Ralph Ristenbatt III is not sure why he made the same Top Forensic Science Professors list as the renowned criminologist Dr. Henry Lee, but that doesn’t mean his experience in the field should be discounted – especially to students interested in a career in forensic science. After all, not everyone spends 16 and 1/2 years working for the Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) in New York City, first doing forensic analysis in a forensic biology laboratory and then later heading up the OCME’s three-person Forensic Analysis and Reconstruction Unit (FARU). For Ristenbatt, this experience was a dream job.
In fact, he may have been so pumped for a career that he was able to line up a job with the Medical Examiner’s Office approximately nine months in advance of graduation. That’s because he was still finishing his Master’s of Science degree in Forensic Science (which focused primarily on criminalistics then) at John Jay College in New York City. There were some doubts, however, that he would be able to complete his master’s degree program due to concerns about working full-time while finishing his thesis. But he did. And in September 1990, he started with the Medical Examiner’s Office in New York City. At the time pay for the job, around $30,000, was considerably low for work in the city.
Initially, he began work as a forensic analyst and then became a forensic scientist, and his civil service title changed once more over the years. He had been primarily analyzing blood and semen removed from homicide and sexual assault crime scenes, but eventually began getting out in the field more and increasing his experience with crime scene reconstruction.
Supporting the need to have a formal forensic analysis and reconstruction unit was his director Robert Shaler, who officially established a team in January of 2000. Initially called MESATT (Medical Examiner Scientific Assessment and Training Team), the reconstruction unit handled forensic analysis and crime scene reconstruction requests that came from the Medical Examiner’s Office itself, District Attorney’s offices in the five boroughs, and even the New York Police Department.
“We never turned any case down,” he said.
The team was composed of three senior level staff members, including Ristenbatt, who brought in additional scientists and lab personnel as needed for help in crime scene reconstruction cases.
But they did their best. Usually, their cases involved extensive field and laboratory analysis followed by report writing. Sometimes FARU members might have to testify in court. Other cases required just a quick phone call or a consultation. Much of the work required extensive investigation and time, up to weeks or months. And the case load could be related to anything — homicide, vehicular homicide (like hit-and-run), suspicious death, physical assault and sexual assault.
“Almost anything,” he said. “It varied quite a bit.”
The team was handling approximately 25 to 30 cases a year. It was a significant amount of work for a team that delved so deeply into the scientific aspects of investigation. Both lab work and field work were crucial to the process.
By this point, he was commuting into the city from Pennsylvania on a daily basis, arriving at about 6 a.m. to start his day and generally finishing by 2 p.m. However, urgent calls to respond to a scene or to take on a new case sometimes flipped his day on its heels or made for more time in the city than anticipated. It didn’t bother Ristenbatt.
And then things changed. Robert Shaler left the director position at the Medical Examiner’s Office for a teaching job at Penn State University, in fact, founding its forensic science program in 2005.
Ristenbatt saw this as writing on the wall.
“I realized that it would be a matter of time before it (FARU) came to a grinding halt,” he said.
And Shaler had been more than just a driving force behind FARU. In earlier days, he had transformed the serology lab (meaning related to blood and bodily fluids) at the Medical Examiner’s Office into a full-fledged forensic DNA laboratory.
“He wasn’t just a forensic DNA person,” Ristenbatt said. “He was a good general criminalist.”
It may also be worth noting that Ristenbatt was a responder in the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedy in New York City. Ristenbatt and his team arrived on scene and were across the street from the South Tower as it began to fall. One of his team members was hospitalized for about a month afterward. However, it was Shaler who wrote a book about the follow-up work in identifying human remains, which was called “Who They Were: Inside the World Trade Center DNA Story: The Unprecedented Effort to Identify the Missing.”
In fact, he says the FARU team at the Medical Examiner’s Office no longer exists, and he heard that the team members had been laid off – all because the focus on providing good, objective science had been lost.
He’s been at Penn State now since the fall of 2006, instructing both undergraduate and graduate students in courses such as Scientific Approach to Crime Scene Investigation, and Criminalistics: Trace and Impression Evidence, two of his favorites to teach.
Over the course of his career, he has compiled an extensive list of credentials. This includes certification as a diplomate with the American Board of Criminalistics and as a senior crime analyst with the International Association for Identification. He’s also been an adjunct lecturer at John Jay College and has led a wide range of bloodstain pattern workshops for professionals in related fields.
His suggestion to students interested in a career in forensic science is that they obtain a strong foundation in the sciences.
He obtained his own Bachelor’s of Science degree in Biochemistry, in fact.
“Sometimes students don’t know what they want to do and find out later,” he said. “I was always more chemistry minded and I never suspected that I would end up in a biology laboratory. That’s what happened in New York, but I had the education to go either way.”
He also knows that an education can be important in other ways. In fact, he remembers the tour he took of the Pennsylvania State Police forensic lab in Harrisburg, Pa., during a class in his senior year in college. It may have been a pivotal career moment.