Crime lab technicians gather clues for cases Teamwork: The five, members of the Police Department's Forensic Identification Section, anonymously examine crime scenes for evidence that points to a suspect.

September 02, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

John Holt surveyed the scene of a recent Columbia home burglary -- chairs and clothes strewn everywhere by thieves whose work was interrupted by the unexpected return of the homeowner.

Holt is one of five Howard County crime lab technicians who work anonymously behind the police tape and flashing lights, gathering evidence at crime scenes. What they find is often crucial to breaking cases.

At the house, Holt examined a bag of electronics equipment apparently dropped by the burglars.

"Your adrenalin is pumping," said Holt. "You get this feeling looking at it. You know the suspect's prints are on it."

Kneeling on the dining room floor, he dusted a compact disc player with black powder and discovered a fresh latent fingerprint.

"It's about the challenge," he said of his work. "It takes a special breed to do this job."

Two days later, Allen Hafner, a veteran fingerprint examiner for Howard County police, scanned that print into a state computer database. The odds were one in 50 that he would find a match.


Police have a suspect.

"The fingerprint is often the only tangible link between a suspect and a crime scene," Hafner said. "That's the exciting part -- when they have no idea [who committed the crime], and I can give them a name."

Detectives appreciate the help.

"They do a lot of good cases," said Cpl. Chuck Jacobs, a detective. "If you have physical evidence it makes your case much stronger -- a nice little package to hand over to the state's attorney."

One of Jacobs' cases -- a robbery of a High's store in 1995 -- was solved, in part, because technician James Roeder decided to examine paper used to pick up a doughnut.

Roeder found a fingerprint.

It was linked to a suspect.

The technicians are members of the department's Forensic Identification Section, run by R. C. Bartley, an affable man with a Tennessee twang whose office is cluttered with evidence manuals and magnifying glasses.

Bartley, a one-time FBI fingerprint examiner, recruited the experienced technicians.

Four of the technicians -- Roeder, Doug Read, Tony Hopp and Larry Ches -- are veterans from the Baltimore County force. They have more than 60 years' forensic experience. Holt, who joined the force as a cadet in 1990, became a technician in 1995.

"They handled so many more [cases] than any of the other applicants, it was overwhelming," Bartley said. "They can work any type of case."

Though the technicians and examiners can process fingerprints, the unit sends some evidence, such as hair fibers and DNA samples, to other labs for analysis.

On a recent afternoon in its cramped laboratory, the crew dusted fraudulent prescription forms for fingerprints. The four veterans, all former police officers, became forensic examiners because they thought they could help lock up more criminals.

"At crime scenes, I think, 'What can I find to catch this guy?' " Read said. "Even the most minute piece of evidence can be the link that convicts the guy , whether it's a small fiber or a fingerprint."

They recalled murders and suicides, not by case number or victim's name, but with macabre humor for even the gruesome scenes -- between spoonfuls of French onion and Maryland crab soup.

"If someone stopped by and listened, they would think we were callous," said Hopp. "If you don't treat it that way, you'll go crazy."

Read and Roeder recounted a case from April 1993. A woman's body was found floating in Rocky Gorge reservoir. It was a "dump job" -- the killer had dragged the dead woman from his car.

The technicians traced drag marks and footprints from the reservoir to concrete steps. They then inspected a metal railing and found two tiny drops of blood -- and the killer's fingerprints.

He had clasped the railing to balance himself as he carried the woman's body toward the water.

"It was in the middle of the woods, and nobody saw anything," Read said. "Then, bingo, you find the railing. The fingerprints, they helped solve that case."

Pub Date: 9/02/98

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