In May, 2004, Melanie McGuire shot and took a power saw to her husband.
It should have been the perfect crime. She wrapped the several parts up in plastic bags, placed them in three separate suitcases, and carefully disposed of them in the Chesapeake Bay. She then returned to her Woodbridge home and scrubbed everything down. But three years later, her crime was detected, irrefutable evidence was presented at trial, and the 34-year-old McGuire was convicted of murder and given life behind bars.
The moral to this story is never messily dismember a loved one, and further, don’t ever wrap him in plastic bags. The reason for this grisly caveat lies just off Route 130 in Hamilton. There, on Horizon Drive, the New Jersey Forensic Science Technology Center sits, rather furtively, behind some office buildings. furtively, sits New Jersey’s Forensic Science Technology Center. It was to this complex, a 100,000 square-foot wing of the State Police Technology Center, that William McGuire’s remains were shipped. From these minuscule pieces of human debris, evidence was gathered and the horrific story began to emerge.
When the plastic bags were unearthed, the center’s laboratory wizards actually determined the specific chemical makeup unique to one box of bags – every box of Glad trash bags, apparently, is special in its own way. The bags matched several remaining in the McGuire household. Even the tear patterns matched a bag containing a blue shirt of Melanie’s.
She didn’t stand a chance.
If you have perpetrated a crime, you do not want the evidence shipped here. Recognized as a premier lab, the Forensic Center was chosen as one of four in the United States to enter into a cooperative agreement with the FBI. Law enforcement agencies from all over the country send DNA samples to Hamilton’s forensic scientists for analysis.
Ajit Tungare oversees the New Jersey Office of Forensic Sciences. As chief forensic scientist, and currently also director, Tungare sits in seeming tranquility parceling out the leavings of rapes, burglaries, arson, missing persons, and murders. His is a remarkably lean team, working in Hamilton and four statewide branches. Of the 236-person staff more than 200 are scientists engaged in actual technical investigation. Together, they test blood and biological stains, trace elements found at crime scenes. They determine toxicology, drug use in both humans and race horses, and arson sources. They reconstruct bodies using forensic anthropology techniques. They also provide the analyses for the real powerhouse of the Hamilton center: DNA.
Recently, television’s glare, which has for decades been fixed on the fast-gunning, hard-questioning detective, has shifted to criminology’s lab rats. These scientists, hunched over evidence samples, now come in for their share of Hollywood’s limelight and no little romantic mythology. Shows like "CSI – Crime Scene Investigation," set in Las Vegas, New York, and Miami, have sent thousands of young people panting in a new career direction. College guidance counselors from Princeton to Mercer County Community College annually explain that yes, you can be a biochemist, inorganic chemist, pathologist, anthropologist, even a dentist. But there is no such thing as a forensics major.
Most scientists working in forensic laboratories are trained in a specific, traditional field, while only a few, like Tungare, actually hold a graduate forensic degree. It wasn’t until l969 that the University of California at Berkeley offered the nation’s first forensics graduate program. And since then, the field has seen slow academic growth.
Tungare claims to have stumbled into the forensics quite by chance. A native of Bombay, he graduated with a bachelors in chemistry and physics from Bombay University. He came to the United States, all pre-enrolled and planning to take his graduate chemistry degree at New York University. Then one day in 1972, chatting in a friend’s office, the phone rang. While the friend took the call, Tungare idly fingered a catalog from John Jay College and his eyes fell on the school’s new forensics course of study. Fascinated, he switched fields immediately. Tungare’s alma mater remains one of the very few schools to offer forensics as an undergraduate major.
To this day, Tungare remains a lover of criminalistics – one of forensics’ two major branches. "There’s no limit here," he says, adding that it is a necessarily broad field including such studies as trace miscroscopy, genetics (DNA), molecular biology, blood chemistry, microscopic study of hair, fibers, and instrumentation. So the question begs this expert evidence sleuth – is he truly "CSI’s" laboratory leader Gil Grissom?
"I don’t really think anybody is," he replies with a smile. But if the center’s chief forensic scientist lacks the drama of his television counterpart, the reality of life in Hamilton’s Forensic Labs holds all the exciting detective work and near-science-fiction instrumentation seen on the shows.
Out in back of Tungare’s office sprawls the enormous complex of individual lab centers. Walking these airy, wide, and pristine white halls is Joe Petersack, director of Hamilton’s famed DNA laboratory. Petersack fell in love with crime fighting when taking an FBI tour in Washington, D.C., at age 12 and has never wavered. On the way to his own department, he strolls me past a panoply of crime and detection. In each section, scientists perform the three traditional tasks of a forensic scientist:
1.Identify the evidence.
