Real-Life CSI

8:52 pm Crime Stories


Sunday, December 3, 1995

By DAWN SHURMAITIS; Times Leader Staff Writer

A strand of hair, a speck of blood, a tiny slice of human tissue.

From such bits of evidence, the forensic scientist can tell an untold
number of tales about long-gone criminals and ever-silent victims.
At the squat, square state police crime lab in Wyoming, five forensic
specialists tackle thousands of cases a year. Through the use of computers,
microscopes and chemical analysis, the scientists help investigators in 13
Northeastern Pennsylvania counties catch crooks and secure convictions.

Business is booming.

In all of 1994, the Wyoming lab handled 3,200 cases. The lab surpassed that
number by mid-October of this year. The backlog has pushed the turnaround
for results from six to eight and even 10 weeks.

Lt. Joe Bonenberger, central regional commander for the Wyoming and
Harrisburg crime labs, blames an ever-increasing number of narcotics
arrests. Today, an estimated 60 percent of the lab’s work is drug related.

Any time police confiscate suspected illegal drugs, they must have them
tested at the lab to verify they are illegal substances. Is it marijuana or
oregano? Cocaine or talcum powder? Speed or allergy pill?

Tests aren’t limited to narcotics.

During hunting season, forensic specialists frequently test, of all things,

While it is not illegal to make, it is illegal to sell kielbasi packed with
deer meat. State game commissioners often haul suspicious sausage to the
lab for analysis.

Once tested, the evidence is returned, not eaten.

Lessons from O.J.

During the O.J. Simpson murder trial, forensic scientists blasted onto the
front page of the nation’s newspapers.

Wyoming lab director Walter Hrynkiw paid particular attention to the
testimony of L.A. criminalist Collin Yamauchi.

The Simpson defense aggressively attacked Yamauchi, who acknowledged that
some elements of the evidence handling, particularly when it came to vials
of Simpson’s blood, were less than perfect.

“It was an education,” Hrynkiw said of the testimony he religiously
videotaped. “I’m using it as an example of what not to do.”

The first link in the chain of evidence is forged at the crime scene. That
link is sealed at the crime lab.

To ensure quality and reduce the possibility of contamination and error,
the lab keeps close tabs on each sample submitted by police. Each piece, no
matter how minuscule, is tagged and logged.

“We have to ensure the integrity of the evidence,” Hrynkiw said. “There’s
so much paperwork, but it has to be done.”

All of the forensic scientists — and their results — are subject to
intense scrutiny once a criminal case heads to court. Hrynkiw estimated he
spends 30 percent of his time testifying to the validity of the evidence

Sometimes, the evidence disproves criminal activity. It is not uncommon for
the forensic scientists to exonerate suspects.

As a result, the scientists have earned the respect of prosecutors and
defense attorneys.

“I’ve always found the state police crime lab to be above board and
straight shooters,” said local defense attorney Gerald Deady. “They’ve gone
out on the limb for defense.”

Luzerne County First Assistant District Attorney Dan Pillets credits the
lab and Hrynkiw for help on innumerable cases, particularly in drunken
driving and drug prosecutions.

“They absolutely help. In some cases, like drug cases, the tests they do
are essential,” Pillets said.

Occasionally, if the lab lacks the technical expertise for a particular
test, the district attorney’s office might send the samples to the FBI
crime lab outside Washington, D.C. or to National Medical Services outside

Pillets said that for the most part the local lab offers the expert advice
his office needs.

“Dr. Hrynkiw is extremely bright and helpful,” Pillets said. “That type of
expertise is invaluable.”

Memorable cases

Just inside the lab’s front door hangs a framed letter from the state
police at Dunmore.

The letter commends forensics for its assistance in the second-degree
murder conviction of Scranton resident Frank Osellanie, who raped and
killed 9-year-old Renee Jean Waddle and then set her body on fire.

Hrynkiw, who has a doctorate and specializes in the study of toxins and
poisons, said he can’t recall the case.

