SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Some of the most important police work in Utah’s capital city happens inside a nondescript building on the west side. It’s the Salt Lake City Police Department Crime Lab, where science meets law enforcement and mysteries are revealed.
It’s the place where crime scene technicians and forensics experts work around the clock seven days a week processing evidence. If it were a TV show it would probably be called “CSI: SLC” but unlike a prime-time crime drama, this is real.
On November 28th, 2017 police found the body of a woman with a gunshot wound to the head at the Gateway Inn on North Temple. All the evidence they gathered in Room 406 ended up at the SLCPD Crime Lab.
Derek Mears has been the Lab Director for the past five years and says it’s not exactly like you see on television.
“The biggest thing is everything’s just kind of exaggerated, sped up,” Mears told Behind The Badge.
“Certainly, we’re not solving crimes in the matter of an hour. It takes a lot of personnel…A lot of the shows kind of depict the investigators as being experts in numerous fields so there are some of those fallacies.”
Mears and his staff allowed us inside as they processed several items – invisible stains on a TV shirt glow under blue light. A seized substance tested with chemicals turns out to be marijuana. A wine bottle reveals fingerprints when dusted with black powder. Forensic technician Holly Arguello lifts them with tape and transfers them to a card.
“Very tried and true,” Arguello said. “We use this on probably every crime scene.”
Fingerprint expert Brittany Nelson then inputs the cars to AFIS, the automated Fingerprint Identification System which returns a list of possible matches.
“I will then go through that candidate list and review each and every one of those and do a manual comparison to see if we can figure out whose prints those are,” Nelson said.
Mears is the lab’s gun expert. By shooting into a special tank of water, he can recover the bullets and then examine the microscopic markings left by the firing pin and barrel. In this case, the casings were a match.
They were fired by the same weapon.
“It’s all small pieces to a larger puzzle that we’re looking at,” Mears said.
As for the body in the motel room, a man named Joshua Valasi Saunders was convicted of 2nd-degree manslaughter for killing 25-year-old Mechelle Lindberg and is currently serving a five-year sentence in the Utah State Prison, thanks in part to evidence processed here.
“A lot of the cases are dependent on us finding that evidence and documenting that evidence and linking those suspects to those crimes,” Mears said. “When we actually catch the bad guy, it’s very satisfying.”
A national board of crime laboratories recently accredited the SLCPD Crime Lab, noting they demonstrated excellence in 160 different standards, including crime scene investigations, fingerprints, and firearms.