Last week, my friend Rose and I battled rush hour traffic to arrive at the Sheriff’s Crime Lab in Minneapolis on time. While I’m pumped to visit the crime lab, I have to admit I gave up on the television show CSI years ago after Director Gil Grissom fell in love (or lust or whatever) with a dominatrix named Lady Heather (what the ???).
With 30 minutes to kill, Rose and I hit Hubert’s Bar for a quick drink. It’s karaoke night and we’re treated to one-hit wonders from the 70s, 80s, and 90s as interpreted by several inebriated individuals. I decide to sing along with one contestant who’s belting out “What’s Going On” by 4 Non Blondes because the lyrics really capture my thoughts that evening:
And I say hey…And I say hey what’s goin’ on
And I say hey… I said hey what’s goin’ on
And I scream from the top of my lungs
What’s goin’ on
Some pretty scary karaoke, that’s what.
Ears bleeding, we head over to the Sheriff’s Crime Lab which provides forensic support to over 35 local, state, and federal agencies. The crime lab’s departments (called sections) include Crime Scene, Evidence, Firearm and Tool Mark Examination, Latent Print, and Biology/DNA.
Director Scott Giles kicks off the evening with an overview of the crime lab. Interesting fact #1: Over 50% of the crimes investigated by the lab relate to property crimes. After he says this I think, I wish I’d known about the crime lab when my car got broken into in Uptown. Adding insult to injury, the thieves took my spare change and useless loyalty cards but left all of my CDs behind. Hey, I have good taste in music. Really. (See section on karaoke above.)
Working on property crimes related to cars, homes, and businesses, the crime lab has identified several offenders through their forensic databases. Interesting fact #2: one of the largest and most-used forensic databases is called CODIS. It houses DNA profiles for over 14 million offenders.
One of the scientists explains that property crime offenders are often involved in other types of crimes. “For some criminals, break-ins are almost like their day job,” she says. By identifying the perpetrators of property crimes, the crime lab can help law enforcement agencies to get violent offenders off our streets.
The highlight of the evening is our visit to the Biology/DNA section where we learn how DNA is extracted. Interesting fact #3: DNA evidence needs to be kept in a dark, cool and dry environment but does not need to be refrigerated. In the lab, DNA samples are put into test tubes and a reagent is added to amplify the DNA sample. The test tube is then put into a machine called a thermocycler which is cooled down to four degrees Celsius so that the DNA will replicate itself. Interesting fact #4: DNA will not replicate if it’s one centigrade above four degrees Celsius.
Unfortunately, we aren’t able to enter the laboratory for fear of contamination but Suzanne Weston-Kirkegaard, the DNA technical lead, more than makes up for this by sharing on-the-job tales. One of her best stories involves the Corn Dog Caper where a small-time burglar smashed his way into an office building and then went bananas. Like a deranged Goldilocks, he ate food from the employees’ communal fridge, leaving behind a half-eaten corn dog as well as a large sample of DNA which led to his identification and arrest.
Suzanne tells us that cases like these aren’t as uncommon as you’d think. Apparently, some burglars like to leave mementos. Like bodily fluid mementos. I won’t get into specifics, but let’s just say I’ll never look at the bottle of ketchup in my fridge the same way again. Yuk.
Next week, there will be tasers and rifles and guns, oh my!