“It’s just numbers after a while,” he said. “I never get personally
involved in any case. It’s not my job.”

In addition to his work for the lab, Hrynkiw acts as a hired hand for
prosecutors outside this region. He said he is accepted as an expert in New
York, New Jersey, California and all federal courts.

So far, cases Hrynkiw worked on have ended up in three books and two
movies. When asked which case presented the greatest challenge, Hrynkiw
points to Jock Yablonski, a labor organizer from Washington County who
challenged union strongman Tony Boyle for the presidency of the powerful
United Mine Workers Union.

In 1970, hit men killed Yablonski, his wife and daughter. Hrynkiw analyzed
the blood from the scene and helped investigators cinch convictions for
three hired gunmen.

Bonenberger will never forget the case of the telling tattoo.

The body decomposed in the woods in central Pennsylvania for nine months
before it was discovered. Police, trying to put a name to the bones and
bits of remaining flesh, had little to go on. Animals scattered the teeth
and bones. Fingerprint analysis could have taken months.

But a forensic scientist took a piece of now-blackened flesh from the
victim’s upper arm and by exposing it to various infrared wavelengths
uncovered a tattoo later identified by a friend of the deceased.

“What’s fascinating to someone on the outside is routine to us,”
Bonenberger said. “One case is just like another.”

Dealing with DNA

Forensic scientists can determine if a hair is human or belongs to a dog.
They know if the hair was dyed, plucked or yanked. They can tell which part
of the body it came from and whether that body was male or female.

If the hair was pulled out by the root and a bit of follicle remains, a DNA
test can help make a match. During the Simpson trial, prosecution experts
devoted weeks to DNA tests and results, which they said proved beyond a
reasonable doubt that Simpson killed his wife and her friend.

But, Hrynkiw cautioned, “DNA is never absolute. The only way it can be
absolute is if every person in the world is tested, and you can’t do that.”

All DNA testing in Pennsylvania is conducted at the state police lab in
Greensburg. The labor-intensive test typically takes eight weeks and is the
most expensive that the crime labs perform.

Next to DNA, tests of blood samples are the most time consuming, taking up
to 16 hours to complete.

“You can’t rush it,” Hrynkiw said. “Our responsibility in this lab is to
produce quality work.”

Big job, big money

The crime labs are among the top three most expensive of the state police’s
29 divisions, operating on an annual budget of $6.4 million.

It cost the state $492,946 to run the Wyoming lab last year. Much of the
money is spent on expensive, technologically advanced equipment.

Just getting a repair person to check a malfunctioning gas chromatography
mass spectrometer — a special instrument to analyze drugs — can cost
$2,500. New, the same machine starts around $100,000 and can run as high as

But if technology costs, it also helps.

Before, for instance, state police had to search for fingerprint matches by
shuffling through thousands and thousands of files. Since 1991, they’ve
been able to pop the print in the computer and within minutes they know if
they have a match within Pennsylvania.

“We clear a lot of crimes that way,” Hrynkiw said.

In addition to an estimated 1,200 blood-alcohol tests scientists conduct
for police in 13 counties each year, the lab does work for myriad state and
federal agencies, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Technicians might restore a gun’s ground-down serial number for the ATF or
conduct a drug analysis for the DEA. When the state’s Liquor Control Board
raids a local bar and confiscates bottles of expensive scotch, it is the
lab technicians who determine if the liquor is actually a cheap, watered
down substitute.

Once the tests are complete, the technicians submit the results to

“The officer makes the case,” said Hrynkiw. “We only supplement their
investigation. `We paint as unbiased a picture as possible.”

Despite the lab’s importance to numerous criminal investigations, the lab
employees themselves often go unnoticed.

“Everyone is dedicated,” Bonenberger said. “But most of the time the lab
person isn’t recognized. They’re used, abused and cast away.”

That’s fine with Hrynkiw, who said, “We like to be the little lab nobody
knows about.”
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