May 7, 2013

GBI uses high-tech tools to solve crime mysteries

Rachel Brown

— It’s not exactly like a “CSI” show in the sense that investigators can easily pop onto a scene, locate mounds of evidence and nail down the “whodunit” and how of every crime within an hour.

Yet some of the tools and techniques Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents use now are reminiscent of what such shows portray. GBI Special Agent Daniel Sims, a crime scene specialist for the region covering Whitfield County, spoke on Monday to Kiwanis Club members about the work of the state’s investigative agency.

The GBI, he said, employs 250 agents in the state’s 159 counties, and they work about 5,000 cases a year. They’re often called in to assist local law enforcement agencies because of their specialized equipment and training. For example, GBI agents have access to a digital imaging scanner that can document hundreds of thousands of measurements on a crime scene and provide a way for juries or others to see the scene as if they were there. It costs about $200,000, but it can perform work that would take an investigator many days or longer to document by hand.

Sims said agents have access to a DNA identification system, a fingerprinting system and specialized lighting techniques that can show up certain kinds of DNA. For example, they were able to take a mattress from a suspected sexual assault case in Murray County and use two different colors of lenses that cause any semen present to become illuminated.

Agents found two suspects in a Ringgold bank robbery not long ago using a combination of tools after the robbers ditched the victims’ cellphones, plus the boots and other items the robbers had been wearing, in a garbage container. Sims said investigators were able to track the location of the cellphones to find the dumped items, then used DNA-finding techniques to identify the individuals in the robbery.

Because the robbers had previously been in prison, and because inmates’ DNA samples are taken when they enter correctional systems, investigators were able to learn who pulled off the crime, Sims said.

The average GBI agent has more than 150 hours of training each year, he said, while law enforcement officers are required to have only 20. The GBI typically gets involved in a case at the request of a local sheriff, judge or police chief.

“We don’t have the authority to initiate an investigation on a private request,” Sims said.

District Attorney Bert Poston said the local law enforcement agencies he works with in the judicial district that covers Whitfield and Murray counties are all very good, but having the GBI step in at times with its specialized equipment and training can be a big help when it comes time to prosecute.