May 24, 2001 (RUTHERFORDTON, N.C.) – When Fred Sams retired at the age of 38, he had already worked as an FBI lab technician, a Miami police officer and a lawyer practicing with the legendary Melvin Belli in southern California, and seen service as a Green Beret in Viet Nam.
The self-described workaholic returned home to western North Carolina and found that a life of leisure in the hills was not for him. Within a year or two, he was teaching college courses and working as a a child support enforcement agent for the state. Now, Sams is a lieutenant in the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Dept., serving as a crime scene investigator and forensics investigator.
“He set up the forensic division,” Sheriff Dan Good said. “He took an old warehouse that we were using to store stuff and made a lab out of it.”
Sams also set up a mobile crime lab in an old Jeep Cherokee. The department has since acquired a new vehicle for the lab.
Good said that Sams is exceptionally versatile. In addition to doing most of the county’s forensic work, he is a community police officer, with responsibilities that include training companies on preventing workplace violence. He also temporarily ran the 911 division.
“He’s got a pedigree from out here to the highway,” Good said. “He’s a very diversified individual to say the least. He’s as good on fingerprints and forensic evidence as I’ve ever seen.”
Rutherford County lies between Charlotte and Asheville in the foothills of the Appalachians, an area that Sams calls “semi-urban,” although others might call it rural. The county’s 68,000 residents are spread out over 600 square miles, an area about the same size as the state of Rhode Island.
Sams’ forensic skills and persistence have paid off a number of times, Good said. He cites one case involving 10 school buses that were vandalized – “just demolished.” Investigators found almost no evidence at the scene. Sams eventually led them to a suspect and a conviction.
“Sams kept on working, kept on working,” Good said. “He got one fingerprint off the top of one of the buses. It made me look very good.”
Sams himself is proud of his investigation of a homicide committed with a replica black-powder pistol.. The case involved two men sharing a trailer who had gotten into an argument about sleeping arrangements, that ended with one dead, buried in a shallow grave out in the woods, and the other under arrest. The medical examiner, who was unfamiliar with that kind of weapon, believed that the victim was killed with a close-up shot, buttressing the other man’s story that he had acted in self-defense.
Firing the gun at a piece of cardboard from various distances to see what kind of residue would be left showed him that the fatal shot had been fired from across the room, Sams said. Showing the cardboard to the defense lawyers resulted in a guilty plea.
Technology has advanced considerably since Sams began working for the FBI in the late 1960s. Forensic scientists now have tools like DNA testing that can link a suspect to a crime scene with near total certainty in many cases. But DNA testing has also showed the limits of some forensic work by clearing people convicted of rape or homicide based on evidence that now proves to be faulty, like hair samples, or even worse on the testimony of incompetent or dishonest scientists.
“It is imperative that you have in your forensic division someone that you trust,” Good said.
Sams likes keeping busy and continues to teach on top of his duties with the sheriff’s department. He began one recent week by working 17 hours on Monday and 12 hours on Tuesday. Fortunately, his wife, director of nursing at a hospital, has similar habits.