Renowned Forensics Expert John Shimoda Dies at 100

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SEBASTOPOL — Satoru C. “John” Shimoda, 100, of Sebastopol, a life member and the 15th president of the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners, died from injuries he suffered in a fire at his home on May 25.

John Shimoda

The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa quoted Sonoma County authorities as saying that Shimoda was sitting in the garage of his family’s home on Mill Station Road when somehow flames were ignited and he sustained critical burns. He died the following day at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

The call was heartbreaking for members of the Graton Fire Department, who were friends of Shimoda and his family and had invited him last August to birthday dinner at the firehouse on Gravenstein Highway North.

“On Memorial Day, Graton Fire Department responded to a garage fire with reports of a victim with burn injuries,” the department posted on Facebook. “When our firefighters arrived, they found the victim to be a familiar face. Sadly, the burns he suffered were too severe and he passed away at 3:15 a.m. Tuesday morning.

“We first met Satoru Shimoda when he had his 100th birthday at our fire station. His family won a hosted dinner at the fire station earlier in the year at our annual pancake breakfast, and we were happy to welcome him. One of our firefighters prepared a meal of chicken parmesan, and we sat around the table together for hours talking and laughing, telling stories and enjoying his company. It was a truly wonderful evening …

“He served in the United States Army in both World War II and the Korean War. His family told us stories about his career as a forensic document examiner.

“We send our condolences to his wonderful family and grieve for their loss. While we only knew him briefly, he was one of the most colorful and enjoyable guests we ever had at Graton Fire Department. He will be missed by many.”

A combat injury in Korea cost Shimoda one of his legs.

Born in Oregon on Sept. 13, 1919, Shimoda served in the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II. After the war, he worked in Army counter-intelligence and later as a criminal investigator.

Shimoda began his questioned document examination career in the U.S. Army Crime Laboratory in the 1950s. He also trained with Albert D. Osborn and Frank Murphy. Upon retirement from the Army, he became the assistant director of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service Western Region Crime Laboratory in San Bruno and was later appointed as director of the laboratory.

The forensics specialty involves lab testing to determine if a letter or other document is forged or contains, in the penmanship, ink, typewriter key strikes, fingerprints or other elements, any evidence that a crime was committed or that could be helpful to a criminal investigation.

Among Shimoda’s many major cases was the “Zodiac” serial killings that terrorized the Bay Area in the 1960s and ’70s and were never solved. In May 1978, San Francisco police detectives working on the case showed Shimoda a letter, sent to The San Francisco Chronicle, that appeared to be from the suspect.

Shimoda concluded, “I am of the opinion that the letter of April 24 was an attempt to duplicate Zodiac letters and is not authentic.”

He retired in 1999 at the age of 80 after 32 years with the postal laboratory and 55 years of service.

Shimoda was one of the first diplomates of the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, a retired fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and a life member of the California Division of the International Association for Identification.

In 2007, he received the Albert S. Osborn Award of Excellence in recognition of his distinguished career and his many contributions to both the ASQDE and the profession as a whole.

His wife of 68 years, Hiroko “Betty” Shimoda, was the original proprietor of the Ocha-ya snack bar in San Francisco Japantown. They lived in Corte Madera for 46 years before moving to Sebastopol in 2013 to live with one of their two daughters and her family. Betty Shimoda died in March 2017 at age 89.

John Shimoda is survived by his daughters, Carol Hebel of Sebastopol and Susan Tamai of San Francisco, four grandchildren and several great-grandchildren. His daughter Susan remembered him as “a very humble Superman.”

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