The life of crime-solving

Islanders ferret out obscure clues at the state crime lab in Seattle.

Megan Inslee makes careful cuts into the stained portion of a pair of women’s underwear.

The islander’s white gloves and lab coat match the stark surroundings of the Washington State Patrol DNA crime lab in Seattle. She sprays the cloth with chemicals to begin a series of DNA tests demonstrating the methods she uses to reveal a rapist’s identity.

“Looking at evidence from sexual assaults make up a good portion of what we do here,” Inslee said. “Blood and semen are common, but there’s not much we can’t find DNA from. Even shirt collars contain enough low levels to find someone’s identity.”

Inslee is one of five island residents who work as forensic scientists at the Washington State Patrol’s DNA crime lab in Seattle. The 16-member staff deciphers criminals’ identities through genetic evidence in body fluids, skin, hair, teeth and bone.

The Seattle lab is the largest of seven the WSP operates in the state. The lab, which takes cases from all over Washington, has other departments that examine firearms, chemicals, fingerprints and documents for evidence.

A crime scene response team is also based at the Seattle lab.

Inslee and the others who specialize in DNA evidence have found themselves in a high-demand field, with their caseload rising by 72 percent since 2003.

The lab has diversified the crimes they handle, broadening their examinations from rapes and homicides to include burglaries, assaults and arsons. The increase in demand has generated a backlog of 719 requests as of this month. Over 80 percent of the requests involve serious crimes, according to WSP records.

DNA scientists hope to whittle their backlog down as they take on new cases and continue to build a vast DNA database containing almost 70,000 samples.

Jean Johnston, another Bainbridge resident and WSP forensic scientist, tested evidence incriminating Gary Ridgway in the Green River Killer case.

A&E and the History Channel have interviewed Bainbridge DNA scientists for national television shows documenting the lab’s work in homicide cases.

“This is work that furthers the cause of justice, and Bainbridge residents make a great contribution to it,” said George Johnston, Jean’s husband and the lab’s quality assurance manager. “There’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction in this work, especially when we have hits on cold cases.”

“Cold cases” are previously unsolved crimes that have been suspended for lack of incriminating evidence.

The WSP’s lab has used DNA evidence to link more than 150 unsolved crimes to offenders.

The Bainbridge Island Police Department has increased its use of the lab in the last month after a training session about the lab’s expanded availability. Bainbridge Police now send evidence from non-violent crimes.

“We used to use the lab if a case was a priority,” Detective Scott Anderson said. “It had to be a major crime where DNA was definitive to solve it. Now we can send in a hat or a glove from crimes like burglaries.”

DNA testing helped reveal the guilt of a man who had committed 13 burglaries on the island and about 90 others in the county.

The man had shaved his head, always wore gloves and took other precautions to hide his identity from investigators. Police found a car they believed the thief had stolen, but could find no prints or other significant evidence.

He did, however, have a tendency to spit out the window, Anderson said.

When Anderson told the thief he had DNA evidence from a saliva sample collected from the rear fender, the thief finally caved.

“He shrugged and admitted I had him,” he said. “We really didn’t have much else – no fingerprints or other materials. The DNA helped a lot.

“It’s an amazing tool.”

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