Plants can help solve crimes

DAVIE -- They stand silent in a Davie backyard, but police believe they help tell the story of how a retiree was killed and his body parts scattered across South Florida.

The witnesses’ names: Schefflera actinophylla, aka the common umbrella tree, and Ligustrum sinese, aka Chinese Privet, a large invasive shrub.

A botanist has concluded the two plants outside accused killer Jamie Saffran’s house match up with leaves found with severed body parts of Saffran’s friend, Warren Danzig.

That evidence could play a role in sending Saffran to prison for life, or maybe to Death Row.

It’s just one recent example in a relatively obscure but growing field of detective work: forensic botany, or the use of plants to help solve crimes.

Florida’s diverse flora can prove to be a criminal’s undoing with leaves, stalks, pollen, grains and twigs all constituting potential evidence. As awareness increases in the law enforcement community of the investigative tools offered by forensic botany, partnerships are being forged between the scientists who devote their lives to studying plants and the police and prosecutors who must delve into the worst humanity has to offer.

The origins of modern forensic botany can be traced back to what had been called “The Trial of the Century” -- the 1935 trial of the man charged with kidnapping and murdering aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby in New Jersey.

A botanist testified that the wood in the ladder used in the crime matched a piece of flooring cut from suspect Bruno Hauptmann’s attic. Hauptmann was convicted and sent to the electric chair.

“Forensic botany is great in destroying alibis and frequently helps determine time since death,” said David Hall, a Gainesville-based botanist who is writing a book on the field. “I used to get one or two questions of this sort a year. It’s gotten to the point now that I get forensic botany questions two or three times a week.”

Detectives probing the Danzig murder brought in a botanist early in the case.

On Nov. 6, a Fort Lauderdale homeowner saw a container bobbing in the canal outside his house and when he peered in, saw a shoe sticking out from concrete. A pair of arms and a pair of legs were found inside. A week later, employees of a Dania Beach auto supply store found a severed head and hand in a bucket.

Two fishermen discovered a male torso in a container near a canal in Miami-Dade County later that month.

Botanist John Pipoly was asked to identify the leaves and plant material that were found mixed in with the body parts. Pipoly is the horticulture and climate change extension agent for the University of Florida-Broward County Extension Education in Davie.

When police were able to identify the murder victim, Danzig, through a fingerprint, detectives from the Davie and Miami-Dade police departments went to his listed address -- the home of Jamie Saffran.

He told police Danzig lived in the Dominican Republic and used that address to get mail, according to court records.

During that visit to Saffran’s home, detectives noticed the same species of plants that Pipoly said provided the leaves found with the human remains, court documents show. They also saw blue rope in the backyard similar to rope recovered with the head and hand.

Using what they saw as well as determining that Saffran had been using Danzig’s credit card to pay for everything from tires to his daughter’s college education, police executed a search warrant. Inside a shed, they found a bag of concrete, a sledgehammer and a shovel covered in concrete. The shed is shaded by an umbrella tree.

As the search warrant was executed, detectives and Pipoly took samples from the plants in Saffran’s backyard.

The botanist said he wanted to further evaluate some of the plant material found with the body parts and headed to the Fairchild Herbarium in Coral Gables to look at about 15,000 plant samples.

That’s when he confirmed the leaf material mixed with some of the body parts came from Chinese Privet, an invasive plant common in the Florida Panhandle, but a plant Pipoly told the Sun Sentinel he had never seen before in Broward County.

Saffran was charged in December with first-degree murder and is awaiting trial in the Broward County Jail without bond. He has pleaded not guilty.