2. Match the crime scene sample with a known source.
3. Reconstruct the crime, using this evidence.
"Arson is big in New Jersey," Petersack notes wryly. Some of it comes in the form of insurance fraud, some to settle a score. But the great majority of fires are set by very unfortunate individuals who just love to watch things burn.
Hamilton’s forensic experts cannot only determine the type of inflammatant used to start the fire, they can narrow it down to the exact can and batch of gasoline employed. Even minute residue on a person’s hands have linked them to the fluid at the crime scene.
From fire, we move to firepower.
"If the hole is shaped like a crucifix, odds are good it was a contact shot," says Petersack, pointing to a chart outside the gunshot laboratory. "Even with the gun right against the chest, you don’t always have powder burn residue, you see." The initial ballistics tests are conducted by the state police who fire the bullets into water or long cotton-filled bins, and collect them. Then the slugs from the suspected gun and those found at the crime scene are sent for comparison to this forensic lab.
Behind these thick, broad glass panels, investigators run the bullets, looking for a match with a gun type, and individual ammunition markings. "It’s really best if you can find a bullet in a body," says Petersack. "Otherwise, the slug usually gets flattened beyond recognition."
Yet with all the charts, instrumentation, and databases providing instant matches, crime detection remains very much in human hands. "The real skill in all forensics is that hunter’s eye. That person who can think of where to search and see where others do not, that’s the one we want," says Tungare.
At another murder scene in northern New Jersey the blood had been totally cleaned – scrubbed with bleach. Unperturbed, the forensic investigator lifted the floorboards and found all he needed for a conviction underneath. Murderers have scoured tile floors exhaustively, but just enough traces of blood seep into the grout and under the tiles to land them in jail.
Murders, rapes, and most major crimes are typically first discovered by the local police. They call their chief, who nowadays calls the regional forensic center and, if needs be, the coroner. "Every site has a body and a bunch of officials fussing around it, each one of whom is higher ranking than you," notes James O’Brien, former forensic investigator with the Woodbridge Sheriff’s Office. Today’s television shows have actually assisted forensic investigators in making local police aware of how delicate crime scene evidence actually is. Yet just in case, the on-scene investigator takes samples of shoe prints, DNA, and hair from O’Brien’s "bunch of officials" to avoid confusion.
Back in the trace evidence laboratory the hunter’s eye still roams and searches. A knife used in an Essex stabbing comes in with the blade wiped clean. Removing the handle, the investigator ferrets out barely a pinpoint of a dried blood spot. Just enough. Not all the trace evidence samples are biochemical. Sitting at her lab bench, before a 300 power microscope, clad in the obligatory white lab coat, sterile hair net, and mask sits Jane DeMichele. She might be matching small traces of paint from a suspect’s car bumper. She might be determining a fiber or chemical compound found at the crime scene.
Whatever DeMichele is working on remains a secret. She herself knows the case only by number, and she describes her daily labors to no one. If asked, she and her colleagues report their Hamilton laboratory’s location as "somewhere off Route 130." This deliberate secrecy protects not only the evidence, but DeMichele. The New Jersey State Police do not want to hold up a a sign blaring, "This way to the building with all the drug evidence," or, "Here is the person who is convicting your brother of rape."
Petersack keeps walking beyond the trace evidence lab, until he comes to his own domain: the 10,000 square-foot DNA lab which employs more than a quarter of all New Jersey’s forensic scientists.
The DNA miracle. If ever there has been a Wow! in forensics, it is DNA. Seldom does any field see such an enormous single stride forward with just one innovation. "It has irrefutably convicted thousands of real criminal perpetrators, and saved millions of hours weeding out false suspects," says Petersack. Conversely, according to the Innocence Project, DNA testing has brought about the release of over 200 people wrongly convicted and currently serving time in prisons (www.innocenceproject.org).
A middle-aged lady settles herself down onto the stool of one of Garden State’s famed diners. Hefting her huge purse onto the counter, she catches the eyes of four fellow coffee drinkers. Suddenly, as one, the four people rise, snatch, grab, and run away with our poor lady’s large handbag. No one has ever seen them, no one knows who they were. But they have left calling cards. DNA is all over their cups and glasses. Two of the thieves match DNA in the Hamilton Center’s database. All four are subsequently jailed.
The process that led to this and thousands of other accurate convictions comes from the construction of an immense, costly, and quite labor-intensive system. It was only in 1986 that DNA evidence gained its first conviction, linking Collin Pitchfork of Leicestershire, England, to the murder and molestation of two neighborhood children. Since then DNA evidence has gained global acceptance and vastly improved efficiency.
In New Jersey every person convicted of a crime, as part of his processing, must supply a DNA sample. This CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) has created a statewide database, matched with a national one of over 200,000 individuals. There is a push to further this number by making every person arrested cough up DNA. As Orwellian as this seems, Petersack notes that all people arrested are already providing the system with fingerprints.
