Burden of proof 

Separating fact from fiction at Montana's crime lab

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"That's something that's an ongoing process, for our folks to try and do the DNA matching," McAlpin says. "When we get a hit like that, it's important to what we do here at the lab. It helps resolve cases as part of the larger work of the lab and I think it can provide comfort to the families of victims."

As the crime lab's image has risen, propelled at least in part by television, so have its obligations, while the underlying science advances more slowly, tugged along by new technologies. At the same time, says forensic toxicologist Scott Schlueter, the CSI Effect has also meant that their actual work is better understood in venues where it counts. "Five or 10 years ago, we were seeing the same [kinds of lab] results, but now we're being asked better questions in court and people have a better understanding... They expect to see you there, to see that that testing was done."

The mainstreaming of criminal forensics has generated some less expected side effects as well. Select high schools in Montana are offering classes inspired by "CSI." For McAlpin, that's an outreach opportunity. The crime lab teamed up with the Office of Public Instruction in February 2010 to conduct video-conferencing presentations for rural students, and student tours are now common at the crime lab. "There's no question in my mind that the television phenomenon has raised the level of interest among college kids and high school kids," McAlpin says. "Forensics intrigues them as a career opportunity."

click to enlarge Crime lab director Dave McAlpin regularly finds himself correcting public misperceptions about the work his forensic science team does. “We just look at the evidence and provide the scientific result,” he says. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Crime lab director Dave McAlpin regularly finds himself correcting public misperceptions about the work his forensic science team does. “We just look at the evidence and provide the scientific result,” he says.

Missoula Police Department crime scene technician Barb Fortunate has seen the same thing. Since the advent of "CSI" she's in demand at local high schools, where she draws distinctions between fact and fiction and explains the specialized nature of her work. "I'm not a forensic professional, I'm a crime scene professional," she says. "I always tell people... that when I was hired, DNA wasn't even on the horizon as a crime-fighting tool. Now it is, but as far as I'm concerned it's smoke and mirrors. It's magic. I have no idea what they do with the swabs I send in to them." And, she says, "I don't have to know that stuff."

Still, if Missoula has one character who could have stepped out of "CSI," Fortunate seems like a good bet.

She's a petite, soft-spoken woman with the demeanor of a middle-aged mother. She took the job almost 18 years ago, becoming the city's first civilian crime scene expert. She had no forensic training and no law enforcement background, but she knew her way around a dark room back when crime scene photography hadn't yet gone digital.

Fortunate isn't a scientist and she isn't a cop, though she's taken classes in latent prints and done informal internships at the crime lab over the years. Mostly, she collects things and sends them to the experts. Yet she's the one on scene for every major crime or vehicular wreck in the city, snapping photos and bagging evidence. "I was CSI before 'CSI' was cool," she says.

"They were forward-thinking, because there are a lot of civilians now doing crime scene work. It frees up the officers to do the cop work. This is where, in this department and in many departments, it's way different than 'CSI.' I don't go knock on doors; I don't arrest people; I don't chase people; I don't do interviews. I simply go to the crime scene, process the crime scene, and let the evidence speak to me."

Much of her job actually entails sitting in front of a computer, cataloging databases or filing reports. Even in the field, a seemingly interesting and TV-worthy discovery can end on an anti-climactic note. Take the call she received two weeks ago:

click to enlarge Missoula’s closest parallel to “CSI” is Barb Fortunate, the Missoula Police Department’s civilian crime scene technician. She isn’t a scientist, and she doesn’t carry a gun. But that hasn’t stopped her from contributing to high-profile criminal cases like the Forrest Clayton Salcido murder in 2007. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Missoula’s closest parallel to “CSI” is Barb Fortunate, the Missoula Police Department’s civilian crime scene technician. She isn’t a scientist, and she doesn’t carry a gun. But that hasn’t stopped her from contributing to high-profile criminal cases like the Forrest Clayton Salcido murder in 2007.

"A woman was starting a new garden and found some bones. I have a degree in anthropology, though not forensic anthropology, so we were trying to get a hold of somebody to go look at the bones and determine if they're human or not. If they're human then we've got to treat it like a crime scene."

Deputy Medical Examiner Willy Kemp eventually arrived and, despite Fortunate's devotion of much of her day to the potential crime scene, he determined the bones weren't human. Fortunate says they'll now be sent to UM for further identification by forensic anthropology students.

Still, there have been a number of dramatic points in Fortunate's career. In December 2007, she worked a crime scene at the California Street footbridge where Forrest Clayton Salcido, a homeless veteran from Missoula, had been brutally murdered in a seemingly random act of violence.

Two young men were later arrested and linked to the case. One, Anthony St. Dennis, was sentenced to 100 years in prison.

For Fortunate, just being involved there felt like a true "CSI" moment. The scene took hours to process, she says. The scattered evidence she collected—shoeprint impressions, blood trail information—contributed greatly to the case. Most important were the photos she took. From there, detectives managed to piece together a jumbled story, one Fortunate feels had as complete an ending as possible.

"It started out being a whodunit, and through really good crime scene work, really good detective work, came to a good conclusion," she says. "Not for Forrest—but he was taken care of in the long run."

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