N.J. police get new forensics lab

By Nyier Abdou
The Star-Ledger

SOMERSET COUNTY, N.J. In a sparse yet messy bedroom, a woman lies twisted in her bed, blood seeping onto the white sheets. A kitchen knife remains lodged in her chest, her head unnaturally jerked aside. Another knife lies on the bedcovers.


Or is it? Bottles of prescription pills are scattered on a bedside table. A drained beer bottle stands watch. The mock crime scene, which stars an armless mannequin tucked under a standard-issue rescue blanket, is used by local law enforcement to practice lifting fingerprints and processing evidence.

This is CSI: Somerset County, featuring the newly refurbished Somerset County Forensic Lab. The former vitamin factory, near the county's public works garage in Hillsborough, has undergone a massive, $3 million upgrade to include state-of-the-art labs for processing everything from fingerprints and ballistics to bloody clothing and vehicles, as well as host SWAT team-training.

The 20,000-square-foot facility is a far cry from the dusty, one-car private garage in Somerville that once housed the county's crime lab. Forensic specialists have weathered some inhospitable conditions in Somerset, from one location vacated after the roof collapsed to less-than-ideal digs alongside a recycling warehouse.

"Back then, our security was a chain-link fence," said Lt. Barry Jansen, the commander of the facility. Trucks trundling in and out of the warehouse would blanket the lab in dust, creating cross-contamination issues.

No longer. The new facility provides ample room, with separate labs to handle and dry out evidence one for the victim and another for the suspect and six other labs where evidence is poked, pictured, scanned, fingerprinted and analyzed.

A labyrinthine set of rooms with long hallways, extra doors and a long staircase helps train officers to clear rooms as they enter a home. The mannequin is lodged in one of the bedrooms, while other rooms will be outfitted with appropriate furniture and mess, said Capt. Andrew Hissim.

The facility is a wish list of design and new equipment, which the county has been able to acquire largely through federal funding and forfeiture funds, said Somerset County Prosecutor Wayne Forrest. A prime facility, in turn, has helped lure experienced officers from Essex County and the State Police to Somerset, Forrest said.

Detective Gary Mayer, who joined the office from Essex County, said the facility was definitely a draw. "I've never seen a lab of this size with this conception of accessibility to equipment," he said. The only thing that could make it better, he joked, would be "moving floors."

Left out of the upgrade was a DNA lab, which would have set the county back some $7 million and would require special certification and the hiring of a chemist.

"That would have been a tremendous investment," Forrest said. "We don't have that many DNA cases to justify it."

Acquiring the newest equipment has paid off for the prosecutor's office, however. In a case from 2000, police were only tipped off to a possible murder after the victim's body had been incinerated. When police arrived at the home of the suspect, Ronnie Lyles, they found the room "immaculate," said Lt. Jansen, who investigated the case.

Through the use of UV imaging, which exposes dried blood, two tiny spots of blood were detected on the wall one of them smeared in an apparent cleanup, Jansen said. That initial finding, which led investigators to uncover more evidence, was "instrumental" in the case, Jansen said. In 2002, Lyles was convicted of murder. He later pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter when his conviction was reversed on appeal.

"You cannot put a price tag on solving a case for a citizen who may have lost someone," Forrest told a group of county freeholders, state legislators and law enforcement gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday.

"There are things we can do now that we couldn't do even five years ago," said Jansen, munching on celebratory snacks. But he conceded that what is state-of-the-art today will be obsolete in no time.

"Forensics is the fastest-changing area in law enforcement," Jansen said. "Equipment, techniques - it's constantly evolving."

Copyright 2007 The Star-Ledger

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