I met one of the department’s captains, Ken Dyke, saw a few other officers I’d talk to in depth later, looked in on two women transcribing crime reports — cops tape-record them now: less time at the typewriter, more time on the street. Then Bill took me down to his turf: the crime lab, which includes two large evidence rooms. Designed by Bill — offices, labs, a small meeting room. It’s, at first, like walking into any one of thousands of business environments in America: computers with Post-its on them, soft rock playing over speakers, a phone ringing, pictures of children and graduations.
Bill’s office, small and neat, is off the main hallway, at the hub of the lab. The first thing I noticed was a huge silver lunch box. Bill, in his mid-50s, rail thin (his wife told me later he weighs one and one-quarter pounds more than he did in high school) and impeccably dressed, wouldn’t need a lunch box that big, I thought. Turns out it’s an instrument called an omnichrome, which uses ultraviolet light to pick up trace fingerprints and blood stains. On a bookshelf, “The Red Book” stands out from the dark blue and black binders. Several of Bill’s nonwork photographs are on the wall: forest and mountain wilderness shots; a stark picture, taken in Death Valley, of salt plains risen into razor-sharp crags. One photograph is a close-up of paint cracking on the door of an old barn. Each fragment of paint curling up at its edges but hanging on, still hanging on. Later, I noticed an almost identical pattern in shattered windshield glass — irregular squares or rectangles, like mud cracking in a dried lake bed.
The windshield glass was laid out on a table in one of the two main lab rooms. It was an experiment Nancy Vonasek-Farrar, one of the newest crime-scene investigators on Bill Johnson’s team, works on in her own time. The glass was smithereened by several bullets, and Nancy is trying to reconstruct it enough so she can find the bullet holes and, from each one, the bullet’s trajectory into the car. It looked like a giant, impossible jigsaw puzzle. Even though Nancy had pieced together large chunks, no image of a lake or country lane began to appear. Instead, what I saw, when Nancy pointed them out to me, were three or four bullet holes. Around the edges of a hole, the shards of glass are longer and thinner top to bottom than the other shards. They frame the hole like the petals of a flower. Nancy, blond and slightly tan, was a pilot in the Air Force, flying huge refueling planes, before she became a crime-scene analyst. She showed me around the lab. Rodriego Viesca, a latent-print examiner, whom I’d talk to much more later, dusted a gun for prints. I noticed something that looked like the pants presser you see at a cleaners. It serves a similar purpose: hot pressing a fingerprint helps bring it up faster. Before this device, police labs used standard steam irons to do the job. Most labs have charts on the wall and so does this one: of bullets. There are a lot of bullet types in the world, and here you see them all in rows, in lines — line after line — fat ones, thin ones, shortest to tallest, pointy and round-headed, dumdums and bang-bang-you’re-deads. Nancy opened a cabinet and I saw a box marked “particle and putrefaction mask.” Another box was marked “thief detection kit.” I thought for a moment I might be in a Twilight Zone joke shop. The thief-detection kit contains a kind of powder, nearly invisible, that a store owner might use, with police assistance, if he suspects a certain employee is stealing. Spread it where the thievery allegedly takes place and, if it gets on the hands of the thief, it’ll show up under a special light.
There’s another evidence-examination room down here too. It’s a sterile environment, so we looked in through a window. An examination table, just like at your doctor’s, with a large roll of paper at its head, stands in the middle of the room. Nobody sits on this table, however, getting his knees knocked with a little rubber hammer. This room is used for major cases, cases where they might spread out a great deal of evidence, cases where they need to keep evidence absolutely uncontaminated.
The photo lab down here’s not used much because crime-scene pictures are now jobbed out to a carefully selected and secure commercial developer. I guess we all wonder if someone at Fotomat looks at the pictures from our family barbecue or of old Aunt Elsie caught with her undies accidentally showing, but whoever develops crime-scene photos gets a real eyeful of grim reality as opposed to quotidian reality.
Or sometimes something just odd. From “The Red Book”: on a carpet lies the corner of a piece of processed sandwich cheese. It’s an inch and a quarter long. I knew this because in the photo a small ruler lies beneath it. In many photos the crime analyst places a ruler next to a piece of evidence: to judge exactly the width of a throat’s gash, the distance between three holes in the skull to match them to a three-pronged garden tool, etc. This cheese was from a sandwich belonging to a store manager. He didn’t eat the sandwich, a thief who’d broken into the store did, thereby, I think it fair to say, adding insult to injury. Bill calls this case “The Rat Who Got Away.” He took an impression of the teeth marks to one of the pioneers in forensic ondontology, Dr. Skip Sperber, and got an identifiable bite mark. When Sperber compared it with their prime suspect, it didn’t fit. He was there, they felt confident, but didn’t eat the sandwich. The guy with him, who ate the sandwich, the cops never caught, thus: “The Rat Who Got Away.”
Two expert latent-print examiners work in the crime lab: Rodriego Viesca, 46, and Marykay Hunt, in her mid-30s. Bill, Rodriego, and Marykay can boast well over 50 years’ experience among them. Take-your-breath-away beautiful, blond, and blue-eyed, Marykay is a permanent member of the staff but now works half-time — she has three small children. She told me she “rolled” her youngest child when he was one month old, meaning she took his fingerprints, and that she rolls him at regular intervals. I asked if that is a latent-print examiner’s equivalent to standing one’s kids against a door frame and marking their heights as they grow. She said yes, and she does the door-frame growth chart too. Rodriego is a born-and-raised Chula Vistan. He pointed out his grammar school, at G and Fifth, not far from the police station. His wife is a cell scientist, a cytotechnologist, and they have two teenage daughters. I asked Rodriego, who is also a crime-scene photographer and analyst, what’s the hardest thing to see on the job. Like everyone else here, and every cop I’ve ever spoken to, he said “murdered children.” On one assignment, photographing a murdered child, he saw, for a few seconds through the viewfinder, the face of his own daughter. He said that when his daughters were young, the one thing that comforted him while working on cases like this was when they would climb on his knees — they’d lean back against his chest, three hearts beating, and watch a movie or a TV show.