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10 years, thousands of cases: Columbus Crime Lab handles evidence for investigations throughout Golden Triangle

 

Drug analysts Hunter Mooney, trainee, and Claudette Gilman extract liquid from a vape pen to determine whether it contains controlled cannabinoid substances at the Columbus Forensic Lab Thursday. The crime lab opened 10 years ago this fall and has run thousands of drug, fingerprint and cell phone data analyses and was even the first lab in Mississippi to identify Spice in 2013.

Drug analysts Hunter Mooney, trainee, and Claudette Gilman extract liquid from a vape pen to determine whether it contains controlled cannabinoid substances at the Columbus Forensic Lab Thursday. The crime lab opened 10 years ago this fall and has run thousands of drug, fingerprint and cell phone data analyses and was even the first lab in Mississippi to identify Spice in 2013. Photo by: Isabelle Altman/Dispatch Staff

 

Crime lab director Austin Shepherd and lab trainee Shanna Cunningham examine a mock piece of evidence for fingerprints in the Columbus Forensic Lab Thursday afternoon.

Crime lab director Austin Shepherd and lab trainee Shanna Cunningham examine a mock piece of evidence for fingerprints in the Columbus Forensic Lab Thursday afternoon.
Photo by: Isabelle Altman/Dispatch Staff

 

 

 

Isabelle Altman

 

 

Austin Shepherd had been with the Columbus Police Department as a crime scene investigator not quite four years in 2007 when he and a police investigator went to then Chief Joseph St. John and pitched the idea of starting a local crime lab. 

 

With the chief's blessing, Shepherd moved into an office near the municipal complex.  

 

"We remodeled everything with the help of the fire department," Shepherd said. "We did everything ourselves and literally built it from the ground up." 

 

The Columbus Police Department Forensic Lab officially opened its doors on Aug. 14, 2008. At the time, Shepherd was the only lab technician the city employed. He had a fingerprint database and a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GCMS, which analyzes drugs) that was at least 30 years old. 

 

"That was about it," Shepherd said. "We didn't have a lot to go on. It was a wing and a prayer type thing. 

 

"We had good policy, we had good procedures and methods and standards," he added. "We just didn't have much equipment." 

 

Ten years later, the lab has quadrupled its staff, expanded the types of analyses it can run and has assisted more than 60 law enforcement agencies in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee. 

 

"It's been 10 years but it feels like it's been maybe 10 days," Shepherd said. 

 

 

 

Benefits of a local lab 

 

Over the past decade, the lab has run more than 60,000 tests in the fields of drug analysis, fingerprint analysis, cell phone extraction, limited video enhancement and crime scene investigation, on more than 42,000 pieces of evidence.  

 

The lab regularly works with 15 surrounding agencies and accompanies CPD investigators to nearly every major crime scene. 

 

While the lab doesn't work on major cases like homicide or sexual assault, Shepherd said his staff can spend more time on individual crime scenes and take some of the weight off the state forensics lab in Pearl (where it can take months, even years to get results back) by handling the analyses on more common crimes. 

 

"You're able to get those through and out much faster," Shepherd said. "That's really important for people who are sitting in jail waiting to go to court and for victims who are waiting for resolution of a case. You don't want to have to wait a long time for results to come back. So we're able to catch some of these ... more common crimes that happen."  

 

The Columbus lab was also the first in Mississippi to identify Spice, or synthetic cannabinoids, in 2013 -- a milestone Shepherd credits to "the power of a local lab." 

 

"At the state level, you're just inundated with cases," he said. "So something has to be on that controlled substance list and at the time, synthetic cannabis and Spice wasn't on the controlled substance list. ... No one knew what it was." 

 

Claudette Gilman, the drug analyst at the lab, said Spice looked like potpourri that had been dosed with different chemicals. Researching to find out what exactly the substance was took several months of getting access to different databases and digging through data and literature on new drugs 

 

"Those were new to us here in Columbus," she said. "That took a lot of research here to do." 

 

While the identification didn't result in an arrest because the substance wasn't illegal at the time, they were able to inform law enforcement about what kind of drugs were in the area, Shepherd said. Spice is now a controlled substance in Mississippi. 

 

 

 

Crime scene investigation 

 

At crime scenes, the first thing Shepherd and his team do is walk through the scene, taking photos, marking evidence and getting a feel for what happened. Once they've been through the basic steps, they look more closely and find trace evidence like hair fibers -- all while talking to investigators and ignoring any bystanders or media at the scene. 

 

"You've got to be able to push the stress," said trainee Hunter Mooney, who has been with the lab since April and said his favorite part of the job is responding to crime scenes. "You've just go to stay focused and concentrate on the job at hand." 

 

Then the lab work begins -- finding fingerprints and running them against those of suspects or victims, extracting data from cell phones and sending DNA evidence to the state lab. 

 

It's trainee Shanna Cunningham's favorite part of the job. Cunningham, also hired this year as part of a staff expansion, specializes in fingerprint analysis, and she loves whenever she's able to match a print to a suspect -- though it's "a little bit of a letdown" when it matches the victim instead. 

 

"But just knowing that what I'm doing makes a difference and brings justice to people who choose to not abide by the law (is my favorite part of the job)," she said.  

 

While Shepherd has been through the police academy and his staff have either completed or are attending reserve police training, they aren't police investigators, said Shepherd, who thinks the popularity of criminal procedural television shows like "CSI Las Vegas" and "NCIS" have given most people the wrong idea about what they do. 

 

"We are scientists," he said. "Everyone here has a four-year degree or a master's degree. A lot of us have worked in labs before, have a lot of college experience. ... On 'CSI Las Vegas' or 'NCIS,' they're doing fingerprint comparisons, enhancing video, and then they go kick in a door and arrest someone and interview them. That isn't reality at all -- and it shouldn't be reality because that causes lots of bias. It's hard to do science when you're actually working a case and really biased on it." 

 

But those shows do a good thing too, Shepherd said. They, along with the increased popularity in true crime, have caused the general public to become more interested in forensic science, which leads to more funding, more research and more technology. 

 

"Cell phone forensics has come a long way," Shepherd said. "... We went from these clunky handheld machines that you had to hook up to computers and stuff like that. Now it's all basically this iPad-looking thing, streamlined, super fast. It's really kind of cool. And the data you can get out of it now -- plotting GPS locations, cell tower information, recovering deleted data. It's things we never really thought would be so easily accessible.  

 

"The same goes for fingerprint and drug analysis as well," he added. "Drug analysis uses a lot of the same instrumentation that it's always used, but the methods and procedures have been refined to where they're very sensitive. They can detect all kinds of new stuff." 

 

 

 

Room for growth 

 

Shepherd said though the lab has been running for 10 years, it still has room to grow. He'd love to be able to afford more technology, expand to more offices and implement a pay scale for incoming personnel so they're motivated to stay in Columbus. 

 

"You can't hire someone in and not give them some type of career scale and something to work towards and work up, especially with the amount of education they have, the amount of training they go through," he said. "I think we're probably the most technical department in the entire city as far as what goes into our training from a laboratory setting." 

 

The hiring of Mooney and Cunningham is one area in which he's glad to see growth. Shepherd said he worked with the city council and CPD for several years trying to get the funding so the lab could hire more people. 

 

"We're not just building a lab from the ground up, we're building an entire department from the ground up," he added. "That takes time. But we're growing. We're definitely not going backwards."

 

 

 

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