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CSI: UNO/Forensic Services Unit

March 6, 2011 1 comment

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

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Here is a pair of stories I did for the spring 2011 issue of UNO Magazine (http://unoalumni.org/unomag), the official magazine of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, which is my alma mater (class of 1982). The stories fall in line with this particular issue’s focus on UNO alums and faculty working in various aspects of crime, safety, and justice.  In the first piece I look at how a UNO faculty member provided expertise and technology to assist a local crime lab technician with valuable measurements in testing evidence from a crime scene.  In the second piece I profile a UNO alum working as a crime scene technician back East and her finding a real niche for herself in the field, one that’s become glamorized by television portrayals in recent years.

CSI: UNO

He may not have any super powers, but Dana Richter-Egger does have a super spectrometer. And with a call for help from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in 2006, he joined the league of Omaha crime fighters.

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in UNO Magazine (http://unoalumni.org/unomag)

By day, Richter-Egger is more about busting complex math and chemical equations than he is about busting bad guys. He’s an assistant professor of chemistry at UNO and director of its Math-Science Learning Center.

Four years ago, though, Christine Gabig, a forensic scientist in the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, asked for help that only he could provide. Specifically, Gabig needed assistance determining whether glass fragments found at the scene of a crime matched shards found in a suspect’s car.

The crime occurred on Dec. 5, 2005. An Omaha Police Department undercover officer was in an unmarked vehicle on a north-side street when a car pulled up parallel to his. The driver then pointed a shotgun at the officer through an open window. The officer ducked for cover, firing several rounds through his own open driver-side window at the fleeing car.

A suspect in the case emerged when a man sought medical treatment at a hospital for gunshot and glass wounds. DNA linked him to the car with shattered windows but prosecutors needed evidence that definitively put him at the scene as the driver.

Gabig did initial tests on the glass fragments in her lab, but they were inconclusive.

“I knew I needed more detailed analysis,” she says, “and I immediately thought of Dana and ICP-MS.”

The Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer, that is.

A sophisticated trace element analyzer that enables sensitive measurements in many fields, the ICP-MS is housed in Durham’s Advanced Instrumentation Laboratories. It was purchased in 2004 in part with a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

UNO’s general chemistry students use it to measure area lead contamination levels and to perform drinking water analysis. Gabig, a UNL graduate, learned of the ICP-MS while taking a quantitative chemical analysis course at UNO taught by Egger.

The complex machine could help her answer a seemingly simple question — whether the glass fragments came from the same source.

Help in the Haystack

“ICP-MS really provides the best detection limits,” Richter-Egger says. “It’s going to find the smallest needle in the haystack relative to other techniques available. That provides the ability to look at and compare a great many more elements. It’s like being able to identify more points on a finger print to look for the match.”

The more data points tested, the stronger the case.

Gabig’s experience studying under Richter-Egger made her comfortable with the prospect of collaborating with the professor.

“I really respected his knowledge and I thought the (math-chemistry) program was fantastic,” she says. “I learned so much that was directly applicable to what I was doing here at the sheriff’s office. Also, I made contact with these great chemists who can help me.”

Further bolstering her confidence, she says, was the knowledge that ICP-MS results are “fully accepted in the courts.” The methods were based on standard procedures provided by the American Society for Testing Materials.

“That went a long ways to helping me feel good about what we were going to do,” Richter-Egger says. “After all, there’s somebody on the other end of this thing that is going to be in court and we’ve got to be sure we do our diligence and do a good job.

“Whatever the data is I want to make sure it is the highest quality possible so that when that evidence is presented it is accurate and that it helps to lead to the right decision in the courtroom. That weighed pretty heavily on my mind as we were considering this.”

Case Closed

In their research, Gabig and Richter-Egger discovered that manufactured glass in vehicles can be pinpointed to within 100 feet of a production line. That information, says Richter-Egger, meant that “if we could find there’s not any difference between these two glasses then that says a lot about the likelihood they actually came from the same window.”

The glass first was dissolved in acid and added to a controlled solution. The ICP-MS then required precise calibration. The instrument evaporated water in an ultra high vacuum and applied electric fields to separate atoms by mass. The device provided a spreadsheet readout of the elemental differentiation.
Richter-Egger says it’s a process whereby “electronics, engineering and chemistry meet.” After crunching the numbers and consulting UNO statisticians, he and Gabig went back and forth over the data, questioning each other and crosschecking information.

In her report, Gabig concluded that glass fragments from the suspect’s car and the scene “likely came from the same source” based on ICP-MS test results and statistical analysis that showed a high probability of a match.

In the end, the suspect took a deal, pleading to one felony assault count and one terroristic threat charge. Since the case did not go to trial, Gabig did not testify.

The forensic scientist and the professor collaborated on a slide presentation for a UNO chemistry department seminar. Gabig has also used the presentation to educate law enforcement agencies about trace evidence analysis.

Might UNO and CSI work together on another case?

“I could envision this happening again,” Gabig says. “Making use of data analysis at the university is a big benefit.”

Learn more about the Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer, including animations, athttp://water.unomaha.edu

Hot on the Trail of Cold Cases

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in UNO Magazine (http://unoalumni.org/unomag)

Forensic Services Unit

It’s not every girl who grows up dreaming of becoming a “bloodstain pattern specialist.”

And while that might not have been Angela (Harbison) Moore’s girlhood fantasy, it became just that while attending classes at UNO, graduating in 2001 with a degree in chemistry.

Today Moore works as a forensic technician for the Newport News (Va.) Police Department conducting crime scene evidence analysis. It’s a career choice the former Goodrich Scholar says was inspired by work she did with UNO chemistry department faculty.

“We were doing a lot of neat stuff in Dr. Richard Lomneth’s bio chemistry lab that was applicable to forensic science,” Moore says. “It really piqued my interest. It was a turning point.”

Dr. Frederic Laquer also was influential. “He taught me how to be a true chemist, how to document things, and to this day I still think of him every time I do all the little things properly,” Moore says. “It’s a great batch of professors at UNO. They’re very rigorous.”

Moore later began forensic science graduate studies at George Washington University, but with her Air Force husband stationed at Offutt Air Force Base she transferred to Nebraska Wesleyan. While in grad school she worked as a chemist at UNO, preparing solutions for use by students in the Durham Science Center labs.

In 2007 Moore joined the CSI team in Newport News, where she’s a bloodstain pattern specialist. The unpredictability of when crime happens means her schedule is forever fluid.

“You can literally be at a scene and be called to another scene,” she says. It’s a job that demands “intense curiosity and attention to detail” and the ability to multitask.

Her work entails doing bloodstain analysis at crime scenes and in the lab, writing reports, assisting with autopsies, and testifying in court. She works the cold case unit. She also teaches college courses and makes presentations.

“I like to get into a lot of things,” she says. “I always try to challenge myself to be the best I can be in life.” Next year she will attend the National Forensic Science Academy in Tennessee. “I’m pretty excited about that.”

Nothing is more satisfying then when her work helps solve a case. She says her bloodstain pattern analysis led to a man being charged with murder years after the incident. In another instance she extracted DNA evidence that helped convict a serial rapist.

Some cases linger with her.

“Once they go to court there’s resolution and I feel better about them,” she says. “The child ones are really hard to deal with sometimes. But at the same time I feel like we’re helping people out.

“When I’m at a scene with a deceased person I feel it’s the shell of a person left over. Their spirit is someplace else. The body is to be utilized as another piece of evidence that can speak for that person.”

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