Pileup at the Morgue

Time is running out for Hamilton County to upgrade its critically outdated morgue and crime lab

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amilton County Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco’s voice is rising as we sit in a windowless conference room in the coroner’s office, the squat brown brick building hunkered down among the gleaming new glass and steel of the University of Cincinnati’s medical campus.

Sammarco ticks off a laundry list of problems the office has been struggling with for the past few years: too little space; too little staff; vehicles so old they’re sometimes out on maintenance when they’re needed to pick up bodies; pipes full of autopsy debris backing up under the building; body coolers and ventilation equipment malfunctioning.

You know how you can’t use a space heater and blow dryer at the same time in an old house without tripping a breaker? The crime lab has the same problem, only with its expensive and vital DNA analysis equipment, Sammarco says.

She and Crime Lab Director Mike Trimpe would like to continue running what has become a dependable, sought-after forensic lab. That’s a big turnaround 25 years after three lawsuits rocked the office and eventually forced the county to pay $20 million in settlements. Since those suits over improper behavior involving photography of corpses and removal of body parts by lab employees, the coroner’s office has built a much better reputation.

“Our most important evidence comes from that lab,” Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Dieters said in 2011, when attention was first being focused on its condition. Other law enforcement officials concur.

But Sammarco and Trimpe say the high level of service they offer is getting more and more difficult. A cramped, 40-year-old building in need of major updates, or complete replacement, and a small staff at the limits of its productivity are being stretched to provide testing on all of the county’s rising number of DNA, drug, ballistics and other forensic cases, as well as similar services for more than a dozen other municipalities.

Employees share a desk inside the DNA lab.
Photo: Jesse Fox

“We’re at that point where it’s critical,” Sammarco says. “Whether it’s in the morgue or the crime lab, we’re at the absolute limit.”

An answer to the biggest of the lab’s problems — an obsolete building that can no longer accommodate the demands of modern forensic science — seemed like a done deal as late as November. But a 500,000-square-foot former hospital in Mount Airy presented to the county for free comes with political and financial complications that make it unclear if and when the coroner’s office will get an upgrade.

Doing less with less

The list of problems for the coroner’s office and crime lab is long and well publicized. Sammarco is a vocal advocate for her office, and a number of stories on the lab’s condition have run in local media over the past few years during a period of exceptionally dire budget constraints across county departments.

In September, the morgue’s main body cooler broke down, causing a scramble to pay for another. Sewage is backing up in the morgue, and the pipes under it must be pressure washed every night to assure that autopsy waste doesn’t build up. The building’s electricity is inadequate for new equipment that has come about since it was constructed, and it will cost $2 million to update, an independent analysis found. Trimpe says the lab got a new device for DNA analysis, but technicians can only run it when they unplug another machine. Even the costly upgrade may only be adequate for a few years.

“It’s like plugging a hole in Hoover Dam,” Trimpe says.

It’s not just the coroner’s office and crime lab that are suffering, of course. Hamilton County has sheared the size of its government by a third since 2008, cutting 900 employees and $75 million in spending. That belt tightening has come thanks in part to declining tax revenues brought on by the Great Recession, but also in part to a “do more with less” small-government approach fostered by conservative county commissioners.

A number of departments have seen big cuts in the last six years, including the Sheriff’s Office, which saw its budget fall from $75 million in 2008 to $57 million in 2013. During that same time span, the coroner’s budget dropped almost a quarter, from $4 million to $3.1 million. This year saw the restoration of some funds, but inflation and increasing costs have chiseled into how far that money will go, and the need for forensic evidence has only increased. In 2008, the coroner’s office accepted 958 cases. In 2012, the last year for which data is available, that number had crept up to 1,027.

This year, a refusal to put another tax increase on the ballot by conservative commissioners Greg Hartmann and Chris Monzel means that the county’s budget will stay almost flat at $200 million. That’s a bare-bones level, many departments say. Democrat Commissioner Todd Portune agrees.

One current chemist’s workspace is a makeshift desk comprised of file cabinets, complete with tape covering any sharp edges.
Photo: Jesse Fox

“We’re at a point where, all we’re going to do with less is less,” Portune said in November. “And the less we do with less next year will be unacceptably bad.”

As recently as last month, it looked as though many of the problems that had been dogging the lab for years would finally be solved.

In January, Mercy Hospital offered to give Hamilton County its former hospital building in Mount Airy for one dollar. It’s an enormous 500,000-square-foot building that could house the crime lab, coroner’s office and a number of other county offices. County Commissioners announced that month they would accept the building and began paying for upkeep on the building to the tune of $1 million so far.

While the building is basically free, fitting it out to host the crime lab, coroner’s office and other offices won’t be. That process could cost up to $100 million.

That’s a big number. But the one that really stands between the lab and its new location is a very small one: a quarter cent on the dollar.

