Metro-East News

3/13/2005: CSI: Metro-east crime lab technicians are vital to solving complex local cases

Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Belleville News-Democrat on March 13, 2005

Sgt. Jay Zuber doesn’t work with beautiful actresses or solve crimes in an hour in his version of CSI. But sometimes he sees the danger.

“I’ve arrested killers who return to the crime scene when I’ve been alone there processing evidence,” Zuber said. “Every few months it happens. If they were smart, I guess they would stay away. But killers do return to the scene of the crime.”

Although he works as a crime scene technician for the Illinois State Police — a job glamorized by the “CSI” television shows — Zuber maintains his job is based on tedious, methodical processes of collecting and documenting evidence.

“If you can function in that capacity, you can handle doing this job. You want to effectively protect and preserve the evidence at the crime scene,” Zuber said. “It’s different from a street officer who arrives at the scene, questions witnesses and suspects and then goes on.”

Zuber’s job begins when he arrives at the crime scene by questioning the police already there.

“I meet with the officers to get an idea of what happened and where so I know where and how to proceed,” Zuber said.

The crime scene tech will then walk through the area, taking photographs and measurements to use when making diagrams, Zuber said.

After surveying the scene, the tech will prioritize the evidence. If there’s a fingerprint in a very small amount of blood, the tech must decide to either collect the blood for DNA, ruining the fingerprint, or pick up the fingerprint, eliminating the blood for DNA testing.

“You learn from experience and training when to do what to make the most of the evidence left at the scene,” Zuber said.

Crime scene techs collect trace evidence on cotton swabs, chemicals associated with arsons, foot and shoe print evidence, tool markings on bullets and casings, biological material that can yield DNA, and microscopic evidence such as hair and fibers.

Illinois State Police crime technicians collected evidence on March 2 at the triple murder scene of Dorothy Bone, Doris Fischer and Michael Cooney at Cooney’s home-based beauty salon on West Main Street in Belleville. Belleville Police are awaiting lab results, which are expected to be key elements when the case is prosecuted.

Zuber wouldn’t comment on the details of that case.

After collecting and preserving the evidence, Zuber puts it in the hands of scientists who test the evidence at the Illinois State Police Crime Lab in Fairview Heights.

“We pretty much handle all the testing there,” Zuber said. “We can do everything except the microscopy (hair and fiber evidence) and that goes to Springfield.”

It’s a busy lab.

Twenty-two scientists process evidence collected by six crime scene technicians who cover the seven counties around the metro-east.

All the crime scene technicians are also sworn Illinois State Police troopers, but they are different than patrol officers and investigators. The crime scene techs drive white, unadorned minivans instead of the Ford Mustangs, Crown Victorias, Chevrolet Camaros or Caprice Classics their counterparts drive.

The crime scene techs are more interested in science and observations than high-speed chases and getting a suspect to crack during an interrogation.

Zuber maintains the patrol officers and investigators don’t regard them as geeks or nerds, but as colleagues who provide vital information that juries are coming to expect from police and prosecutors in criminal cases.

In a television world where science instantly matches blood to a murder suspect’s DNA or zips through a fingerprint database to find a burglar, jurors expect scientific evidence to link a suspect to a crime.

“Prosecutors have told us they are seeing a ‘CSI’ effect in the courtroom,” Zuber said. “It doesn’t really change our function in the field, but when we get into the courtroom we need to re-educate jurors to the reality of what can be done with the science we have right now.”

More gratifying than getting a conviction, Zuber said he can use the evidence to prove someone is innocent.

“That, to me, is one of the really great things we can do,” Zuber said. “We can protect the innocent with the science and get the guilty behind bars.”