CSI: San Diego...Kinda
ASK THEM WHAT THEY DO FOR A LIVING. You’ll hear words like multitasking, dirt, maggots. Forensic evidence technicians are the professionals who sort through dirty, unsettling crime scenes. They climb through crawlspaces, dig through garbage and search under greasy cars. Evidence can be anywhere. Tweezers, even chopsticks, come in handy for grabbing up sticky, discarded condoms or cigarette butts. Then there are the smells. Dead bodies, rotten food and bloody clothing can slam the nostrils in a mean way.
Adam Houg remembers his first autopsy. “I was doing fine, and then they opened up the body,” he says. “The smell hit me. It just hit me. I was like, ‘Whoa’ . . . You’re gonna be standing over a body, lots of times, that’s been shot or stabbed. Autopsies are probably one of the most unpleasant things you’re exposed to—that’s a smell you probably never forget.”
Houg has just finished his regular week’s shift, four back-to-back 10-hour days. Tonight, he gets called out, a little before 11 on a Thursday, to a homicide scene in Spring Valley. The 25-year-old is a forensic evidence technician (FET) for the San Diego Sheriff ’s Department. Unlike his TV peers from the popular CSI: Crime Scene Investigation shows, he won’t have sidekicks with him at the crime scene; he won’t kick in doors or chase down suspects; he won’t help make arrests or interview suspects; and he won’t wrap up collecting and processing evidence within a “TV hour.”
He takes the call and begins the real work of an FET. Houg must photograph the scene, collect and preserve evidence, document the case, process and report it and possibly testify in court about crime scene evidence. The city of San Diego calls his job forensic specialist. Some police departments use the title crime scene analyst. Houg was on call that Thursday night when his cell phone went off. He’s on call two weeks at a time out of every five. In those two weeks, he can be called out at any time, any day, any place. Plans for a movie or dinner date, he says, mean driving in separate cars.
Asked what he can disclose about that Thursday night, he says, “Pretty much anything you could read in the press release or find on the Internet. I can’t give you my report and tell you all the ins and outs of the case.”
Sheriff ’s press releases can be found on the Web at sdsheriff.net/press/default.htm. Houg’s callout that night read: “UPDATE—Homicide in Spring Valley.
“On Thursday at 9:36 p.m. the Sheriff ’s Communications Center received a call of an armed robbery, with a person shot, at 8661 Jamacha Boulevard in Spring Valley. . . Deputies arrived on scene at 9:41 p.m., at which time they found two subjects who had suffered gunshot wounds. One was transported to a local hospital, while the other was pronounced dead at the scene. “Deputies learned that three males and one female were inside a storage building that had been converted into living quarters. While the victims played cards, the suspect walked into the building and confronted the group with a handgun . . . the suspect demanded money, while instructing the victims to lie on the floor. Shortly thereafter, the suspect shot two of the males and fled the scene with an undetermined amount of money. . .”
Houg takes his equipped, sheriff ’s crime lab van home after a shift, so that “When I get the call at 2 in the morning, we don’t have to go to the lab,” he says. “We get to go to some godforsaken areas of the county.”
His team’s jurisdiction encompasses 1.7 million people and 4,200 square miles, including the Mexican international border, federal military installations, Indian lands, the Anza- Borrego Desert and the Pacific Ocean.
DOCUMENTING A CRIME SCENE MEANS photographing everything. What if there’s a body? “If there is a chance of saving a victim,” Houg says, “they are transported. If [the medical examiner] gets there, and they pronounce him dead at the scene, they’ll leave him exactly as he is.”
The FET then photographs the evidence at different angles. Houg decides what evidence to collect and marks it all with yellow placards. He rephotographs the general scene with the markers and moves on to medium and close-up shots. In this case, he took nearly 300 photographs.
After a criminalist sketches and measures evidence within the scene, the FET collects the evidence. “After we’ve dug through the entire scene, satisfied that we’ve found everything we wanted to find, we bring it back to the crime lab,” Houg says.
He figures he left the Spring Valley property around noon on Friday and got to the lab at around 1. He had been up 32 straight hours. “I dropped off the evidence,” he says. “I had some bloody stuff that I laid out and put all my blood swabs in the freezer.”
The FETs’ evidence room is at the sheriff ’s crime lab. Once a hospital, the renovated building seems a far cry from the low-lit, sleek lab sets of CSI. The evidence room is a large, rectangular space with laminate counters and large closets—one outfitted with a rod for drying out wet evidence (such as a bloody blanket) behind a closed door; another with shelves lined with evidence bags of varying sizes. Evidence is laid out so nothing is cross-contaminated.
