Real-life CSI

New crime lab makes it easier to analyze evidence

Lori Keller, Robert Fields, Jeremy Chappell and Melanie Bartch (front)

The victim was stabbed 200 times before he collapsed atop a rotating fan which flung a spatter of red across the walls. The floor must have been equally stained, but the carpet absorbed the attacker’s bloody footprints. When the Crime Scene Investigation team sprayed the area with leuco-crystal violet, however, the chemical compound reacted with trace amounts of hemoglobin to reveal a curious trail of purple footprints—in the shape of a triangle.

A few days later, the suspect was arrested. He had one leg; the other was strapped to an artificial limb with a three-sided rubber bottom.

In another case, investigators used thin steel trajectory rods to reconstruct a shooting near The Paseo. The path pointed to a surprising location where they found evidence of a third gunman that no one had expected.

It’s an exciting job, say the Kansas City Police Department’s four CSI supervisors: Jeremy Chappell, Melanie Bartch, Robert Fields and Lori Keller.

But it’s not all smoking guns, dark-edged action and gritty glamour. There’s paperwork (a lot of it), search warrant waits and meticulous crime scene examinations that may last six or seven hours. The grit, though—that’s real.

“It’s not uncommon for me to crawl into a dumpster looking for evidence,” says Chappell, while others mention mud, heat, cold, maggots and bugs. There’s the emotional toll as well.

“We see the worst that people can do to each other,” says Bartch. “While nobody deserves to be murdered, it’s the cases involving the truly innocent that tug at your heartstrings a little more.”

No day is typical, but there is a basic structure. The supervisors team up in pairs to work day and night shifts managing a group of 14 technicians. In addition to KCMO crimes, they process homicides throughout the region from Warrensburg to Edgerton and Maryville to Platte City. They’re happy to be settled in the Police Department’s new crime lab on the Leon Mercer Jordan campus at 2640 Prospect Ave.

Nearly the length of a football field, the $19 million lab replaces a smaller, outdated facility. Now investigators can unload evidence in a secure area and work in separate chambers to make sure evidence remains uncontaminated.

Here’s more:

Police Chief Darryl Forte blogs at kcpdchief.blogspot.com

View crime reports by address at crimereports.com or go to kcmo.gov and enter “crime mapping” in the search box.

Features include an indoor firing range and water tank for testing guns, a firearms “library” that will hold more than 3,000 recovered guns and parts, and a room (Faraday cage) that blocks electric fields to shield confiscated cell phones so they can’t be wiped clean from a remote location. A scanning electron microscope is available for inspecting trace evidence and a digital evidence room is used to study computers and videos from cameras at convenience stores, parking garages, ATM machines, etc.

About 76 employees, including the CSI unit, work in the lab. Together, they handle 4,500 cases and 35,000 to 45,000 examinations each year. The new facility provides more high tech capabilities, but keeping up to date is a moving target. “Analyzing DNA is one of the most challenging things,” says Linda Netzel, lab director. “It’s changing lightning fast.”

The CSI team uses sophisticated DNA techniques, but also tried-and-true tools such as brushing for fingerprints with graphite powder (a tactic familiar to Sherlock Holmes) and thoroughly photographing the crime area. “The difficult aspect of the job is figuring out what to analyze and which methods to use,” Chappell says.

Making sure all employees use the same standards and procedures is another big component, says Keller, who manages quality assurance. Fields elaborates, “We not only have to follow detailed procedures, but we have to document that we’re following the procedures. Then we label and package evidence which may be stored several years before the case is tried in court. That part of the job doesn’t make for good entertainment.”

Still, the popular forensic TV shows have been a boon for the field. “It’s extremely competitive now,” Chappell says. “There’s never a shortage of qualified candidates for an opening.”