It’s 4 a.m. on a chilly winter Saturday morning. Two forensic identification specialists get a phone call about a double homicide in their community.
Within an hour they arrive on scene with their abundance of forensic gear and equipment.
They take pictures of the bloody crime scene and mark out the evidence. The back window of the home is smashed in (perhaps the ‘perp’s’ entry). They comb the scene for DNA and fibers using their trace evidence vacuum and other equipment.
Outside there is a set footprints leading up and away from the home’s back window. The specialists mark the footprints and take pictures and measurements for future analysis.
It may seem like a scene out of TV’s CSI, but it’s the everyday job for Bruce Vogel and Shelly Patreau, who are both in the Peace Regional RCMP’s Forensic Identification Section.
Record-Gazette reporter Logan Clow had the exclusive opportunity to tour the RCMP Peace River detachment’s forensic lab.
I arrive at the detachment on Thursday, May 16 at 9 a.m. and I’m not sure what to expect – surely I won’t have to provide my next of kin.
Both Vogel and Patreau are waiting for me in their department’s office area, or as they refer to it as the “bullpen”.
“There are over 300 RCMP forensic specialists in Canada, roughly 44 in Alberta and three in Peace River,” Vogel explains.
“We get into a lot of places people don’t see. We have our adventures. It’s a CSI game.”
In their department, they have three forensic specialists that cover south from Slave Lake up to High Level and surrounding area.
Before our tour leads us to the laboratory, Vogel tells me more about their job.
“We work ten hours shifts, four days a week, but we’re always on call after hours. You have to be highly motivated. The demands can be strenuous.”
As we enter the lab, I’m first showed their trace evidence vacuum. It doesn’t look fancy. It looks like a small, rectangular portable vacuum.
“This is used for collecting small particle evidence including hair and fiber, which can be particularly be helpful in person’s offences – you may be looking for hair versus fingerprints. With hair, of course, we’re hoping to get DNA evidence,” Vogel tells me.
“Fingerprints remain the best personal identification,” Vogel tells me.
“We have to objectively provide information to the court so that they can make an accurate decision. It’s our job to individualize it – we have to be sure. We never say it might be this person or that person – it is or it isn’t.
Vogel tells me that forensics is based on the theory of Edmond Locard, who lived in France during the 1700’s.
“Locard’s principle is that no person can pass through an area without transfer-of-material from themselves to the area or from the area to them – that’s the basis of forensics,” he said.
I ask if their forensic work is similar to what we see on TV shows such as CSI.
“CSI on television takes that (forensics) to the extreme. They locate things that frequently might be missed or very difficult to locate or isolate and then compare it,” Vogel tells me.
In their profession, they’re constantly being educated. In the corner of their office is a large, overflowing, two-leveled bookshelf with reference and learning materials that are referred to daily.
To become an identification specialist there are several months of training required, before going before a three-paneled board and successfully comparing fingerprints.
Once their training is completed, they have to continuously train as technology and their profession evolves.
Aside from learning the mind-boggling terminology and various forensic techniques, they’re still police officers –they have the authority to arrest people and they need to know the criminal code inside and out.
I ask why they got into the strenuous career of being a forensic specialist, particularly because a judge’s verdict could rest on their evidence they provide. A simple miscalculation matching a fingerprint could send an innocent person to jail.
“I was more interested in the crime scene and doing the scene analysis – how things happened, what order, how many people, what actually happened now, maybe what happened previous to the crime,” Vogel says.
“For me, it’s like putting the puzzle together. You’re not investigating what happened, you go beyond on that. Finding impressions – whether it be fingerprints or tire marks – and having it coming back to someone is probably the best part,” Patreau tells me.
Questions continue to run rampant through my mind. I’m gradually becoming more fascinated with their profession.
We then discuss footprint impressions.
“Footwear is a little bit more trickier because depending on where it’s deposited (snow or mud) you’re not getting a lot of the detail,” Patreau tells me.
“We take the footwear that we get – I use Pam (cooking spray) and black fingerprint powder – and then you take paper and you literally have to put the footwear on and walk on the paper as if you’re walking. It will show any cuts or wear or things that we’re looking for.”
Vogel suggests that almost half of their cases involve shoe impressions.
“What about tire marks at a scene?” I ask.
“If we don’t have a suspect vehicle, we can send away the tire impression, same as a footprint impression and they can, based on measurements that we take, they can get us the make and model of the tire,” Patreau says.
“If you have more than one track you can actually determine through the track width and database, the type of vehicles that have those tires.”
Time for Experiments
At the end of the tour both Vogel and Patreau demonstrate various procedures they use to collect fingerprints.
“You guys are like magicians,” I say.
“Its years of practice and research. We take a very narrow portion of what requires police work and we specialize on those things. These are the things we know and enjoy,” Vogel replies with a chuckle.
“Are you sure this magic show is free?” I reply.
At the conclusion of the experiments, I’m told that I’ve been given the first media tour of their lab and perhaps the most in-depth tour they’ve given to anyone – it takes a little over two hours.
The profession really is similar to what we see on television, but with the glitz, glamour and the cases being solved in less than an hour.