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Michigan's own Sherlock Holmes sleuths in a hightech crime lab

By Judith RuskinSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 1986

Lansing, Mich.

When the state of Michigan was presented with a 146-year-old stock certificate and a demand for a $13 million payment, it called on its own version of Sherlock Holmes to test the claim. After studying ink splotches on the back of the certificate and cancellation marks on the front, Leonard Speckin, the Michigan State Police department's expert on questioned documents, concluded the 1839 bond had never been issued to the public. A circuit court judge agreed and threw out the lawsuit seeking to redeem the $1,000 bond plus interest.

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Mr. Speckin is a certified examiner of questioned documents -- wills, contracts, checks, and other written material whose authenticity is suspect. His area of expertise is a forensic science, along with fingerprinting, firearms and tool identification (ballistics), voice prints, serology (blood and fibers), and pathology. Speckin's specialty is the study and analysis of handwriting, inks, photocopies, typewritten documents, the reconstruction of burned and charred paper, and the dating of material.

``The job is basically very simple,'' Speckin says. ``We examine the evidence as it comes into the laboratory, report it out and testify in court as to our finding. The court is really the whole forum. It is before the jury that all this is decided.'' Speckin has testified as an expert witness hundreds of times, both for the prosecution and the defense.

In the case of the stock certificate, it was the close examination of marks on the back of the document that proved significant. Records showed the state had issued certificates 1 through 30 during the 1830s. The certificate's owners claimed their bond, No. 84, which had been in the family for 40 years, had also been issued and that the state owed them millions of dollars.

A comparison of the questioned bond with 10 unissued certificates still in the state archives, including No. 85, showed the document to be authentic, Speckin recalls. The question then became: Had stock certificate No. 84 ever been issued?

There were ink spots on the back of the bond resembling letters, but there were strange, semi-circular gaps in the pattern. Careful study showed the printing on the face of bond 85 matched the ink spots on the back of bond 84. The ink had leached from the front of one bond to the back of the one on top of it when they had been stored together for a long period of time,according to Speckin.

Such seepage from one page to another is called an ink offset, Speckin explains. The paper fiber absorbs the ink from the other page. ``You've probably seen this in old books, where you open the pages and the ink has transferred from one page to the other if they haven't been opened in years,'' he says.

The gaps in the pattern on the back of bond No. 84 matched the area where the state seal had been stamped on the face of the other certificate. The stamping of the seal had depressed the surface of bond No. 85 and, where it intersected the original printing, the ink had not transferred to the back of bond No. 84.

``We had two pieces of evidence, then, that this document had never been issued,'' Speckin says. Its numerical position, and the fact it ``had been stored for a great length of time with 85 in its proper position, one on top of another, back to front. That, then, showed that this document had somehow been spirited out of the archives and had not been issued or purchased by anyone.''