Crime-fighting lab granted money for gadgets

The same Peninsula criminal investigators who help police solve murders are hoping some new gadgets will allow them to crack property crimes faster.

The criminalists at the San Mateo County Forensics Lab have been analyzing murder bullets, checking bloody weapons and performing all the other dirty work to crack cases for police for years. A new national grant is allowing the forensics specialists to acquire four new machines that will facilitate the criminalists to solve property crime cases faster. With a growing backlog of cases eclipsing 200 untouched crimes — most of them nonviolent offenses — the new equipment should allow the lab to reduce that number by 80 percent, lab Director Jim Granucci said.

The investigators, who are on call 24 hours of the day, seven days a week, typically work on violent crimes first, which leaves property crimes such as burglary and theft in the queue to be worked on about six to eight weeks after evidence is submitted.

“We can’t do everything in 40 minutes like on ‘CSI,’” Granucci said. Instead, it takes meticulous work — examinations that the new machines can do faster than humans, he said.

The grants, worth more than $250,000, allow the lab to use two new DNA extraction robots and two amplification instruments.

Solving the county’s cold cases, including 292 unsolved killings from 1987 to 2006, are also moving along thanks to federal money.

The lab has applied for a $400,000 grant to reopen almost 25 cold murder cases after it received a similar donation two years ago that helped the lab reexamine some of the county’s most infamous unsolved murders.

The money is much needed. San Mateo County police departments, as well as police in Hayward, Vallejo and Concord, must pay the lab to analyze their evidence. Each homicide case, for instance, run police about a $5,000 tab.

The lab uses three databases to match the profiles it obtains by analyzing DNA left at crime scenes, said DNA technician leader Alice Hilker. A baseball hat left behind at an assault scene recently, for instance, helped catch the suspect by matching DNA from the hat with a felon from Kansas.

“There’s a lot more DNA potential in cases then there was 12 years ago,” said Daly City Detective Gregg Oglesby, who added that extracting DNA from evidence was not always possible when he first started.

mrosenberg@sfexaminer.com

Crime catchers

Information on the San Mateo County Forensics Lab

» Location: San Mateo

» Size: 29,000 square feet

» Completion date: February 2003

Provides service for:

» District Attorney’s Office

» Twenty cities’ police and fire departments in county

» Federal Bureau of Investigation

» California Department of Forestry

» Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms

» California Highway Patrol

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