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CSI Whidbey: Making the most of evidence

Last year, Island County deputies used a simple shoe print to solve a burglary at the Greenbank Store.

The burglar left behind a print on a piece of broken glass when he broke into the store to steal cigarettes, beer and doughnuts. A deputy lifted the print and copies of the shoe print were distributed to all the other deputies. Later, a deputy simply compared the print to the bottom of a young man’s shoe, found a match and made an arrest.

“The heel impression, wear pattern, all that stuff is what we look for,” said Commander Mike Beech with the Island County Sheriff’s Office.

The case is an example of the type of basic, low-tech crime scene investigation techniques that police officers often employ to solve crimes on Whidbey Island. They dust for fingerprints, take casts, photograph scenes, sketch the scene for later reconstructions, and get on their hands and knees to collect tiny pieces of evidence.

While local cops say there is some reality to the popular CSI television shows, real crime scene investigations are a lot about simple common sense.

When a man cut himself stealing a chain saw from a South Whidbey business, leaving large pools of blood, the deputies looked among the usual suspects for the guy with a cut. And they found him.

“Most of the crimes we do are black and white,” Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley said. “Either we have nothing or all the evidence we need.”

The sheriff’s office “crime lab” is simply part of the evidence room. The most noticeable piece of equipment is the fume box, a box with glass sides used to capture latent fingerprints using the famous Super Glue method. An item with a fingerprint is placed inside the box with a small amount of the glue. It’s then heated with a light bulb and latent fingerprints become detectable.

Gadgets available

This simplicity does not mean local detectives don’t have access to the types of high-tech equipment investigators on the CSI TV shows have. Hawley said his office can call in the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab for help when there’s a serious crime.

“They actually have all the CSI equipment,” Hawley said. “They really help small jurisdictions like ours. We can’t afford that kind of equipment or the training to go with it.”

But all the high-tech gadgets in the world doesn’t guarantee cases will be solved, especially not in an hour with breaks for commercials. Last December, someone shot Russell Douglas on South Whidbey while he was sitting in his Geo Tracker on Wahl Road. The deputies brought the car to the basement of the Law and Justice Center in Coupeville, where investigators from the State Crime Lab spent hours going through the vehicle, looking for latent prints, DNA, any clues to help solve the murder. They found none and the case remains unsolved.

The office does have one very state-of-the-art piece of equipment that can some day help solve crimes through evidence gathered at the scene. The new Automatic Fingerprint Identification System is a futuristic-looking machine that replaced the old ink-pad fingerprint system in the county jail, which is run by the Sheriff’s Office. Suspects who are brought in to be booked have their fingerprints scanned into a computer — without ink — and then is transmitted to state and national databases.

The system can also used for sex offender registration, gun permits and even amnesia victims.

Once a person’s fingerprints are in the databases, they can be retrieved by investigators for comparison with latent prints from a crime scene. But an investigator would have to know the name of a suspect.

According to county Corrections Deputy Mark Moffitt, the office can get a “patch” that will allow investigators to scan a partial latent from a crime scene into the computer. The system would automatically compare the fingerprints to all those in the databases and alert to any possible matches. The possible match could be printed out for more accurate comparison and matching by a trained technician.

In Oak Harbor Police Department, Identification Technician Renee Mueller is responsible for crime scene investigations. A 29-year veteran, she’s a recognized fingerprint expert in Island County Superior Court and has attended training all over the state and country, including the FBI’s Administrative Advanced Latent Fingerprint School at Quantico, Va.

Woman’s murder reconstructed

While Mueller has gathered innumerable latent prints, one of her most important cases was the Aug. 4, 2001 murder of a Navy woman named Faith Ellison. Ellison’s boyfriend, Jerry Lee Farrow, shot her in the head in her Oak Harbor home. He claimed that she was accidentally shot while they were playing with the gun.

Mueller said she worked with experts from the State Crime Lab to reconstruct the crime using blood spatter and other evidence. Mueller was able to cast doubt on Farrow’s story by showing the position of the body and how the gun was held when Ellison was shot.

Another one of Mueller’s many duties is to maintain the security and organization of the evidence room, which is a big job. In 2003, about 1,650 items of evidence were recovered. Because of the sheer volume, finding space for the items is a challenge for both the Oak Harbor police and sheriff’s office.

Beech said that’s it’s crucial to collect as much evidence as possible at the scene of a crime, especially a serious one. Since it’s difficult to tell what might turn out to be important evidence, that means collecting a lot of stuff — and taking a lot of photos — just in case. He said he collected “everything in the ditches” at a Camano Island park after the body of Tamara Mattson was dumped there last December.

“Once you leave you can’t go back,” he said, “because the chain of custody is broken.”

That kind of evidence will probably be kept until after the case is solved, and until after appeals run out — which could be a long, long time. After all, the murder may be investigated as a cold case someday.

DNA creates great advance

Yet law enforcement officials agree that the biggest advance that’s been made in crime scene investigation is in the analysis of DNA evidence. Sheriff Hawley said there’s been remarkable advances that make it available and useful to smaller jurisdictions such as Island County. Just 10 years ago, DNA analysis by the State Crime Lab cost $5,000, took a few months to complete and required a large enough sample.

“Now it’s so commonplace,” he said, “a 24-hour turn-around is possible, it’s free, it’s more accurate and you just need one cell.”

Mueller said DNA evidence solved a cold attempted rape case in Oak Harbor last year. A man broke into a woman’s house in 2001 and sexually assaulted her. Detectives had no suspects in the case, but recovered a semen sample that went into the DNA database, the Combined DNA Identification System or CoDIS. When Oak Harbor resident Kenny Mikell was sent to prison for a robbery, the state entered his DNA profile into a database — as with all convicted felons — and a match was made.

Detectives may never have solved the case, she said, without that match.

Because of DNA analysis and other high-tech tools, Hawley said it will be much easier to stop serial killers and rapists in the future. It would be virtually impossible for a killer, for example, not to leave some speck of DNA behind when he commits a crime over and over again.

“The era of Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer are over,” he said.

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