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Crime scene investigation: 100 crimes solved and counting


Allen Baswell



It was August 2008 when the Columbus Police Department''s crime and forensics lab held its first public tour. The lab is in an unassuming office space in a strip mall near the CPD headquarters on Main Street. 


Nearly a year and a half later, the lab -- which houses the most advanced crime-fighting equipment used by the CPD --services 14 law enforcement agencies and has plans of expanding its fingerprint analysis database. 


"We are planning to use the ($10,000) grant money (from Weyerhaeuser) to purchase software that works with this equipment," said CPD Forensic Director Austin Shepherd, noting the local database has been in place since 2008. 


"We''ve made several fingerprints on several homicide cases we''ve had here in town," he later added. "We''ve solved over 100 cases from fingerprints. We''ve been extremely busy since we opened the lab. The database has been in place a few years, but since we''ve opened the crime lab, we''ve been able to focus on it full time, instead of just using it occasionally." 


The current fingerprint-analysis equipment contains fingerprints for all Lowndes County arrests. With the crime lab expansion -- a project, totaling $6 million dollars and to be completed in phases -- Columbus'' fingerprint examiners will be able to compare prints lifted or scanned to all those available in North Mississippi.  


Columbus Police Chief Joseph St. John is proud of the lab staff and the progress made in establishing the forensic lab. 


"Things like this are very important to our department. I am glad the mayor and City Council supports this project," he said, during a Thursday tour of the facility. "I am proud of this lab and the work of our forensic director, Austin Shepherd." 




Expanded fingerprint database 


Shepherd, who has been with CPD since 2005 said the expanded fingerprint database will be an asset for the department and the lab. 


"We want to make this the best department in the state," he said. 


There are forensics labs in Batesville, Meridian, Jackson, Gulf Port and the University of Southern Mississippi. The Jackson Police also have a private crime lab. 


While he admits the job isn''t as glamorous as what''s displayed on "CSI" TV shows, Shepherd, a forensic anthropologist, fell in love with crime scene investigation while working at the Mississippi Crime Laboratory in Jackson. 




Enhancing footage 


The forensics lab, across from the Columbus Municipal Complex where the CPD is located, houses a room where computer and video forensics work can be done. 


"We are able to look at video footage from armed robberies or burglaries. With the equipment we have, we can enhance images, and will be able to determine the license plates or the type of clothing a person was wearing during an armed robbery," he said. 


Another room is used for dusting for and lifting fingerprints from evidence, which is stored in three vaults. 


The cyanocrylate fuming chamber -- a chamber with a glass door, called simply the "super glue" chamber. A drop of super glue is placed in the machine, along with a piece of evidence such as a plastic bag. The glue clings to the creases of the evidence including any latent fingerprints, which can then be enhanced. 


"Part of what we do is put evidence in a super glue type of chamber and develop fingerprints using a light white color processing," Shepherd explained. "Once you finish the process, you use different dyes to enhance the fingerprint." 




Substance ID 


The lab also has machinery to identify drugs. 


The gas chromatography-mass spectrometry machine, a box-like structure, is the cornerstone of the CPD''s substance analysis. 


The lab serves 14 other law enforcement agencies in the area, including all those in the Golden Triangle, and plans to expand. 


"Our next big project is to establish a regional crime scene unit. Not only do we want to respond to major crime scenes in Columbus and Lowndes County, we also want to serve the surrounding area. It is something we plan to do sometime in the future," he said. 


He is assisted by Jessie Johnston, an investigative technician who received a degree in criminal justice with an emphasis in forensics from the University of Southern Mississippi. 




Training for CSI 


Johnston, a Caledonia native, said she is glad to have the opportunity to work and train so close to home. 


"I am in training for crime scene (investigation) and fingerprints. I go with Austin to help document what is at a crime scene," she said. 


According to a Mississippi State University profile, Shepherd received his bachelor''s degree in anthropology from MSU in December of 2001. In January of 2002, he accepted a position with the Mississippi Crime Laboratory as a crime scene investigator, analyzing more than 100 violent crime scenes. He attained his crime scene certification through the International Association of Identification and graduated from the Dr. Henry Lee Institute of Forensic Science in New Haven, Conn.


Allen Baswell is a former staff reporter for The Dispatch



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Reader Comments

Article Comment greatjob commented at 1/24/2010 6:24:00 AM:

Very cool! Good news for the community, unless you're a criminal. Keep up the great work!


Article Comment Aditya commented at 2/3/2010 12:26:00 AM:

Nice indepth report ..........
I am presently a student of Law with an interest in the field of Medical Jurisprudence ...

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