Crime lab still growing as it marks first year

November 30, 1997

Crime lab still growing as it marks first year


Staff Writer

On the wall of James T. Lehr's office, a blue banner says it all: "The Lab That Crack Built."

Crack, a form of cocaine, built the Western Regional Drug Laboratory in two ways. First, the facility, which recently passed its first year in existence, was made necessary by the rapidly increasing number of drug cases. In its first year, the two chemists at the lab analyzed 1,467 cases.

But crack also built the lab in a more literal way. The $293,000 facility was financed entirely through assets seized in drug raids, meaning no taxpayer money was used.


The lab, which is tucked away in the basement of the Maryland State Police Hagerstown barrack off Interstate 70, now has less than a month's backlog, said Lehr, the lab's supervisor.

It has proved so successful that the state recently added cases from Carroll County, he said. Now the lab analyzes drugs from Allegany, Garrett, Frederick and Washington counties, except Hagerstown.

For police agencies throughout Western Maryland, the lab has worked as advertised, said Capt. Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman. He said it has worked just like the state's other regional lab, in Berlin, Md., which opened earlier in the decade to analyze drugs on the Eastern Shore.

Shipley said police officials in Western Maryland used to spend a great deal of time and energy ferrying drugs back and forth to the main lab in Pikesville, Md.

"They're very pleased with the Western Maryland crime lab. We believe that at this point, it has had the impact it was intended to have," he said.

Shipley said the facility has also cut down on travel time for the chemists, who previously had to drive to the far reaches of the state to testify in court. A shorter drive from Hagerstown means they can spend more time in the lab, he said.

"It's much more efficient all the way around," he said.

Inside the lab, the operation churns out test results the way a Detroit assembly line turns out automobiles.

Each week, a representative of the Frederick Police Department or some other agency drops off a stack of envelopes containing suspected drugs and picks up a stack of completed cases.

Lehr said most of the cases are cocaine or marijuana, and it usually does not take long to confirm them. The lab has high-tech equipment to help the chemists nail down the identity of drugs.

For pure substances, he said, he often turns to an infrared spectrometer, which scans a small piece of the drug and then graphs a spectrum on a computer screen. The computer then searches a vast library and matches it with one of drugs in its database.

Another useful tool is a mouthful called a gas chromatograph/mass selective detector. It works by breaking the molecule apart, weighing the pieces and then charting a bar graph. Lehr said it is good to use for drugs that contain a number of different elements.

The machine also can do much of the work on its own, Lehr said. The chemists can load up a number of test tubes in the morning and then let the machine move from sample to sample.

"It's the workhorse of the lab," said forensic chemist Barry Shearer.

Most of the time, Lehr said, the work is routine.

But not always.

For instance, he said, lab tests were negative in 66 of October's 433 cases. Usually fakes are soap shavings or something else sold as crack. But sometimes police send in an item that simply does not turn out to be what they thought it was, Lehr said.

In one case, The Frederick Police Department requested a "rush" analysis of what investigators thought was highly purified methamphetamine. Lab tests confirmed what it really was: table sugar.

Some cases that do not fit the common mold prove baffling, Lehr said. He pointed to a recent case in which a drink made a person sick. After analyzing it, he said, the lab determined that rubbing alcohol had been added to the juice drink.

In such cases, Lehr said, chemists cannot simply rely on the answers the machine spits out.

"It's not a cookbook. A lot of times, you have to do experimentation," he said.

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