by Nora Edinger
CLARKSBURG -- Harrison County Sheriff Jim Jack and a multitude of police and prosecutorial consultants can almost picture what happened in a Shinnston garage on the morning of Sept. 26 when three area men were found shot to death.
"We all believe about the same thing, but it's an unprovable belief," Jack said Friday, a few days after he announced there was no conclusive evidence pointing to a fourth person being in-volved. "The fact is, under the circumstances, it's going to remain a mystery unless some new information comes in."
The "circumstances" are doubts raised by key pieces of forensic evidence, which area experts say is not nearly as cut and dried as television police dramas would lead people to believe.
"Some of the evidence that we had hoped would be most conclusive wasn't," said Jack, offering gunpowder residue tests as a key example.
Police were hoping the tests would show which, if any, of the dead men's hands had fired the fatal shots. Instead, they showed residue on all three -- Danny Arcuri, 43, of Four States, Frank Cienawski, 40, of Johnstown and Jeff Richards, 41, of Shinnston.
That finding likely shows only that the shootings occurred when the men were close to each other -- labs do not compare relative amounts of residue since they are not an accurate indicator in that situation, Jack said.
But such uncertainties are enough to raise doubts about investigators' theory of how a likely murder-suicide unfolded among three long-term friends.
"We can't prove it in a courtroom, and that's what we would have to do ... I hate it," Jack said.
Harrison County Prosecutor Joe Shaffer is among those who consulted on the case.
Based on a review of the evidence, Shaffer agrees with Jack that a fourth person at the scene of the crime is highly unlikely.
But Shaffer said he would have no problem doing a prosecutorial end run around police if he believed there was still a murderer on the loose.
And, although there is probably no living person to prosecute, Shaffer said Jack's concerns about court proof are sound. If police were to publicly blame a shooter, it would likely lead to wrongful-death lawsuits against that man's estate. That would mean Jack or other investigators could be required to testify without conclusive physical evidence to back them up.
"There's no civil liability on the part of the Sheriff's Department," Shaffer said. "It's just that, unless they're absolutely certain, they're not going to say anything. "It's the most difficult case that I've ever seen."
Shaffer said there is also another potential court issue that will encourage police to keep mum -- even though it is only the most remote of possibilities.
When Jack conditionally closed the case early last week, he was careful to say that while there was no evidence a fourth person was involved, there was also no proof there was not.
Should police take a stand with a specific murder-suicide scenario, Shaffer said that could be used to tear apart a later prosecution if someone would confess.
"It's tough for the families," Shaffer said of the real possibility the case will never be officially solved. "It's just very difficult for the whole community."
A broader view
Three deaths that appear to be going the way of JonBenet Ramsey's and Chandra Levy's may be difficult to accept.
But it's not uncommon for forensic evidence to fall short of court needs, according to Dr. Michael Yura, a national-level forensics expert from West Virginia University in Morgantown.
"One of the things that we tell our students (is) what you can't get wrapped up in is believing that this particular piece of evidence will lead to the capture and conviction of a person," said Yura, director of the WVU Forensic Identification Program.
To reinforce that concept, Yura and other faculty sometimes deliberately introduce inconclusive forensic evidence into a "crime house" students use to test their skills.
For example, a ceiling fan may be turned on during the setting up of a "crime" to make blood spatters suggest something contradictory to other evidence. When student investigators arrive, the fan is off, as it could be at a real crime scene.
Yura tells students to run with the evidence, even if it raises more questions than answers.
"You just let the science do what it can do, and let other people piece it together," Yura said. "It's up to someone else, like a prosecutor, to say if this is enough (to make a case)."
That is the goal of the West Virginia State Police Forensic Laboratory, according to Lt. Mark Neal, State Police spokesman.
That lab handled nearly 40 pieces of forensic evidence collected in the Shinnston killings. Only one piece remains under investigation, one Jack does not believe will make any changes in the case status.
"Whichever way the case falls, it's really irrelevant to the lab people," said Neal, who worked with the lab's fingerprint unit for several years. "They're not pro-police. ... Their focus is just to provide the answers."
Neal said lab workers also have to be careful to perform such testing by strict, nationally accepted protocols -- which are slower than television shows like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" indicate.
That care is integral to court use, which can be heavily challenged, as were several in-state cases following a 1990s scandal involving the veracity of a former West Virginia forensic expert named Fred Zain.
Yura said courts are also leery of too little forensic evidence.
For example, a criminal could intentionally or accidentally deposit a single strand of another person's hair at a scene. But if there are multiple pieces of hair and clothing fibers, it is much more likely a presence can be proven in court.
"It's a cumulative issue," Yura said of courts being unwilling to convict someone -- or declare a potential victim a murderer -- without conclusive evidence.
"There are unsolvable crimes," said Yura, noting he is not familiar with the details of the Shinnston case. "In some of these issues, the thing that keeps me going is knowing there is a God and there will be justice someday."
After the final piece of evidence returns from the lab, Jack said the Shinnston killings will probably be put in a cold-case file, although detectives will continue to check out any new information.
More than 1,000 working hours on the case have been logged, so far.
Jack said it's possible new technology will someday provide a definitive answer, in the way DNA analysis helped clear up a number of old cases when it was first introduced.
Shaffer noted that one family member has also suggested an investigation into the police work. A decision has not been made on whether that will proceed.
Regional Editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org