In November, Hamilton County Administrator Christian Sigman put forth his budget recommendations for fiscal year 2015. He called for a .25 percent sales tax increase to help pay for retrofitting the building. County Commissioners Chris Monzel and Greg Hartmann balked at the tax increase, however. Voters had just approved another quarter-cent tax hike to fund the renovation of Union Terminal, a deal Monzel and Hartmann pared down by keeping Music Hall out of the mix.

They weren’t about to ask voters to raise the tax again, they said. Instead, the two modified an alternate budget suggestion with no tax boost and very little increase in spending. The Republican commissioners shelved the Mount Airy plan for the time being, indicating money for the project couldn’t come entirely from the county. Both suggested investigation into public-private partnerships to help pay for the building’s renovations, a decision they hope to make in the early days of the new year. They’ve also suggested looking into partnerships with the state’s crime lab in London, Ohio.

Sammarco, and some law enforcement officials, have said sending cases out of town will slow down processing.

“We’re always available and a phone call away,” she says. “We can do that as a local lab.”

The commissioners have long agreed that something must be done — but there is little agreement on what, exactly, that something should be and how it will be funded.

“There are some serious deficiencies there from a space perspective,” Hartmann said of the lab in 2011. “It’s outdated, it’s cramped, and they’re doing a critical job helping the prosecutor’s office.”

But he argues that the commissioners’ hands are tied for the time being. Hartmann called the county’s new budget “the best we can do” under the fiscal circumstances.

Though the financial atmosphere in the county is still challenging, things are not as dire as years prior. Sales tax receipts in the county have grown $9 million since their recession nadir in 2009. And even with the Union Terminal tax boost, Hamilton County’s sales tax rate is still a relatively low 7 percent. Cuyahoga County’s is 8 percent. Chicago’s is 9.25.

Portune opposes the current iteration of the Mount Airy plan for unrelated reasons — mainly because the county’s Board of Elections would also move there under the plan, a thorny issue that could complicate voting access for low-income residents of the county. But he’s not convinced the current budget is the best that can be done for departments like the coroner’s office.

Technicians sometimes fire weapons from one room into another during ballistics testing due to a lack of space.
Photo: Jesse Fox

“I’m not sure Mount Airy is the right answer, but we have to find an answer for what she does,” Portune said of Sammarco, “to make sure that the coroner is not unduly strapped so that she is not laying off additional pathologists, which is going to happen. It’s going to exacerbate an already bad situation.”

The alternate budget looks tough for the office. A budget impact report drawn up by the county says that the coroner’s office and crime lab could lose three employees under the plan, including one of the lab’s three drug chemists. One was just hired last year. Though money could be forthcoming to keep that situation from happening, the idea still incenses Sammarco as we talk in the conference room.

“Keeping people safe isn’t politics,” she says. “We want to keep this community a safe place. And we don’t want innocent people being put away in jail for something they didn’t do.”

Counterproductive environment

After my conversation with Sammarco, Trimpe offers me a tour.

Most of the labs are on the third floor of the building, including those where the drug chemists, trace evidence specialists and ballistics experts work. As Trimpe pushes the elevator button, the doors slide open and a strong odor of pot comes wafting through. Two men carting dollies stacked high with boxes are crammed into the small elevator.

“Ah, we’ll take the next one,” he says. Trimpe explains the boxes are drug seizures coming in to be catalogued and tested.

When we get up to the third floor, the boxes are lined up against the hallway wall waiting to be checked in. For the moment, there is nowhere else to put them. Trimpe says sometimes the lab needs to dry marijuana, and when it does workers have to do so in a utility closet.

Also lined up in the hallways are boxes of files, a microscope and any number of other things that just won’t fit anywhere else. Everything is neat and orderly as can be expected, but very cramped.

The interior of the labs is austere except for the flashes of harvest gold, avocado green and rusty orange brown adorning cabinets and counter tops. It all looks very 1970s, but the retro-fetishist’s dream is also a forensic scientist’s nightmare.

The 35,000-square-foot facility is so cramped lab technicians must be extra-careful not to cross-contaminate something in the trace evidence room with gun powder residue from the ballistics room next door.

As he leads me on the tour, Trimpe introduces me to firearms examiner Ben Jeschke, who is sitting at a computer in the firearms section of the lab. Next to him is an open door into another small room with a bright red backstop. This, Trimpe tells me, is where they do their ballistics testing. The room isn’t big enough for all necessary weapons tests, so sometimes technicians have to stand outside the room and fire through the doorway, though presumably not when Jeschke is sitting at his computer.

The office doesn’t have a table large enough to inspect large objects, so employees use a ping pong table and a cart for lighting and tools.
Photo: Jesse Fox

On the other side of the firearms lab is the trace evidence lab, where lab technicians work to find the exact composition of any number of substances found at crime scenes. Some tests must be done on another floor in a room not much bigger than a closet to avoid contamination from gun shot residue next door.

Next up is the drug lab, where Trimpe tells me the ventilation equipment has been on the fritz. That’s not so great when technicians are working with dangerous chemicals.

