Alaska Scientific Detection Laboratory
Crime lab extraordinaire
For nearly 17 years, Bonnie Craig was a statistic. The 18-year-old University of Alaska Anchorage student was found dead Sept. 28, 1994, facedown in McHugh Creek south of Anchorage. Her rape and murder quickly became front-page news, and nearly as quickly, the case went cold. Investigators painstakingly interviewed dozens of people with hopes of catching a break. When that didn’t work, they turned to an emerging crime investigation tool called DNA profiling.
As the years passed, a few leads would pop up, but nothing substantial.
“When that crime occurred, we eliminated something like 75 people through (DNA) profiling,” says Orin Dym, forensic laboratory manager for the Alaska Scientific Laboratory in Anchorage. “If they had anything on a suspect, they were run.”
In fact, one of those DNA samples taken in 1998 provided a potential hit, but that person was ruled out as a suspect. In 2000, the state lab put Craig’s DNA into the national database. It wasn’t until 2006, though, that investigators would catch a genetic break. That’s when a DNA profile from Kenneth Dion was put into the national database by New Hampshire officials after he was convicted for committing a string of armed robberies there.
The criminal justice system finally found closure for Craig and her family June 15, 2011, when Dion was convicted for killing and raping the young woman.
That day would not have come without DNA evidence and breakthroughs in criminal investigation techniques at the disposal of forensic scientists, Dym says. In Alaska, all that work goes through his lab.
That facility, the new Alaska Scientific Detection Laboratory at 4805 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. in Anchorage, is a spacious 84,000-square-foot, three-story building built by Neeser Construction Inc. that houses a staff of 44, and cost $87.5 million to build.
“That includes design, site prep work, every chair, every light bulb, telephones on the desks, computers,” Dym says, pointing out the construction and furnishing came in about $5 million under the facility’s original $92 million budget.
Now settling into the lab—the official move happened in June—it’s becoming clear that the real benefit of the complex is being realized in more efficiencies in the science of processing evidence.
Dym calls this the “decompression effect,” where the lab now has more than four times the space of its previous location, a 19,200-square-foot building at 5500 Tudor Rd. in Anchorage.
“This last month is a great example,” he said during a September tour of the building. “We developed a bit of a controlled substance backlog. Typical monthly output for my controlled substances unit is around 100 cases. This last month when we were up and running, they knocked out 170 cases. That’s where decompression really makes a difference.”
In the DNA lab, for example, the old building had limited space and could only have two technicians working on specific tests at a time, Dym says. That meant he could never have all his people working on DNA sampling at the same time.
“Now we can,” he says. “I can walk into the DNA lab and my analysts can all be working their cases without having to take turns on equipment. I have the capacity for everybody to be working and doing their jobs without having to stage when everybody’s going to be working and where.”
In addition to DNA, the facility includes spacious laboratories for latent print analysis, blood alcohol analysis, controlled substances analysis and the state’s breath alcohol program monitoring. There’s also a full firing range and high-tech tool shop for firearms and toll mark analysis.
The entire third floor is dedicated to the building’s mechanical plant, which is where a large piece of the state appropriation was spent, Dym says. That’s because heating and ventilating a criminal laboratory has to be done a specific way. While it’s OK to recirculate air in an office or administrative space, a crime lab has to have fresh air cycled through constantly.
“Laboratory air is 100 percent exchanged,” he says. “It’s 100 percent in and out, and we do that up to 12 times an hour.”
Even that process is aided through technology. Each lab has active air monitor modules in its exhaust stacks that can tell the building if more or less clean air is needed.
“There are periods through the day where activity is lower than others, so how do you save money there?” Dym says. “You provide some intelligence in using the air in the laboratories. We’ll monitor this over the next five years, because the question then becomes are we saving enough energy to make back the money of the cost of the system.”
