June 2010

CSI Beaufort: This Is NOT A Television Show

Author: Courtney Hampson | Photographer: Photography By Anne

Having spent three hours in the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office new forensics lab, I suppose my DNA is all over the place. The good news is I have no prior record, so I don’t believe I will end up in the suspect pool. However, if I—or you—decide to go rogue anytime soon, be assured, we will be caught.

In fact, Sheriff PJ Tanner has committed that the new lab will have evidence processed in less than 30 day—that’s up to 12 times faster than it used to take, before the lab, and when all DNA and arson evidence was processed via the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), who by the way, is also processing all of the other evidence gathered in the state.

Tanner’s pledge means that investigators will be hot on an offender’s tail in less than 30 days, and that offender will be facing the judge and meeting his new cellmate long before he even realizes he’s in trouble. (Imagine if we could do everything in our lives 12 times faster? Your three-minute egg would only take 15 seconds!)

The 4,000-square foot facility opened last month and is now operational. The team is in place and ready to begin the task of processing DNA, conducting drug identification, and analyzing fire debris for not only the Sheriff’s Office, but for all Beaufort County law enforcement agencies.

Up until now, the county forensics team has been making do with what they had, which was cramped, if not shared, space that made getting the job done—without stepping on anyone’s toes (literally)—a challenge.

In 2001, when the county’s Drug Analysis Lab opened, chemist Renita Berry was able to stand in the middle of the room (i.e. closet) and reach the counters on either side by simply stretching her arms a bit. In 2004, Berry moved into a 400-square-foot space on USCB’s Bluffton campus and two years ago (2008), she was joined by Jennifer Mills. There, still limited by space, the two would sign up to use the sole countertop.

The Sheriff Department’s now four-person forensics team is able to process DNA, fire debris (arson), and drug evidence. Further, Tanner projects that they will be able to catch up on that SLED-induced backlog in less than 120 days. And, they’re off and running.

The evidentiary process begins long before analysis takes place. Here’s how it works:

All evidence that is brought in starts in the evidence room, where it is logged in the Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS). Here, administrative data is gathered: submitting agency, submitting agent/officer, type of case, victim names (when available), description of the evidence (sock, glove, bag of pills). A tracking number is assigned to the evidence, and the official chain of custody has begun. The submitting agency gets a receipt and the forensics team gets to work.
The next step is to determine which side of the lab the evidence is headed to—the chemistry lab, which handles the fire debris and controlled substance evidence or the DNA lab.

On the chemistry lab side, Berry and Mills will conduct an initial analysis and preliminary tests on drug and arson evidence. The samples from suspected drug evidence are extracted using various solvents, then placed in vials and taken to the instrumentation room where the “GC-Mass Spec” gets to work. “GC-Mass Spec” is the pet name for the Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS), the working beast that combines the scientific methods of gas chromatography (separating the substances into separate components) and mass spectrometry (breaking the components apart and separating the ionized fragments by mass and charge) to identify different substances within a test sample.

Arson evidence is brought to the lab stored in air-tight paint cans. Mills punches a hole in the top, dangles a purified carbon strip in the can, corks it, and puts it in an 80-degree Celsius oven for 10 hours. The strips are then removed, put in vials and popped into the Mass Spec where all of the components are analyzed.

The Mass Spec is one efficient machine, analyzing up to 100 samples non-stop. The team can set the Mass Spec to run on a Thursday afternoon; it will run through the weekend, and when it is done humming, it will generate an all-encompassing report. Part of the science behind the process is the recognition of the fragmentation pattern of the components that emerge and the comparison of those patterns against libraries of “known certified standards” which are loaded into the system’s database. The libraries of controlled, non-controlled and illicit drug “standards” are local, regional and national databases that the Beaufort County team (and others including the DEA) deem notable.

