The chemistry of crime

2008-12-29 00:00

The start of a contemporary South African fairy tale could go like this: once upon a time there was a girl who dreamed of becoming a police officer so she applied to join the SA Police Service. “No,” the stern official told her, “You cannot join us, for police officers have to be big and strong. You are too small.”

At this point in a fairy tale, a fairy godmother usually appears to wave her wand and make the heroine’s dreams come true. In “real life” fairy godmothers are rare, but dreams still do come true, often in unexpected ways.

Fast forward 20 years in the life of the young girl who dreamed of joining the SAPS and meet (admittedly diminutive) Captain Vanessa Maritz, crime scene investigator (CSI) and officer in charge of the criminal section at the Pietermaritzburg Local Criminal Records Centre (LCRC). It was not the magic of a fairy that made Maritz’s (41) dream a reality, but the magic of science.

Born and brought up in Gelvandale, Port Elizabeth, Maritz was the youngest of six children born to parents who separated when she was two. “My father took care of us but then he died when I was 11 and my mother took over. My father, a factory worker, always wanted me to be a teacher. I wanted to study chemistry and completed two years of a BSc at the University of the Western Cape, but I couldn’t finish because of financial constraints.”

She became a credit clerk at a clothing chain store in Port Elizabeth and rose to be credit manager. “I was also a union representative and I got so tired of politics and fighting with management on behalf of workers, I just wanted to leave.”

Central to Maritz is her faith, which binds the story of her life like the spine of a book. “I prayed for a week and asked for guidance, which God gave me. I had always wanted to finish my degree, but never knew how to fit it in. I resigned from work and finished up on a Saturday, and on the Monday I registered for a course at the University of Port Elizabeth. I wanted to study biomedical technology but the course was full so I registered for chemistry instead. I did not know where the money for fees would come from, but I trusted God and things always worked out.

“That is why I sometimes tell people that if you believe and trust in what you want to do, the doors will open. Faith can literally move mountains. I know that because I have seen it in my life. You have to trust, stop worrying and leave things in God’s hands.”

In 1999, Maritz completed a three-year full-time diploma in analytical chemistry. It was a testing time. “It was only prayer that kept me going. I was married and the mother of three children so I took a weekend job to earn some money. For those three years I slept only three to four hours a night. At the end of it I was offered three jobs, but took a post in the SAPS Forensic Unit and started in January 2000. It turned out to be in ballistics, not forensics, but after all those years, I was in the SAPS.”

Maritz’s husband, Jakes, a teacher, took a post in mathematics at Hilton College in 2000, so the rest of the family moved to join him in 2001. She was transferred to the explosives section of the Bomb Disposal Unit, before becoming a CSI. She is currently involved in the administration of the LCRC, which processes all the documentation related to fingerprints.

She admits that being a CSI is a demanding job, made more so by being a woman in a largely male world. “There are very few women in this field and it is a tough environment. We have to prove ourselves constantly. It is stressful as we work long hours and take turns to be on 24-hour call. Some of the crime scenes we work at are disturbing.

“However, I really love what I do and find it very rewarding and interesting as no two crime scenes are the same. For CSIs, being objective is a priority and we cannot get emotionally involved. Our job is to try to use the evidence available to link a suspect to a crime scene. It is very satisfying when my work helps to solve a crime. The best is when we can identify a suspect from the evidence and help the detectives on the case in this way.

“I get very angry sometimes when it is helpless or defenceless people who are the victim of crime, like old people who lose their pensions money and belongings in a robbery. They depend on the police to help them and do their job properly by finding the perpetrators.”

Maritz has a sense of vocation about her work: “I am driven by the sense that God made it possible for me to be here. I believe I am meant to be in this job. I am a worker and I drive myself — and others — to work hard. Not everyone can do this work, looking at bodies and seeing blood every day. It’s a calling.”

Asked what she is proud of, she says candidly: “I am proud of everything I have done, because I have achieved the things I most wanted to: joining the SAPS and studying chemistry. I am also proud of my family — Jakes, my husband, who completed his PhD in mathematics part-time in about four years and my children, Shannon (21), Eathon (17) and Tylo (14).”

Maritz sees herself carrying on as a CSI for the foreseeable future, “But I may still fulfil my father’s wish and be a teacher some day. I want to register for a postgraduate diploma in education as I could teach both chemistry and mathematics. But I don’t know when I will find time for that. I will wait and see what God has in store,” she says with a laugh.

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