That’s also the idea behind other features throughout the building, like motion sensors that will turn on lights in areas that are being used and turn them off if no activity is detected after a short while. Because of this and other energy-efficient building techniques available today that weren’t when the old lab was built in the mid-1980s, the new lab can operate for only a little bit more than the previous one, Dym says.
Of his $6.5 million annual budget, the only operational increases are for one more maintenance person and about another $250,000 for utilities. While that’s about 2.5 times more than utilities cost at the old lab, the new lab serves more than four times the space.
“On one side, we did increase the operating budget from the state, and I recognize that,” Dym says. “I look at that and say a lot went into making sure that as energy costs continue to escalate over the next 20 years, we have the most to extract the most.”
The crime lab project was a construction manager/general contractor model in which Neeser participated in the design process with Livingston Slone architects and McLaren, Wilson and Lawrie Inc. forensic design specialists.
Photos © Ken Graham Photography.com
New Firing Range
Nobody has a longer history with the state crime lab than Bob Shem, a 26-year veteran firearms and tool marking specialist.
“I was one of the original hires when they built the first lab,” he says, admitting he had mixed emotions leaving for the new digs. “It was like burying a loved one and I didn’t like the idea of leaving. But once I got here, it didn’t take long to mourn the loss. This place is pretty sweet.”
Now, he has separate areas for firearms and tool marking analysis. The firing range is insulated and has a safe backdrop of about 36 inches of rubber behind it in case of stray bullets.
“That’s a lot better than stacking a bunch of telephone books back there like we used to,” Dym says.
While the scientists at the lab aren’t concerned with proving anyone’s guilt or innocence, the work itself can provide some exciting and satisfying moments, Shem says.
One memorable case he worked on led to the 1990 second-degree murder convictions of Raymon Cheely and Doug Gustafson. They were the driver and front seat passenger in a car from which a gun was fired at another motorist at the Muldoon exit on the Glenn Highway. The bullet killed a passenger in the car.
Although a weapon was never found, Shem helped put together the science that showed how and where the suspects’ car had to have been and from what angle the shot had to have come to hit the victim.
“The suspects were a bunch of bad actors,” he says. “They broke into Alaska Railroad places and stole sticks of dynamite. They ordered some assault rifles from a small gun dealer. They went up to Eklutna and shot up some abandoned cars there, and on the way back they got cut off in traffic. So, they sped up to chase the vehicle and the guy cracked a shot off and killed the passenger.”
They didn’t know someone had been hit and killed until the news broke the next day, Shem says. The case was helped by a third man in the suspects’ vehicle who testified against Cheely and Gustafson.
“He tried to throw his buddies a bone,” Shem says. He tried to claim that the gun went off accidentally and that they were about 200 yards from the other car.
“I did the firearms stuff for that case,” he says. “They had a cartridge case found at the scene and I worked on the trajectory with the car. Well, when we did the trajectory on the vehicle, we found it was only about seven yards away.”
Many may recognize Cheely and Gustafson from a connected case. After they were convicted for the shooting, they conspired with Gustafson’s pregnant sister to construct a mail bomb that killed the witness’ father and severely injured his stepmother.
Determining guilt or innocence isn’t a consideration at the crime lab, Dym says.
“The crime laboratory has a unique position in that it’s the one entity in the criminal justice system that actually speaks for the evidence,” he says. “It doesn’t speak for the prosecutors, the defense attorneys. I’m not here to do what you want, I’m here to do what’s needed, and there’s a very big difference between those two things.”
He uses an analogy from the popular board game “Clue” to explain the lab’s place in the criminal justice system.
“We are looking at what’s probative, and it’s really not that different from the game,” he says. “Professor Plumb, with the monkey wrench killed Col. Mustard in the library.”
Alaskan journalist Greg Johnson writes from Wasilla.
By the fall of 2011 the crime lab was fully enclosed, allowing winter work by Neeser and subcontractors, including Udelhoven Oilfield Systems Services, General Mechanical Inc., Megawatt Electric LLC, Siemens Building Technologies and Saxton-Bradley Inc.
© Ken Graham Photography.com