Recidivism is high in the Garden State, as it is everywhere else. Last year the Hamilton DNA labs made 1,600 matches, including the lunch-counter thieves. This begs the question: just how irrefutable is DNA evidence?
"Depends on the type and where you find it," answers Petersack mysteriously.
DNA – deoxyribonucleic acid – is the material existing in each human cell that contains our inherited traits and genetic instructions for individual development. Organized in long spirals called chromosomes, DNA can be found in each cell’s nucleus – its center. Find DNA here, and you’ve got the suspect nailed. The genetic instruction here comes from both the father’s and mother’s side. It is not quite unique, but suffice it to say, unless you have an identical twin, your genetic DNA is literally one in one quadrillion – that’s 166,666 times the earth’s population. Previously, enzyme testing could only match as close as one in 10,000.
DNA can also be found in the part of the cell surrounding the nucleus, called the organelle. Chromosomes found here, termed mitochondrial DNA, come from only the mother’s side and thus give forensic investigators a match of typically one in 1,000-to-10,000 accuracy. This may not be sufficient to absolutely convict a suspected felon with a good lawyer, but it is enough to aid greatly in missing persons cases. Immediately following the 9/11 tragedy, 37 scientists from the Hamilton Forensic Center volunteered at the World Trade Center site and identified hundreds of bodies using mitochondrial DNA.
The tiniest traces of DNA are all that’s required to put the right felon behind bars. Last year a New Jersey burglar who murdered a homeowner got hungry following his kill. Helping himself to a little chicken salad, he licked the fork clean. "From that dry fork, days later, we were able to get enough of a DNA sample to catch that man and get him off the streets," says Petersack.
A previous killer inadvertently convicted himself by taking one bite from a sandwich left at the crime scene. In this case, as in all others, the scientist receives the physical evidence and extracts the DNA-bearing material out of the blood, saliva, skin, or other cell material. The amount is then quantified, and as little as one billionth of a gram will do. From there the scientist with high tech wizardry inspires the sample to replicate millions of times into a usable batch. With this batch splayed before his microscope, the scientist can detect the unique DNA using 13 loci, or sample points for that one-in-a-quadrillion match.
With all this DNA replicating and matching, it is surprising to note that the lab seems remarkably empty. Petersack explains that today it takes only 45 minutes to run a batch, and several batches can be run simultaneously. "Most of the scientists spend their time analyzing in the comfort of their offices," says Petersack.
The forensic scientists who work with DNA and all the other labs deposit their work in Hamilton Center’s huge bank-like steel vault. Each piece and person’s evidence is kept diligently separate. When an investigator wants to examine, for example, a suspect’s evidence, he is assigned a numbered room in which to work. If another person wants to later examine the victim’s belongings from the same crime, he is assigned a different room.
The New Jersey Office of Forensic Sciences is aware of its responsibility. It is part of the state’s Department of Justice and the Attorney General’s Office. Additionally the offices are linked with the FBI, as national processors of mitochondrial DNA. They are further connected both functionally and physically in the same building with the Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory, headed by ex-FBI agent Larry Depew. Their tasks are many, and so are the career opportunities.
Despite their high level of training, scientists in forensics do not garner huge salaries. Nationally, the average is $35,000 to $50,000. Hamilton Center pays better, but demands more. Tungare requires all entry level forensic scientists for Hamilton have at least one, preferably two, years of professional experience. They have started traditionally in the low $50,000 range. "But now," he pats a huge pile of resumes on his desk, "New Jersey has a hiring freeze, and who knows when we’ll be hiring again." Despite these temporary problems, Tungare does not want to discourage people from this trade. "After all the glitz from TV and the fun of the technology, there comes a real satisfaction of helping people and safeguarding society. "
So the detection game is enchanting ever more people as technological tools increase. But has even our beloved Sherlock gone robotic? Is the Holmsian knowledge of 23 different types of tobacco and trace ash been supplanted by a database that registers thousands in a moment? Luddites may relax here. The current forensic technology continues to remain a tool, aiding its human masters. In an early 1980s, pre-DNA case, two Morris County people were slain. The search team found some fibers which under analysis showed a tri-lobal cross-section. Samples were sent to the FBI lab. Here a veteran lab assistant eyed them and announced, "Oh I know these. These are made by Celanese …" She further recalled the exact type of clothing for which Celanese used the fiber. Proof again that the ultimate computer remains the one God has given us.
New Jersey Regional Computer Forensic Laboratory , 1200 Negron Road, Horizon Center, Hamilton 08619-; 609-584-5051. Ajit Tungare, acting lab director.