The evidence cart has two racks, filled with rows of neatly arranged bags—mostly paper, but some plastic—neatly labeled and neatly folded over at the tops, from the Spring Valley crime scene. For now, it’s all clean and out of sight.
“I did all that, and by the time I got home it was probably close to 3 or 4, and I went to sleep for the rest of the day,” Houg says. “Woke up Saturday morning and had the autopsy.”
HOW MANY CASES AT A TIME can one technician handle? Houg says fellow FET Harres Karim recently had a week where he was called out every night for a week.T
hey do cover for each other: “If something really extreme happens—for instance at noon on Saturday, when I would have cleared that scene —if something else were to happen at 12:30, I could call and say, ‘Hey, I’m really tired. Can you handle this?’ ”
Starting salaries for this work range from $45,000 to $50,000 a year. FETs are civilians and placed on salary schedules by the county or city where employed. Even though they make additional money when they are on call or responding to callouts, most say it isn’t the money that draws them.
Energy and ability to withstand hardship in the field are important characteristics. In decades past, FETs would retire after 15 years, choosing to do specialized analysis in the lab.
“You’re gonna be working a lot of long hours, late nights, on your feet for really long periods of time,” Houg says, adding, “I’m not the kind of person who can sit behind a desk all day 8 to 5, staring at a computer. I love the fact that I could be sitting here at my desk one minute, and the next minute, I’m on my way to some region of the county I’ve never seen before to investigate a crime—and it’s my job to help put it all together and figure out what happened.”
When did he first show interest in his future career? “I got an old box that my mom had kept recipe cards in,” he says. “I used those cards as fingerprint cards. I got baby powder and pencil lead and was taking prints from my parents and trying to dust for them. I wish I still had the box.
“I remember seeing Forensic Files on Court TV,” he says. “I think it just made it click in my brain one day that that would be a pretty cool thing to do.” Houg was already at Grossmont College when he discovered it had a forensic program. He earned an internship, key to landing a job in this competitive field. He honed his skills at processing fingerprints. He also got valuable experience out at crime scenes.
“Tina Young came on at the Chula Vista Police Department as one of their evidence technicians,” he says. “She took such good care of me there. She taught me all kinds of stuff about photography, latent print development.”
ON A SUNNY DAY, TINA YOUNG is at the RoadOne tow yard in Mission Valley. She has met her students here to practice vehicle processing, a job they will do hundreds of times as FETs. Working in teams, they search for Young’s planted evidence, mark it, make decisions about how it could be processed, then lead their professor through their finds.
An FET for the city of Chula Vista for six years, Young, 35, was hired last year as the first full-time faculty member of the forensic technology program at Grossmont College, a program now topping 400 students. Administration of justice program coordinator P.J. Ortmeier says, “The forensic technology program enrollment has grown tremendously over the past 10 years, especially since TV programs like CSI began airing.”
At the tow yard, students break into teams and cluster around their “crime scenes”— four cracked-up cars donated by the San Diego Police Department. Students carry numbered yellow evidence markers and clipboards to list possible evidence.
Young asks her student teams, “So, number one, the Coke can. What can you get? Fingerprints. What else? DNA. Number two, the piece of duct tape. What can you get? Hey, don’t you guys have gloves in your kit? You should be wearing gloves. What can you get from the note? Fingerprints. Handwriting. What else? Indenting. Okay, good.”
A MONTH HAS PASSED QUICKLY. The sheriff’s Web site postings have no updates on the Spring Valley homicide. Brian Jenkins, lead homicide detective on the case, says that means the case is still open. They’re following up leads but also waiting on the forensic evidence processing, often a delay.
Houg says he had several cases that he was working, and he has the work order for the Spring Valley case in front of him. “I do like knowing what happens in a case, and if certain people are identified from the work that I’ve done,” he says. How does he learn that a homicide detective has found a suspect? “Sometimes you find out when you get the subpoena for court,” he says.
FETs testify in court about how they collected evidence. They need to establish their credibility, sometimes give their training background and describe their procedures.
Houg, Young and Jenkins all talk about the pressure on FETs—pressure caused by expectations not only from juries but also attorneys on the forensic teams, to come up with evidence that will make a difference in the case. Because of “the hype of the forensic TV shows,” Houg says, “juries expect unrealistic results from us.”
Detective Jenkins stops by the crime lab. He sees Houg at work and teases him, “Where’s your background music like they have on CSI?” He says Houg is one of the hardest-working people he’s ever been with on a crime scene. He adds that Houg can be out all night and still be in a good mood.
And Young jokes about Houg that Monday at the RoadOne tow yard: “He’s just the greatest guy. But he’s a freak—he calls me and says, ‘I got called out all weekend long at crime scenes. It was awesome!’ ”