“Our hoods have been shutting down the past few days, and they’re using methlyene chloride in those hoods,” Trimpe says. “Hello.” The chemical is a solvent that can cause damage to the central nervous system if inhaled in high concentrations.

When the hoods stop working, everyone has to evacuate the room until they can be fixed and the fumes cleared. One of the hoods, original to the building, leaks rain water and smells like exhaust when cars idle in the parking lot. The equipment is so old replacement parts are no longer made for them; every fix must be a custom job.

Technicians are working heavy loads. The drug lab’s three chemists are processing 300 cases a month each, compared to just 100 each at the state’s crime lab in London, Ohio, which has 10 techs. Adding to the crush of cases are time constraints.

Hamilton County does something called rapid indictments. If someone is arrested for a drug charge, the drug lab has just 10 days to do any necessary tests. The lab hasn’t missed a deadline yet, though sometimes it’s a hustle to get the testing done. That puts other tasks on the backburner.

Trimpe says they’d like to hire another drug chemist to help handle some of the increasing number of drug cases the lab is getting, but there just isn’t room; space is so scarce one of the current chemists has to sit with her legs in a gutted file cabinet under the lab’s counter.

“She’s really skinny, so she can put her knees in there and that’s become her desk,” Sammarco told me earlier in the day. “We lined it with packing tape so she doesn’t snag her clothes.”

A cluttered work station in a cramped hallway.
Photo: Jesse Fox

A 2012 needs assessment on the lab by forensics group Crime Lab Design details many of these problems. The lab, it said, was doing good work but was simply too small and needed to be more than double its current size to safely and efficiently deliver the services it needed to perform. It’s also understaffed. The 50 people working in the lab and coroner’s office at the time weren’t enough, according to Crime Lab Design. The number of cases meant that a bare minimum of 64 was needed to optimally perform the work done there.

A vital role

Having the necessary levels of staff with the right training isn’t just about speed and efficiency, experts say. Recent scandals in crime labs across the country from hurried, shoddy work have cost municipalities millions in lawsuits. They’ve also led to both false convictions and the release of violent criminals.

Last year, a Massachusetts state drug lab was closed after it was discovered that lab technician Annie Dookhan had falsified tens of thousands of drug cases and forged coworkers’ signatures in the name of being fast and efficient. Since those revelations, more than 1,000 convictions made using evidence from the lab have been challenged, and more than 500 defendants have been freed.

Just months prior, the police crime lab in St. Paul, Minnesota stopped doing much of its analysis after it was discovered that many of its employees, including the police sergeant running it, had no scientific background. Reviews by independent experts found that lab employees didn’t clean instruments between tests, used Wikipedia to find information and were given no standard procedures for conducting tests.

Other incidents in Florida, Texas, South Carolina, New York and elsewhere underscore how important good technicians are and how much is at stake in labs.

Among the problems that have caused this wave of crime lab failures over the past decade, a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences found, is chronic understaffing and underfunding of labs.

Hamilton County’s crime lab hasn’t had failures since its very public scandal 25 yeas ago, but continued erosion of resources makes it harder and harder to produce quality results.

“We have experts in our crime labs who are totally irrefutable on the stand,” Sammarco says, boasting that every one of the lab’s technicians has a master’s degree. “And when they do their work here, nobody says, ‘Well wait a minute, we’re going to have to have someone else take a look at that because we don’t think you did it right.’ ”

But it can be hard to hold on to that kind of employee. There’s a dearth of well-trained forensic scientists, which makes competition for the best drug chemists, firearms experts and others intense.

Since she’s come on board, Sammarco says the lab lost a chemist to that competition, someone who left for a much more lucrative job in the private sector.

“It’s hard not to take that,” she says. “That was after six years of not getting any raises. That’s a highly trained person, who we trained here, who we lost because of that.”

While Hamilton County wrestles with various ways to fix its underfunded forensic lab, other cities are moving to update their facilities. Columbus is spending $11 million on a new crime lab, despite being just 30 miles from the state’s Bureau of Criminal Investigations lab in the nearby city of London. Cuyahoga County has also poured millions into a new facility in Cleveland after a 14-year effort led by a former prosecutor there.

Cities around the country are investing big in their forensic science labs as well, perhaps chastened by the wave of failures and subsequent legal and financial fallout. In California, Alameda County Coroner staff last month christened their new facility in Oakland, the result of a $31 million renovation that also updated the county’s crime lab. Before that, workers there faced cramped conditions and obsolete equipment.

Whether Hamilton County gets a similar upgrade is still up in the air. Since county commissioners don’t consider a sales tax increase an option, they are currently working to find partners who can put up private funds to help make the Mount Airy renovation happen. They say they hope to make a decision on the site early next year.

For Dr. Sammarco, however, there’s no question about what needs to be done.

“These are peoples’ family members in this county who we’re processing evidence for,” Sammarco says, “and their lives depend on this.” ©

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