Last week, my friend Rose and I battle rush hour traffic to arrive at the Sheriff’s Crime Lab in Minneapolis. 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 decide to 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. After hearing from several inebriated individuals, I sing along with one contestant who’s belting out “What’s Going On” by 4 Non Blondes since the lyrics so perfectly 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 At Hubert’s?
Some vocally-challenged karoke singing, that’s what.
With ears bleeding, we walk 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 4 Non Blondes above.)
The Sheriff’s Crime Lab cares about property crimes related to cars, homes, and businesses because they’ve identified several offenders by running their DNA profiles through forensic databases. Interesting fact #2: one of the largest and most-used forensic databases is called CODIS and houses information 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 the 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 it 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 with the mixture of the DNA sample and the reagent is put into a machine called a thermocycler and 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 over 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 regaling us with on-the-job tales. This includes the Corn Dog Caper where a small-time burglar smashed his way into an office building and 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.
Suzanne tells us that cases like these aren’t as unlikely as you’d think. Apparently, some burglars like to leave mementos for the car/home/business owners, 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.
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