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Calif. Firearms Examiner Links 170 Guns to Crimes and Suspects This Year

Rocky Edwards of The Santa Ana Police Department is in Demand as Someone Who Has a Knack For Linking Guns to Crimes

By Mai Tran, The Los Angeles Times

Tucked deep inside the Santa Ana Police Department, rows of M-16s, fully automatic rifles and sawed-off shotguns - neatly tagged and hung on pegboards - fill a windowless library of sorts.

This is where Rocky Edwards, the department's firearms examiner, can be found, linking guns to crimes and suspects.

This year, he has worked on nearly 700 cases, for which he has matched guns to 170 crimes. He often testifies for the prosecution. And he is loaned out to area departments, which have begun paying Santa Ana for his services.

The eight-year officer starts most days by pulling a gun out of the 500-plus collection and heading to the department's water tank. He fires rounds, then studies the bullets' markings.

Edwards, 47, studies each weapon, bullet and casing with precision. He looks at lands and grooves - or marks and indentations - left on a bullet after it is fired.

"A lot of people think I'm a gun nut, but I'm not," said Edwards. "I just hate seeing innocent people get hurt."

After investigators collect bullets or guns, they hand them over to Edwards, who uses a microscope to hunt for telling details.

"A lot of times, the bad guys think that if they pick up their cartridge, that we can't find them, but they're wrong," he said.

From a fragment the size of a pencil eraser, Edwards can determine the type of gun, the direction it was fired and whether it is linked to other crimes. A trained tool examiner, Edwards also knows when a lock has been tampered with.

Until the late 1990s, Santa Ana relied on the Orange County Sheriff's Department for such lab work. Budget crunches in 1996 forced some cities to close their own examination facilities and rely on the sheriff's lab. There was then such a demand that the backlog, in some cases, hampered investigations.

Soon afterward, Santa Ana opened its own facility.

"Santa Ana decided that with the amount of shootings they had, they need to have their own examiner," said Edwards, who has been with the lab since it opened. "I stay pretty busy."

Edwards studied a gun recovered months after the 1998 killing of a man suspected of being an immigrant-smuggling coyote. Investigators found a receipt in the suspect's car from a gunsmith, who had repaired the gun and tested it several times. Edwards took the gunsmith's box of 1,000 spent cartridge casings and examined them. He tracked three casings to the gun used in the shooting, which helped prosecutors link the suspect to the killing.

In a 1998 case, an Orange County Register advertising clerk and her roommate were found dead in their apartment. Edwards determined that the gun used was a .32-caliber handgun that had been lent to the suspect.

His ability, knowledge and keen eye have caught the attention of other agencies.

At no charge, Edwards has helped the FBI and police in Hawthorne, Inglewood, Oxnard and Simi Valley with cases. But last month, realizing that it had a valued commodity, Santa Ana began billing other cities for his time.

"I'd still pay in a heartbeat," said Jay Carrott, a detective who handles violent crimes for the Simi Valley Police Department. "The man is incredible."

Carrott said his department usually uses the Ventura County sheriff's facility, but it was backlogged. So he ran to Edwards with some bullets and casings found at a crime scene.

Halfway home to Simi Valley, Carrott got a call from Edwards, who had examined the bullets, determined what happened at the shooting and completed a report. Carrott could not provide further details because the case is a continuing investigation.

"His knowledge is just phenomenal," Carrott said. "He really did the whole gamut for us."

Cases like this keep Edwards busy. The weapons and bullets that fill his library were seized during raids and arrests or at crime scenes.

His interest in guns began in childhood, when his father took him target shooting. By 13, he had built his first Black Powder rifle. He joined the Boy Scouts to learn more and, once in the Army, was educated in firearms. "I've been trained to read evidence," he said.

"Sometimes it's like reading 'See Spot Run.' Other times, it's like reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica."

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