LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County Forensics Chief Charles May doesn't expect to see his squad on CBS any time soon.
As a matter of fact, his 11-member team of forensic technicians doesn't resemble any cast members from any of the three shows of the CSI franchise.
"You get a lot of people that get into that mind-set," May said. "But (the techs) can tell you it's not like TV. It's not like the glamorous gizmos and gadgets. You can't pull up a print in seconds and have a name and a photo attached to it. That's just not how it works."
For May, he has better things to do — or watch, for that matter. May claims he doesn't watch CSI or any similar show, and he has little time to do so. According to May, the number of forensic calls in Pasco has nearly doubled in the past two years. In 2005, it was at 803, then in 2006, it spiked to 1,158. In 2007, the calls were 1,598, a figure that has been helped by the inordinate growth of Pasco County over the past eight years, May said.
"A lot of people think that just because we're not a big city — we're attached to a big city," May said. "We don't have a wall built up. We allow people to come in from Hillsborough and Pinellas County. Those are some big counties. Years ago, you may have gotten that this is a rural area, but now subdivisions are affecting everything.
"It seems that a subdivision pops up every day, and as you can see, our stats have gone up about 50 percent in two years."
In 2004, the squad handled 15 murder investigations, 12 in 2005 and then a record 27 in 2006. While the 2007 figures haven't been finalized by Tallahassee, Sheriff's Office spokesman Doug Tobin says that the number of murders in 2007 should be 18.
Sue Miller, a forensic tech for eight years, said that every day doesn't include a high-profile case that causes Hollywood to come running.
"There is plenty to do, even with it being Pasco County," Miller said. "It may not be a double homicide, but, yeah, it's still important. A lot of our calls may not be on TV or in the paper, but they still have to be done. And when we're not doing that, we're doing the other stuff — reports, photo requests — all that occupies our time more so than what they see on TV."
Eye of the beholder
Fingerprint identification is big on CSI. Actually, it's a prominent method used in the show, and according to these real-life techs, the fake TV show techs can "pull a fingerprint from just about anywhere."
That's the magic of Tinseltown.
"I hate those shows," 20-year-old tech Justin Ross said. "I watched a half-hour of CSI once, and I was done. There's some stuff on there, like some of their portrayals of AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System), that's ridiculous (and) overdramatized. I understand that no one is going to watch a show of me writing a report, but people think we can get a fingerprint off anything like they do on CSI. That's just not the case."
Fingerprint specialist Martiza Gutierrez can vouch for that. Gutierrez handles every print the techs process from scenes and evidence. On CSI, a computer pulls up a match to a scanned fingerprint in seconds. That, however, is fiction. It's all Gutierrez's hard work, using her trained eye and AFIS, to make comparisons or a match.
"That's Hollywood — this is real life," Gutierrez said. "I may watch the shows from time to time, but I watch CSI once in a while and get a chuckle out of it. I like to see how they make things different and say, 'Oh, that's not how it happens.' "
The squad uses three methods to pull prints. They can dust the items with magnetic dust, which clings to oils and water secretions from a person; they can spray the paper item with Ninhydrin, a chemical used to detect ammonia that reacts to fingerprints by turning it deep blue on the item, and then let them dry overnight; or they can use an evaporator tube, placing the item inside the tube along with a vial of Super Glue. The tube raises the fingerprint, which then can be dusted and put on a latent lift card for analysis.
Whatever they process, whether it be an old candy wrapper or a gun, is tagged and bagged into an evidence locker — and it can be a tedious process. As Miller says, it's one that's largely exaggerated on TV.
"You get that all the time that people at crime scenes will say, 'Well, I saw that on CSI,' " Miller said. "I watched an episode, and they solved the crime by using a toenail. That's when I said no way to this. Things between the two are just not the same as you might think."
The dark side
The job can get ugly.
"They have to, no matter what the circumstances are, be within their elements," May said. "They just can't walk into a gruesome scene and say, 'I'm not going to deal with this.' That's their job, and it's tough."
There's a double homicide, and Miller and Ross, for example, are there. A gruesome suicide deep in the woods of Dade City, where the body has nearly rotted while hanging from a tree, and the techs photograph it from every horrible angle.
It goes on and on — from dusting pot houses to sifting through dilapidated homes and even responding to a petty burglary. The techs must go out on calls and stay detached from the scene in front of them.
"Forensics has always been behind the scenes, always taken for granted," May said. "Everyone has only paid attention to what the actual detective is doing. It may enlighten them a little bit, but (on TV) it's unrealistic. That's not reality. What we do, that's real."
Miller agrees, saying, "When I started eight years ago, there was no CSI. But it's brought attention, good attention to us, that people are aware what we do and how we do it."
But being a forensic tech isn't necessarily just another run-of-the-mill occupation. It's a high-stress job, it can be high-profile, and while it has a pitfall or two of humdrum, there are still numerous shows centered on it.
"This is an exciting job, or it can be," Ross said. "Whenever you get to work a homicide or a high-profile case, that's exciting, but I do a lot of the boring stuff. I do mostly burglaries and break-ins. It's what I do because they were getting overwhelmed with them, but that's still my job."
"There just won't be a show about it."
Mike Camunas can be reached
at [email protected]
or (352) 544-9480.