Dan Roman in Madison, on Wednesday, November 29, 2017. PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

A lot of cops have good stories to tell. But not Dan Roman.

“You catch some funny stories,” he said, “but less so for us.”

Like the 12 other investigators with the Madison Police Department’s Forensic Services Unit, Roman has seen the worst of the worst. A crime scene investigator for the past 25 years, he’s haunted by a sad medley of innocent victims: abused kids, beaten spouses, people brutally targeted by random attackers. If there was a shooting, Roman, a blood stain pattern expert, has probably been there.

“I’ve seen too much,” he said.

Along the way, he’s had a few TV-worthy cases.

Among the oddest: A man who fatally stabbed a woman, then, using semen he apparently bought on Craigslist, tried to make it look like a random rape and murder. The DNA didn’t match, but a chance letter left on the kitchen table pointed to the suspect, who killed himself as police closed in.

He likes to think of his job as a puzzle bought at a garage sale. Some pieces are missing, some are mere cardboard shapes from which the image fragment has peeled. Yet he has to figure out how to complete the picture.

“Those are your crime scenes,” he said, “evidence that’s walked out of the scene, evidence that gets stuck in somebody’s boot.”

While immersing himself in the misfortunes of others, Roman had his own setbacks. About a decade ago he underwent a punishing regime of treatments for leukemia. But after a few months of “light duty,” he was back at it.

It was a circuitous road to the police department, where he’s been since 1984. In 1977 he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard with a degree in romance language and literature. He came to Madison to continue his studies – with a focus on medieval Spanish literature.

But fate had something else in store.

How did you end up as a cop?

Necessity. By that point I had two sons and it was tough making ends meet as a grad student. I had to leave it behind. I had a family to take care of. I had bills to pay. So I started working at the UW Credit Union. I met a couple of city detectives who were working the day shift, financial crimes guys, and we had a bunch of fraudulent accounts set up, so police got involved in chasing these guys down. And I worked on a whole bunch of cases with them and they said, “Why don’t you just put in an application with the Police Department. They’re hiring.”

I saw that you recently held a session at UW with writers to talk about crime scenes. How’d that come about?

They asked the chief’s office if there was somebody who would be interested in coming in and talking about crime scenes. So they sent it over to me and I said, “Of course.” It’s kind of a neat feeling to go through what I do on a daily basis at work and where it diverges so greatly from what people are seeing in the media, on TV programs, movies and so on. You’ve got photographers that come into a crime scene and it’s snap, snap, snap, snap. Nobody’s composing a photograph, no one’s taking an image with a scale in it, nothing. They just walk right through the scene and OK, that’s how you do it. Well, that’s not how you do it.

What’s the biggest fallacy propagated by those shows?

The blood stains on TV are the ones I marvel at, to the degree that my wife might be watching a program and I’m not allowed to watch it, because I just grit my teeth and say, “That’s not possible, that’s not true, that’s not gonna’ happen."

So what’s the problem with the blood stains?

Things like these blue flashlights that you see on these shows where they’re shining these lights on the wall and you’ve got all of this stuff that’s been written on the wall in blood, and it’s glowing. That doesn’t work. Blood doesn’t glow. And if somebody scrubbed it off the wall or something like that, it’s going to have big streaks. It’s going to be smudged. It’s not going to be readable.

Do these unreal expectations come back and bite you on the job?

You’ve probably heard of this thing called the CSI effect. Some people say that the CSI effect has a valid impact on juries that have grown up in the past 15, 20 years watching these programs on TV. And the image through repetition is we wear flashy clothes, we drive these awesome vehicles, we take lickety-split camera shots and we have really cool equipment that creates three-dimensional, holographic images – or makes the blood glow. So when we have to testify in court, they’re looking for some of this stuff. And they’re disappointed when we say, “It doesn’t work that way.” One of the things that people forget is that there are laws of physics that are behind everything. Our work is dictated by those laws of physics.

That doesn’t seem so glamorous. Sounds like a bunch of math.

It’s trigonometry, trying to figure out the angle of impact. I teach for a summer program called CampHERO. It’s a Girl Scout program that my wife (Madison Fire Capt. Jennifer Roman) and some friends created for girls to teach them about protective services. The high school girls come for a week and I teach them about blood stain pattern analysis. I had one girl this past summer that just jumped up off her chair and said, “Three years now of taking math, and now it makes sense.” It was a simple formula for computing the angle of impact. It’s not difficult, but it does involve math.

With all the changes in technology, it sounds like the math is pretty much the same.

Blood stains are sometimes so tiny that you’re talking about something that’s measured in millimeters. So I have to get up there and magnify each individual blood stain to measure it, and then do my math. I keep it all written out in a notebook. There are things you can’t get around doing manually.

What’s the biggest change that technology has brought to the process?

Making a transition from film photography, which we had done since the 1950s. You had to sign out the sheet film and tell the lieutenant or the sergeant, this is how many photos you’re going to take. You had to compose them very carefully. You had to be very frugal about it because of the cost of the paper, the cost of the film, the cost of the chemistry. By 2009 we transitioned completely over to high-end digital photography. That has been an incredible asset to the department.

What’s the worst part of the job?

I think worst is when kids are abused and injured. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. And there are the really horrible crimes that we run into involving adults, and the images are so intense. When you talk about things like post-traumatic stress disorder that combat vets suffer through, they’ve seen some horrendous things. They might not see them every day. Cops see this stuff every day. And in our unit, that’s part of the job. We get sent to the worst stuff to document those things. So 25 years of seeing hangings and firearm suicides and a guy who lies across the railroad tracks, those things take their toll.

It must be a relief to get a drug deal gone bad.

You have a certain amount of compassion you can dole out. When Bad Guy One shoots and kills Bad Guy Two, there’s really not a whole lot that registers on a compassion scale. It’s almost the classic image of you live by the sword you die by the sword. This is what happens to you when you do these things. But when you have those innocent victims, the children, the spouses that get beaten to a pulp by their significant others, the senseless beatings from strong-arm robberies, the batteries that happen downtown on State Street, those you feel.

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.