- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2003

QUANTICO, Va. - The office furniture is standard government issue, but nearly everything else in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s new crime lab is state-of-the-art — or state-of-the-science, as the bureau prefers to call it — including the building itself.

Examining evidence of crimes free of charge for federal, state and local law enforcement agencies is the lab’s main mission, but it also trains outside law enforcement personnel who collect and analyze evidence. Its Disaster Squad has assisted in the identification of more than 4,500 victims of plane crashes and natural disasters as well as terrorist activity since 1940.

Not all the technology employed by FBI scientists on site is revolutionary, but its application in many cases is novel because collecting, preserving and analyzing evidence used in law enforcement work requires some unusual approaches and equipment. Some examples:

• Robots that process blood samples needed for DNA matches, and other robots that can defuse bombs.

• Laptop computers that, when necessary, can be decontaminated in a dishwasher.

m Paint samples from every model and color of car made in the United States since the Model T Ford, as well as a firearms collection with 3,000 handguns and 2,700 shoulder firearms. (The latter includes John Dillinger’s revolver, still in working order.) Such items are useful for comparison purposes in criminal investigations.

A recent hourlong feature about the lab and its activities on the History Channel’s “Modern Marvels” series dubbed the new building “Battlestar Galactica,” and no wonder. Its design alone warrants the moniker: a $130 million facility incorporating 25 divisions that use the latest technology to check forensic material, defined as whatever is left behind at a crime scene. The FBI plans next year to offer on its Web site a virtual tour of the building, which a U.S. Department of Justice brochure describes as “one of the largest and most comprehensive forensic laboratories in the world.”

What the public will see is a 463,000-square-foot steel, glass and brick structure with quarter-mile-long hallways resting on a foundation strong enough to withstand vibrations from test bombs being set off by the Marine Corps on grounds surrounding the facility. One hundred percent fresh air circulates in lab environments for maximum protection around hazardous materials. Separate elevators transport evidence under investigation — more than 600 pieces from outside agencies are delivered daily. Daylight flows into nearly every room throughout the new facility.

Chances are that every major criminal investigation or trial of note has relied on the talents of a staff that numbers about 650, the majority of them scientists, doing a million forensic analyses a year. Dedicated this April after a four-year construction program, the building more than doubles the size of the previous lab that was in the FBI’s behemoth headquarters at 10th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

“The DNA examiners downtown needed roller skates,” jokes Thomas Callaghan, chief of the Codis (Combined DNA Index System software) unit, pointing out the advantage of having offices located next to the science labs.

“We no longer are using [former Director J. Edgar] Hoover’s bomb shelter in the basement,” says Benjamin Garrett, a senior scientist in the Hazardous Materials Response Unit.

Dwight E. Adams is director of the FBI Laboratory, one of 13 divisions in the bureau. Holder of a doctorate in biology, he is a 20-year FBI employee who began as a special agent in Memphis, Tenn., and later became part of a research team that developed the DNA techniques considered today’s biological equivalent of fingerprints. (The lab’s Latent Print Unit has 80 methods to analyze a person’s unique handprint, which then can be checked against some 44 million people’s fingerprints on file.)

DNA analysis was first done by the downtown lab in 1988. Codis software developed in 1990 allows the agency to connect electronically with 175 local, state and national crime labs to exchange and compare DNA profiles. Codis also is used in 18 foreign countries.

The DNA Analysis Unit seeks to develop a genetic profile from evidence at crime scenes based on biological material found in the nuclei of cells inherited from the person’s mother and father. The material can show up in blood and semen or on cigarette butts and other items. A second DNA Analysis Unit seeks information from mitochondrial DNA found in cells inherited only from the mother. The latter is a more advanced system, which involves detailed sampling from items containing lower amounts of DNA and is critical when examining evidence that has been corrupted or tainted in some way.

The nature of the lab division’s work expanded on September 11, 2001, to involve international terrorism as well as domestic crime. With 20 teams in the field and 49 persons in the lab, the Hazardous Materials Response Unit is primed to respond to threats of weapons of mass destruction around the clock but more often deals with ordinary toxic substances. Its workload has doubled since the September 11 attacks, says Steven Patrick, a senior hazardous-materials officer.

“We developed some techniques using classic microbiology that go beyond detecting the presence of anthrax,” says Mr. Garrett, who declines, for security reasons, to go into specifics about what his team has discovered.

With updated equipment, the lab can do some investigative techniques at crime scenes that previously had to be done in the lab, Mr. Patrick says. One of these is the application of inframetrics, which classically used an infrared laser beam to see objects in the dark but now can detect the physical nature of the material being examined as well as measure temperature changes.

The Chemistry Unit, headed by Marc LeBeau, tests the makeup of drugs, poisons and biological fluids, including the powders found in threat letters that potentially could be poisonous. Drugs tested include those commonly used in date-rape cases. The unit’s essential focus is on chemical analysis, but it also can analyze paints, metals, tapes and polymers. The unit’s 150 instruments also include machines that read the nature of various chemical compounds by measuring their atomic weight and detect quantities down to one-billionth of a gram or less.

“Instruments and analysts can take a paint chip found on victims’ clothing at a hit-and-run accident and allow us to determine what kind of car it was,” Mr. LeBeau says.


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