If the evidence heads to the DNA side of the lab, John Donahue and Timothy “Tim” French are on the case. First, they’ll examine the item for trace evidence: fibers, glass, paint chips, etc. Their next step is to extract the biological material such as blood, semen, hair or sweat stains. Once a sample is removed, it is placed on the “Robot” which extracts the actual DNA. The DNA is then amplified (copied) and analyzed (which generates a profile) on two other pieces of equipment. The profile is then compared against a profile from a suspect or may be searched against a database seeking a possible match. But, while the Mass Spec and the Robot (along with the other DNA equipment) offer the cutting edge technology that is crucial in investigations, it is the diversity of the four-person forensics team that makes the Beaufort County Lab so special.

According to Sheriff Tanner, “The unity in this group comes because they are all different in their own way. Opposites attract. There is no competition because they each have individual disciplines that come together to create a great team. We’ve got the best team anywhere.”

Renita Berry is the lab director as well as a Lt. Col. in the Army National Guard. She’s been with the Sheriff’s Department for nearly 10 years and quickly garners respect. Berry is at the top of her game, and her knowledge base will overwhelm you. She knows her stuff, clearly has the respect of her peers, and I imagine she keeps everyone in line.

In addition to his DNA analyzation skills, Tim French brings crime scene processing experience to the team as well as expertise in blood spatter analysis. French also appears to be the comedian of the group. With a quirky smile, he is quick to crack a joke, but also startlingly conscious of the fact that he gets to come to work every day only because it means someone (or some family) is having their worst day.

Jennifer Mills is a spitfire, with over 30 years of experience under her belt (and lab coat). She bucked the stereotypical gender roles in the 1970s and decided to skip her intended path of teaching and instead landed an internship with the Charlotte crime lab, which she parlayed into a 30-year career. After retiring from the Charlotte lab, Mills joined the Beaufort team where she focuses her talents on analyzing evidence from suspected arson sites.

When he was young, John Donahue’s college plan was to be quarterback at Notre Dame, but he settled on a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee and a master’s degree in microbiology from Indiana University instead. In his crisp, white lab coat, Donahue is DNA technical leader of the new lab. His attention to detail is obvious, and his knowledge of the science behind DNA analysis is astounding, often putting him on the stand as an expert witness.

Finally, Black Labrador, Abby, hasn’t seen the new lab yet, but she is training hard to be able to sniff through a fire scene seeking possible evidence to submit to the lab. Abby and her impressive nose will work shifts with Burton Fire Chief, Harry Rountree, who is part of Beaufort’s Fire Scene Investigators (FSI) team. The collaborative effort among the FSI team, Abby and the lab will produce more concrete arson evidence and a greater likelihood of solving cases.

While the individuals (and the pooch) who make up this team are clearly forces on their own, collectively the sum of the parts is even greater.

What now?

Drug and arson evidence is now being processed at the new lab. The DNA equipment is halfway through its the final two-months of the validation process and will be ready to roll the first week of July. (Until then, DNA evidence will still go to SLED.)

From the investigator’s perspective, Captain Bob Bromage is encouraged by the fact that his team now has “everything at our disposal.”

“We don’t have to wait for major case evidence to be processed, and we don’t have to pick the most probative evidence to submit,” he said. In the past, investigators had to pick and choose what to submit, because the state lab imposed limits regarding how many pieces of evidence would initially be analyzed.

The new lab (along with Abby) allows the majority of the investigative process to happen locally and affords the forensics team with the opportunity to create a local database as well, which in turn, hastens the entire criminal prosecution process. Since career criminals account for the vast majority of crimes (some of which are occurring while they are awaiting trial) prosecutors will now be in a position to reduce recidivism by forcing speedy trials.

Bromage also notes that a local database will identify criminals engaged in minor offenses before the unfortunate natural progression to committing major crimes. Finally, cold case files will also get another look with the state of the art DNA technology and the help of a local database.

At the end of day, Beaufort County’s cutting edge approach to crime investigation and prevention should help all of us (law abiding citizens) sleep a little better each night.

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