The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives opened new crime and research laboratories yesterday at a center that will be used to trace guns used in crimes, re-create suspicious fires and track the origin of bombs.
The $106 million, 176,000-square-foot center in Ammendale in Prince George’s County replaces the ATF’s cramped and aging Rockville lab, which was used in investigations including the Washington-area sniper shootings and the Oklahoma City bombing.
ATF Director Bradley Buckles acknowledged that the National Laboratory Center, conceived of roughly eight years ago, took a long time to complete. But it was worth the wait, he said, because the labs will significantly increase the scientific capabilities of the bureau.
“This is not merely a building,” Mr. Buckles said. “It is, in a sense, a scientific instrument itself.”
The lab is also likely to be a boost for the ATF, which is still trying to burnish its image from the disastrous 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. ATF leaders were accused of bungling the operation.
However, the ATF has since played a key investigative role in many high-profile cases, including the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996 and the sniper investigation in the fall.
In the latter case, the ATF’s Rockville lab was able to link shootings to the sniper suspects by testing .223-caliber bullets and shell casings taken from crime scenes. Those ballistics results proved critical in matching the shootings to a Bushmaster rifle found in the car of suspects John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.
Examiners in the forensic lab will study ballistics and explosives taken from crime scenes, and test guns at several ranges in the new building.
Ballistics results will be incorporated into the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network, a computer system that allows investigators to link firing marks left on a bullet by a gun to a particular weapon.
The facility also includes a fire-research laboratory, with what the ATF says is the world’s first center dedicated to fire crime-scene investigations.
The lab has several huge garages the agency will use to re-create suspected cases of arson. The results would be used in criminal cases as forensic evidence.
One bay has a 60-by-60-foot hood in its ceiling to draw flames away from fires set by engineers. The indoor facility, made of nonflammable concrete and steel, has sensors to measure the energy the flames give off. It is big enough to handle the burning of a car or small building.
“We can build a two-story town house condominium here and burn it down,” said ATF fire-research engineer Scott Dillon.
The project hit several roadblocks that delayed its completion, said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, including problems with funding and finding a community willing to take the labs. The ATF planned to build in College Park, but neighbors at the proposed site protested after the Oklahoma City bombings, fearing that the lab would be a target for terrorists.