Jun 25, 2023

Northern Colorado Regional Crime Forensic Laboratory celebrates 10 years

August marks 10 years since the Northern Colorado Regional Crime Forensic Laboratory in Greeley opened its doors.

The lab provides forensic services to law enforcement at the Weld County Sheriff’s Office, Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, Greeley Police Department, Fort Collins Police Services and Loveland Police Department, Forensic Laboratory Director Daren Ford said Tuesday during a tour of the lab for Weld County Commissioners Lori Sane and Perry Buck commemorating the anniversary.

All agency employees work in different forensic disciplines, including digital and multimedia evidence, latent prints, impression, or shoe and tire track, evidence, firearms, drug chemistry analysis and forensic biology. While the majority of the staff is made up of the six law enforcement entities from northern Colorado, about 10 staff members are from the Colorado Bureau of Investigations (CBI), Ford said.

The regional facility is part of the CBI laboratory system, which has three other labs in Denver, Pueblo and Grand Junction. Ford said there are about 130 analysts through the CBI.

“Obviously, our concern is Weld County and Larimer County and residents in our communities, but we also work as a system laboratory,” Ford said.

Within this past year, CBI also hired more than 30 new analysts throughout the entire state system, and a few landed in the northern Colorado lab. Day-to-day operations have roughly 25 people working in the facility, sometimes more during training sessions.

The crime lab is fully staffed, with one new hire in the process of joining the team.

Prior to 2013, the crime lab’s forensic services were divided. Fort Collins had latent prints, Larmier County had firearms and Weld County had digital evidence and chemistry.

Area law enforcement brought forward the idea of forming a regional lab in 2008, Ford said. At the time, agencies thought cases could be processed faster in the region with a crime lab, especially to address a growing backlog of untested kits.

Lab staff members then partnered with CBI because it had an established system.

“They helped us; we helped them,” Ford said.

All entities were brought under one roof when the building was created in 2013, which created a communication advantage for all agencies, according to Assistant Lab Director Clay Buckingham. Crime evidence in the region going to one location gives law enforcement another advantage.

“When we were separated, we didn’t get a chance to talk to one another,” Buckingham said. “And when everybody’s in one building, we can bounce ideas off of each other. We put out a better quality product.”

By 2016, the lab was accredited in biology, digital evidence, chemistry, firearms and latent prints.

Since northern Colorado formed the regional lab, Douglas and Jefferson counties have also created labs, CBI Laboratory Manager Collin Knaub said.

Two CBI chemists work at the facility’s chemistry lab, handling drug cases from northern Colorado and surrounding areas. There are about 1,600 current drug cases in the backlog, according to an on-scene chemist. They work on roughly 40 drug cases per month, totaling about 480 cases per year.

There are also serology labs where DNA testing is conducted at the forensic lab, but they weren’t included in the tour because of contamination concerns.

With blood samples, staff will take a small swab or cutting, put it into a tube and then use equipment to process the sample, Knaub said. During the processing, 13 samples can be processed at the same time, which takes about 40 minutes.

Then, the sample is moved to the liquid handler, which moves the liquid around from tubes to small plastic plates, so they can get transferred to the other room, where analysis begins to develop DNA profiles in relation to crimes, according to Knaub.

“It may not take that long, but we do things in batches so that we can be efficient with case processing,” Ford added.

Firearms evidence is another crucial part of the work done inside the building. A portion of this unit handles investigative shooting leads.

A technician reviews fired cartridge cases either from a crime scene or recovered from a gun submitted by agencies. The technician then determines leads for law enforcement such as if two cartridge cases were fired from the same gun or a potential suspect.

When firearms are submitted to the regional lab, examiners will also shoot the gun at an indoor range to determine information for specific cases.

For example, in some cases, law enforcement just needs to make sure the gun works. In other cases, they need to collect the bullets. Determining the distance from a gun to a victim or object is also critical in some criminal cases.

There are multiple methods, including a water tank and cotton trap, to safely shoot a firearm in the range and help determine these factors.

Other pieces of evidence that are examined at the regional lab are prints, including fingerprints, footwear and tire tracks.

To develop latent fingerprints, nonporous evidence, which does not allow liquid or air to pass through, such as a soda can, is placed in super glue tanks and heated up. The heat causes the super glue to put off white residue. Examiners then apply dye stain to the evidence, take the evidence into a dark room and turn a laser on to observe latent fingerprints. Fingerprints are then photographed.

Porous evidence, like paper, is placed in a humidity tank and chemicals are applied to it, which will then develop prints. With footwear and tire marks, examiners can create impressions to find matches.

“It’s great evidence in court,” Buckingham said about prints and impressions.

Digital evidence is a resource for solving crimes, as well. Analysts at the regional lab can break into cellphones and laptop devices to help connect suspects to crimes.

Sign up for email newsletters