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An inside look at an ATF lab in Walnut Creek

October 31, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
ABC30 News got an exclusive look inside the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms laboratory in Walnut Creek. We're not allowed to tell you where it is, but it's a place where some of the toughest crimes are solved -- and reporters are rarely invited in.

The Walnut Creek laboratory is one of three ATF labs in the country. The others are in Maryland and Atlanta. They are the largest research labs in the world dedicated to fire, explosives and weapons investigations.

"This lab covers everything from Montana to Texas west," said ATF Special Agent Helen Dunkel.

The forensics examination room is the heart of the ATF lab where analysts try to find what kind of ignitable liquids or explosives were used to cause explosions and fires. In a side room are samples of just about every possible bomb component: clocks, gun powders, timers, detonators, even matchbooks.

Also in this room is a gun vault filled with all types of handguns and rifles -- anything that fires a bullet. We saw a magic marker which is a single shot pistol. Also in this forensics lab are different types of pipe bombs -- the most commonly used explosive device in this country.

"That's what makes them so popular and prevalent is, it's easy to obtaining the information, the ease of obtaining the components, and the ease of assembly," said Brian Parker, the ATF certified fire investigator.

Forensics chemist Katherine Hutches is laboriously piecing together fragments from a pipe bomb.

"So these are two different pipe pieces and even though they're clearly damaged, you can see how these fit together. But you can see, with all the pressure it warps the pipe," said Hutches.

The equipment is state of the art. One computer provides 3-D images, so lab analysts can look at every aspect of a cartridge case and firing pin. Firearms technician Megan Shaw examines one from a Glock handgun. She enters the image into a national data base and finds a match with a cartridge from another crime scene. You can see how consistent the lines are from the two cartridges.

"These were both fired from the same gun and that's an investigative lead we can give to the agents or detectives and they can go from there," said Shaw.

The science in this lab is so intricate, analysts can even determine if a particular tool was used to make a bomb or alter a firearm into an automatic weapon or to construct a homemade silencer. In one case analysts matched copper wire found in the home of a bomb maker to the wire of an exploded bomb. The pliers belonging to a suspect matched the markings of the tool used to jimmy a lock. Examiner Howard Kong says tools are like fingerprints.

"Each tool has a unique surface that leaves marks on tool items," said Kong. Under Kong's watch, criminals can no longer get away with destroying ID numbers of firearms. "They would erase the serial number on the guns and I use different methods to restore the number and see what the original number is."

Here at the lab hard-to-get latent fingerprints are no problem with a sophisticated instrument. A bottle was placed in a chamber with superglue fumes. When it heats up, fingerprints appear on the bottle. When it's harder to detect, a dye stain is added to items which are then placed under a laser. The laser illuminates the object, which then reveals a print on the bottle. Analysts here can lift fingerprints from just about anywhere.

"We have anything from garbage bags to paper forms to little baggies. It can be pretty much anything that they seize from a crime scene," said fingerprint specialist Tania Kapila.

The work here can be laborious and time consuming, but the crime lab's success rate is high. One might say, "You just can't get away with anything anymore."


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