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Former ambulance houses sheriff's crime-solving gear

September 09, 2004|BY CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Although "C.S.I." may not realistically depict how police work is done, fans of the show certainly would feel right at home in the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department's new crime scene unit vehicle.

Inside the former ambulance is equipment used to extract footprints from just about any surface, including snow. There are colored strings used to determine bullet trajectories, gunshot residue kits, ultraviolet lights to look for fingerprints, cameras, evidence bags and even booties to prevent investigators from contaminating a crime scene.

One box contained an assortment of power tools.

"Sometimes we have to take a wall if there's a bullet in it or something," Lt. K.C. Bohrer said.

Minus time and the newest equipment, just about everything an investigator would need can be found in the vehicle.

"Pretty much the only thing we need is manpower," said Sgt. Russell Shackelford.

On Wednesday afternoon, members of the Sheriff's Department's Criminal Investigations Division showed off the vehicle, which has been in service for a few weeks.

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It has been used at several crime scenes.

The vehicle is just one of the items investigators use to solve crimes. Members of the Criminal Investigations Division are Shackelford, Bohrer, Cpl. Willie Johnson, Cpl. Brendan Hall and an officer who works primarily undercover.

In the sheriff's department is "Hall's room," which is home to a 10-gallon fish tank. Replacing fish are super glue, a small platform and a tiny cup of warm water. Together, those items can be used to reveal hidden fingerprints on objects.

Next door is the audio-visual room. Suspects are interviewed there, and the interviews are recorded and later can be played in court. Most of the 31 armed robberies committed in the county in 2003 were prosecuted, in part because of interviews, Bohrer said.

Electronic devices stacked up on a table are used to extract still images from surveillance video tapes. Those images are distributed to the media, which often results in people calling with tips, Bohrer said.

Another new addition to the crime fighters' repertoire is a computer program called "Faces."

With the program, composite sketches are compiled on a computer, rather than by hand. Countless options are available, including different facial features, jewelry, tattoos, glasses, hair and more.

"It's limitless how far you can go," Hall said.

The equipment has not always been in place. When Sheriff Randy Smith took office nearly four years ago, he made a concerted effort to ensure his deputies had the newest technology available.

"Anything you're going to see today wasn't here four years ago," Bohrer said before embarking on a tour.

Before buying the new items, crime was fought using carbon paper and cameras and fingerprint kits that officers begged, borrowed or procured through other means, Bohrer said.

The department's first crime-scene kit was put together in a tackle box and consisted of items donated from doctors' offices, Smith said.

Today, Bohrer said the department is proud to be one of the best-equipped departments of its size in the region.

Most of the equipment was paid for using cash or sellable goods seized during drug busts, meaning the cost to taxpayers has been minimal, the officers said.

The 1995 ambulance was offered for free to the sheriff by the county's Ambulance Authority, which replaced it with a newer model.

Bohrer estimated that $60,000 worth of goods, including cars, and cash has been seized since Smith took office.

"Crime's kind of paying for itself in a way," Bohrer said.

Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely said more evidence-collection equipment can only help solve cases.

"The critical thing is they have to cooperate with one another," she said of the various police departments in the area.

Because deputies are cross-deputized, they can go into other counties to work. Some new officers with other departments, however, may not realize the sheriff's department has the resources it has, Games-Neely said.

Although the equipment is an asset, Games-Neely said that comparing it to television shows and assuming it will help solve all crimes can cause a misperception among the public.

There's even a term for it.

"It's called a 'C.S.I.' effect," Games-Neely said.

During some jury trials, potential jurors have been asked if they think police work is conducted as it appears on television shows like "C.S.I."

On TV shows, a lab technician can process a DNA sample and have a result in seconds.

In the real world, under ideal conditions, such a test takes a week or two, Games-Neely said.

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