely intend to spend a single chapter on their crime. Those intending to be awed by bloody pictures tend to be disappointed when they learn I'm not a lecturer that provides an overabundance of images. A big portion of my audience are those who want the information without having to view the gore. Pictures should aid a presentation, not BE the presentation, in my mind. So, I only use images if they are necessary for the topic. For those wanting a more visual experience, google is a wonderful continuation.

Q. Tell us about your books.

A. My Forensics for Fiction series is a forensics resource written with the author in mind. In each book, I tackle one forensic topic and share with the writer how that specialty works in the real world. I explain the specifics and history of the topic as well as describe who does the work. I explain valid terminology and provide real-life case studies, all with the goal of assisting authors understand how they can use the specialty in their writings. I have three books out now: Crime Scenes, Blood Spatter and Autopsies, and hope to have the next one, Arson, out this summer.
Updates can be found at the site.

Q. What fun fact should we know about you?

A. I'm a complete geek/nerd/dork. I'm a comic book collector from way back and frequent comic conventions. Every new superhero movie that debuts is followed by a call from my brother who wants to know who the characters are, how accurate the movie is to the comics, and what the hidden Easter eggs are. Also - Buffy? Perfection.

You can reach him at


  1. It was a great seminar, and it was good seeing you along with the rest of SinC NE gang.

  2. It was a great seminar, and it was good seeing you along with the rest of SinC NE gang.