Montgomery County Police lab puts crime under a microscope -- Gazette.Net


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With tweezers, Leah King takes a pinch out of a small, leafy bud. She drops it in a vial and adds a few drops of chemicals.

“It’s going to turn a nice, dark purple,” she predicts, giving the vial a couple of swirls.

Sure enough, in just a few seconds, the solution fizzes deep purple, showing that the sample is likely strong, high-quality marijuana.

“If you were looking to smoke, this would be the stuff,” joked King, the technical leader of the Forensic Chemistry Unit in Montgomery County Police’s Crime Laboratory.

The lab processes evidence connected to the thousands of arrests police officers make and the hundreds of cases they investigate every year.

The nationally certified lab takes up a swath of the fifth floor of Montgomery County’s new public safety headquarters, tucked away next to a bucolic lake on Edison Park Drive in Gaithersburg.

The lab — which moved, along with the rest of the department, earlier this year from the department’s old home in Rockville — looks like a cross between a suburban office and a high school lab on steroids.

Five units — Firearms Examinations, Latent Prints, Forensic Biology, Forensic Chemistry, and Crimes Scenes — operate in the lab, which takes up about 20,000 square feet, according to lab director Ray Wickenheiser.

A sixth unit, Electronic Crimes, also falls under the lab’s authority, but operates under Montgomery County Police’s Financial Crimes section, said Jackie Raskin-Burns, the lab’s quality manager.

Thirty scientists work in the lab. An additional eight, all sworn police officers, make up the Electronic Crimes unit.

Security at the lab is tight.

“Each lab is programmed to know who has access to that particular room,” Raskin-Burns said. Only scientists authorized to work in that specific unit can access labs that work with biological evidence, like the Forensic Biology Unit or the Crime Scene Unit.

To prevent contaminating evidence with foreign DNA, the lab’s scientists wear blue scrubs. Their DNA is on file, so it can be ruled out if somehow it becomes mixed with DNA being investigated.

The Forensic Chemistry Unit gets the drugs that police collect. The unit tests the drugs in cases going to court, or at the request of investigators, King said.

Marijuana, cocaine and heroin are the drugs the Forensic Chemistry Unit tests most frequently, King said. The unit’s scientists also identify drugs like ecstasy — sometimes made to look like candy or cartoon images, such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or miniature Bart Simpson heads.

One recent case with candy-shaped drugs had about 20 or 30 pills, King said.

“If my kids saw those, they’d totally think they were SweeTarts,” Raskin-Burns said.

“And they’d be high as a kite,” King said.

In the chemistry lab, there are microscopes, pipettes and racks of beakers at each work station. There also are quirkier knickknacks, like a glass pipe shaped like an elephant, made for smoking marijuana.

It was evidence from a now-closed case, King said. The lab kept it for educational purposes instead of destroying it, she said.

A gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer converts drugs into a gaseous form, then analyzes them at a molecular level, which helps analysts determine exactly what kind of drug it is. The machine, one of the most expensive in the lab, costs around $100,000, Wickenheiser said. The lab receives federal and state grants for much of the equipment, he said.

Breaking the drugs down to a molecular level helps crime lab analysts differentiate cocaine from procaine, a legal anesthetic, or marijuana from a series of synthetic cannabinoids, like “spice” or “K2,” that flooded the market several years ago, before they were outlawed.

“Identifying those was pretty tricky,” she said of the cannabanoids, which mimic the effect of marijuana.

King has been working at the lab for almost seven years, she said.

“I liked chemistry. I liked the idea of law. It seemed like a nice way of mixing the two of them,” she said.

In 2012, the different units in the lab processed a little less than 6,000 cases, Raskin-Burns said — 420 crime scenes, 170 firearms exams, more than 300 cases involving DNA testing, 3,600 drug cases, and 1,400 latent print analyses.

The lab also performs tests for local city police departments, such as the Takoma Park and Rockville city police departments, along with the U.S. Park Police, Metro Transit Police, and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office.

The lab also occasionally runs tests for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Navy’s Criminal Investigations Division, King said.

David Hinebaugh has worked as a latent print examiner for Montgomery County Police for nearly a decade. He analyzes prints taken from crime scenes by Crime Scene Unit investigators. “What I do is try take those prints and match them up with a suspect,” he said.

Hinebaugh said he studied in a forensic identification program at West Virginia University.

The first part of his job is to see if a print is usable, he said. Many that come in are smudged or smeared, recognizable as fingerprints, but too damaged for identification.

If the print is in good enough condition, he said, examiners will enter it into a regional automated fingerprint identification system and look for matches.

That database, which covers Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., supplies a list of people who might match the fingerprint, he said.

From there, examiners compare the two onscreen to see if they match with the fingerprint collected at the crime scene.

Other times, police already will have a suspect in custody and will ask an examiner to match the suspect’s prints against a sample from the crime scene — that takes place offscreen, he said.

Comparing the prints usually takes 15 minutes to half an hour, he said.

Even though Hinebaugh processes 20 to 30 cases a month, some cases stick out, like a sexual assault that took place several years ago. The attacker assaulted his victim at knifepoint, then left the woman in Prince George’s County, he said.

Police recovered a print from her credit cards — but it didn’t look like an intact print.

“At first, I didn’t think it was good enough to enter in the system,” he said. However, he got a match on a man who had fled to New York. Police tracked him down, and he ultimately was convicted, Hinebaugh said.

“It was very satisfying that ... I was able to help arrest the individual and provide some closure for the victim,” he said.



sjbsmith@gazette.net