At Work Solving Crimes with Wood Sleuth Richard Jagels

At Work Solving Crimes with Wood Sleuth Richard Jagels

A piece of ancient metasequoia. Photo by Joe Rankin.

If Richard Jagels had a casebook like Sherlock Holmes, the titles might be: “The Case of the Twig in the Mirror”, “The Case of the Killer Ship Mast”, “The Case of the Doubtful Dowels”.

Jagels is a wood forensics consultant – a wood sleuth. He can take tiny samples of wood, ancient or recently cut, put them under a microscope, and, using his vast knowledge of wood anatomy and the resources of his impressive library, tell you whether the sample is Philippine mahogany or California madrone, red spruce or red pine, eucalyptus or elm.

Jagels would be the first to tell you his investigations don’t have the glamour of a CSI episode and that he’s not Sherlock Holmes. But, like the enduring fictional detective, he still gets a thrill when the game’s afoot. “I enjoy doing the analysis, trying to figure out the species,” he said, confessing that, “I don’t enjoy sitting in court testifying.”

Balding, glasses, mustache, worn jeans…Jagels looks the picture of a retired forestry professor, which is what he is. He built a side career as a wood forensics consultant while working at his full-time job in the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources, where for three decades he taught courses in the functional structure of woody plants, wood identification, and plant microtechnique (a lab course on the ways to prepare plant tissue for microscopic analysis). As a scientist, he researched the biomechanics of tree stems and how trees react to stress, such as the effects of acid fog on coastal conifers. While he retired from teaching a couple of years ago, he still does forensics and other consulting work.

Today, Jagels leans back in the chair in his office, a cozy upstairs space overlooking the brown and swollen Penobscot River as it muscles past the historic town of Winterport, Maine. Two flat-panel computer screens perch on the desk. Another desk holds a microscope, razor blades, and other paraphernalia for preparing specimens. Bookshelves cradle seemingly every book ever written on wood and wood identification. Jagels leans over and pulls out the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet to reveal neatly labeled folders, more than 30 years worth of cases.

Jagels grew up in White Plains, New York, and went to SUNY-ESF Syracuse, where he majored in wood anatomy, primarily, he admits, because “there were more electives available.” He went on to earn a master’s degree in forest pathology, then a doctorate in botany from the University of Illinois.

Following school, he bounced around for a while – with stints at various jobs at the University of Alberta, the University of Vermont, Dartmouth College, Louisiana State, and the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, where he worked on wood identification projects – before landing at UMaine in 1979. Between the University of Vermont and Dartmouth, he made ends meet doing construction and some freelance writing. He dialed up WoodenBoat magazine to pitch an article about an Adirondack guide boat he was restoring and ended up landing a gig to write a column on wood technology. He’s been doing it ever since. And it’s that column that brings him a lot of his forensic cases.

“It just sort of built itself as a sideline,” Jagels said. “I’ve never advertised. It’s all been word of mouth. I’ve never pushed it. After all, I already had a full-time job.” Still, he’s worked for the Maine State Police, engineering firms, museums, private parties, and lawyers. About a third of the 100 or so cases he’s worked on qualified as forensics work. He’s working on one now, but he’s not at liberty to divulge any details. Still, he can talk about the finished ones.

To really understand how Jagels does what he does, you’d probably have to take a course in wood anatomy. The way he explains it, identifying a piece of wood involves looking at how its cells are organized, understanding how the cell walls are sculpted, and considering whether there are any inclusions present. “Occasionally one or a few features define a species, but more often a combination of features is needed to separate woods,” he said. For example, if there is spiral thickening of the longitudinal tracheids, the water-carrying cells that run up and down through the stem of a tree, it’s probably a Douglas fir.

But it’s a trait shared with the yew family. “Always exceptions,” said Jagels. “A more complicated scenario would be whether a conifer has ray tracheids or not, and if so, are the tracheids dentate, and if so, are the dentations short or do they extend across the cell, and if so, what kind of ray crossing pits are present, et cetera, et cetera,” Jagels added. (Now you see why that course in wood anatomy might come in handy.)

In a 1988 case, he identified pieces of a twig and leaf material found in the side-view mirror of a murder suspect’s car as balsam fir and linked the wood to a damaged tree at the site where the victim’s partially clad body was found, dumped off a tote road in Hermon. In 1990, he matched a white pine chip found with a young rape and murder victim’s body to similar chips found in the car of the prime suspect – a woodworker. Both suspects were convicted, based partly on his evidence. Criminal cases involving wood are few and far between.

More often Jagels’ expertise is sought by lawyers in civil cases, like The Case of the Victory Chimes. The professor was hired by a firm pursuing a wrongful-death lawsuit against the owner of the Victory Chimes, the iconic three-masted schooner later immortalized on the Maine state quarter. A rigger had died when a mast snapped off. The mast had been deteriorating, but rather than replacing it, the owners had it repaired using a metal collar and epoxy, said Jagels. He showed that the repairs made a serious problem worse by trapping moisture and accelerating the rot’s movement from the heart of the mast to the outside.

In The Case of the Doubtful Dowels, Jagels was contacted by a western Maine dowel mill to see if he could figure out a way to determine whether dowels had been sanded. There was money riding on the question: Canadian customs officers claimed the company’s dowels were sanded and thus were a finished product subject to higher tariffs. After trying various stains and dyes, Jagels hit upon the perfect method: rubbing a pencil over it. “After rubbing along the axis of the dowel with a No. 2 pencil, if darker rings show up that encircle the dowel, this means it has not been sanded; in other words, you can see the traces of the cutters used to shape the dowel. Sanded dowels will show only the pencil marks that run parallel to the grain,” said Jagels. “A customs officer can do it in a few seconds.”

Not all of Jagels’ forensic work has been in the interest of justice or commerce. Some of it has been in the interest of science.

About ten years ago, he was one of a team of scientists who trekked to the Arctic Ocean’s Axel Heiberg Island to examine the remains of a huge fossilized forest. Many of the trees turned out to be dawn redwoods (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), an ancient species that grew when the dinosaurs roamed and was thought to be extinct until a small grove was found growing in a remote area in China in the 1940s. The trees in the Axel Heiberg forest lived 35 to 40 million years ago. Jagels still has the specimens, looking dark and very, very old.

Jagels keeps on with the forensic work, getting a couple of cases a year, but fewer criminal cases come his way now – DNA evidence is more definitive these days, he explained.

He sees the entire realm of wood science and wood anatomy slowly disappearing. These days, most forestry schools don’t even have wood science programs, he said. Not enough students want to take it, a result, Jagels believes, of our changing relationship with wood. Though we continue to use wood – huge volumes of it – we tend not to use it as lumber. What’s most furniture made of these days? Composites. Young people aren’t even interested in antique furniture, he said.

These days, Jagels devotes more of his time and talents to conservation. He is a founding member and board director of GreenWood, a nonprofit that trains artisans in developing countries to make and market wood products and to manage their forests sustainably.

  1. Dan Maloney → in Palm Bay, FL
    May 09, 2016

    A question for Mr. Jagels:  I have an antique wooden juggling pin with a stamped (ink? paint?) label that is faded so that I’m having difficulty reading the Manufacturer information.  Is there a recommended method (cleaning, oiling, waxing, other?) that I could use to try to recover more of the information from this label?  I believe the wood is oak or maple.  Thank you.

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