Real 'CSI' Scientists Scoff at the TV Version as Too Fast, Easy
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Jeff Schiebel specializes in blood spatters.
To test theories about killings, the 20-year Hennepin County, Minn., crime scene technician and deputy sheriff sometimes will mix whole milk with red food coloring or get real blood that has expired at the blood bank. Then he'll see how it splatters under different conditions.
Schiebel, 49, remembers one of his first big cases, which involved the killing of an elderly man and his grandson in their Brooklyn Park home. The suspect was found shortly after the slayings showering with his clothes on to wash off the evidence.
But determined to find the victims' blood on the suspect, Schiebel spent weeks painstakingly taking apart the suspect's metal wristband link by link until he found a speck of blood squeezed between them.
It sounds just like something the investigators on the CBS hit show "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" or its spinoffs would do, except it would only take them about three minutes.
Real-life work for Minnesota's crime scene investigators is seldom that easy. Unlike TV's portrayal, the life of a crime scene investigator is largely mundane, Twin Cities forensics specialists say.
Sure, there are the juicy whodunit homicides, where the only evidence left behind is a bloody bedsheet, a spattering of blood on the wall or a smudgy fingerprint left at the scene.
And there are the gory, out-of-the-ordinary cases that the investigators will always remember, like the case of the Russian immigrant in Eden Prairie who stabbed his wife and then chopped up her body in the apartment's bathtub while the couple's young daughter was in a nearby room. Or the odd suicide made to look like a homicide when the victim tied the gun to a pulley system that raised it into a trap door in the ceiling to conceal it from authorities.
But such cases are few and far between.
Actually, the day-to-day duties of crime scene investigators are pretty boring: dusting for fingerprints at petty burglaries where the thief used rubber gloves, searching for prints in stolen vehicles that are covered in filth, inventorying every piece of evidence and sometimes spending hours reconstructing crime scenes in diagrams for court trials.
"We try to tell people it's drama," Minneapolis' crime lab director Mike Ridgley says of the "CSI" show, which has finished high in the ratings since its debut in 2000 and has spawned a spinoff show and other imitators. "It's entertainment. That's what it is. Otherwise, they'd call it 'reality TV,' and everyone would be bored out of their mind."
Many of Minnesota's real-life crime scene investigators say they've watched "CSI" once and were so frustrated by how unrealistic it is that they never watched again.
Watching the show "upset some of my staff," says Frank Dolejsi, lab director for the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul. "Now, the public will think we can do everything in an hour. They stretch some things farther than science can go."
"I watched it once, and it was such a joke," says Hennepin's Schiebel, who handles investigations in the state's most populous county.
The one time he watched it, the actors measured bullet trajectories using lasers and mirrors, which would be impossible to detect in daylight.
Schiebel had just finished work on a shooting in which he measured bullet trajectories using straws and string, the traditional practice.
Minnesota investigators are quick to point out the differences between what they do and what they see on the show.
The thing most noticed by crime scene investigators is that TV folks seem to know everything.
On "CSI," they specialize in all the forensic sciences, and they're top-notch detectives, too. But real crime scene investigators, they say, only deal with the evidence. They never question witnesses, pursue suspects and autopsy bodies, like the show's main character, Gil Grissum, does.
"That guy has too much power," Schiebel said. "There's so much division of labor at a scene. It's a good checks and balances. There's not one person like that, working the body and getting the suspect to confess."
One of the show's most obvious omissions, they say, is paperwork. Evidence must be gathered with an eye toward how it will be used in court.
Each time it is touched by a different person, a record is made on an inventory sheet. When the evidence is placed in an envelope or bag (always paper, so it can breathe and won't rot), it is sealed with clear tape, and its handler marks it with permanent pens and writes over both the tape and the envelope so it cannot be opened undetected.
Another difference is the ease with which investigators find matches by overlaying fingerprints. In real life, an expert cannot simply overlay prints because of distortions in how hard the fingers were pressed onto the surface. Instead, the experts actually plot out the prints on a computer, noting the differences in edges and lines in order to make a match.
And then some things are almost outright fabrications, like a recent episode of "CSI: Miami" in which the investigators sprayed office supplies with some type of chemical that immediately showed them blood residue.
"I laughed at that part," says Lt. Rick Werenicz, head of Hennepin County's crime lab. "They reach into their magic bag of tricks, and then they're off."
On a typical day last month, Schiebel responded to two calls.
The first came from Richfield police asking him to bring a black light to check for semen on the nightshirt of a 4-year-old girl, who had been a victim of sexual assault.
Several spots glowed under the light on both the front and back of the shirt, but that only indicated that there was some type of residue. It could have been anything_detergent, the girl's own saliva or lemonade. Schiebel suggested Richfield police bring it to the downtown crime lab for further testing.
His only other call that day involved a burglary at a pipe manufacturer in Hassen, a town on the northwestern edge of the county. Someone had broken into the building, which was secured only by a push-button lock on the back of the door handle. The intruder stole $ 56 from the petty cash box in a file cabinet.
Schiebel dusted two cabinets for prints but came up empty, but he could tell the burglar wore rubber gloves from the polka-dot pattern left behind.
Completed about two years ago, the Hennepin County Crime Lab in downtown Minneapolis is even more stark and sterile than a hospital. The 14,000-square-foot lab is divided into specialties: biology and serology, where DNA testing is also done; ballistics; photo and graphics; evidence intake, with large drying racks and a table to catch any blood leaks; forensics garage; and latent fingerprints.
In "CSI," the lab looks dark and mysterious. Each investigator seems to be involved in everything and walks around the lab freely, participating in all the different evidence-processing techniques.
In Hennepin County, each section is locked, and only the specialists of each division have access to their respective labs.
The biological evidence rooms are particularly sensitive. Each is pressurized to protect the evidence. Security doors separate the rooms, and you can only walk one way through the entire area. Not even the pens are allowed to leave the labs.
More than half of the cases done by Hennepin County's biology lab involve alleged sexual assaults.
"Sixty-five percent of the time, we look at dirty underwear," said DNA analyst Suzanne Weston-Kirkegaard.
But during a recent tour of the lab, investigators had spread out on a special table a bloody bedsheet from a Maple Grove homicide. That part is very similar to "CSI."
The table is in a little closet-like room separated from the main serology lab by sliding metal doors. With the lights out, two investigators comb the sheet for biological evidence. One uses a fiber-optic light that makes biological stains glow, and the other circles the potential areas for further examination.
On "CSI," the fiber-optic light will glow and the investigators will automatically deduce that the fluid is semen. In real life, it's not that easy. A soda stain can glow, so investigators must cut off the area and test it to be sure.
Once something promising is discovered, a small sample is either swabbed or cut off the fabric, and an analyst begins the tedious process of preparing it with chemicals for DNA analysis. Another distortion on the show is the nearly instantaneous results. In reality, it takes anywhere from eight hours to three days for Hennepin County to process DNA.
At the state DNA lab at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, it can take as long as two months for results because of a backlog of evidence.
The quick turnaround on "CSI" is often the butt of many technicians' jokes. Hennepin County field technician Nate Wasgatt recently dusted a stolen car for prints at the Mound Police Department. A Mound investigator came into the garage to see how it was going.
"Good," Wasgatt said. "We'll have it solved by the next commercial break."
Despite the mundane days, Wasgatt, 32, still enjoys his job. He uses the dull burglaries and stolen vehicle calls as opportunities to hone his skills for the big cases.