Regional crime lab's newest director is longtime fixture

Thursday, February 3, 2005

In 1973 a freshman at Southeast Missouri State University was contemplating her future. She liked science but didn't think she wanted to be a teacher. In 1986, after working for a crime lab in Gary, Ind., she began working for the Southeast Missouri Regional Crime Lab.

On Jan. 1, Pamela Johnson -- the freshman who decided on a chemistry major in 1973 -- became director of the crime lab. She had been interim director since 2003.

Johnson's ties to the lab run deep. Her father, Weldon Macke, is one of the original committee members who got the lab started in 1969.

The federal government started funding crime labs under pressure from courts who were overloaded with cases brought about by the burgeoning drug culture of the time.

Johnson recalled telling her father over Christmas break of her freshman year that she wanted to major in chemistry. He suggested she take a look at the crime lab on campus he had a hand in getting started.

"I fell in love with it," Johnson said.

Deborah Enderle, an evidence custodian with the Cape Girardeau Police Department for the past six years, worked under Johnson at the lab when she was a student at Southeast. Enderle was glad to hear that Johnson is now the director.

"She's very intelligent and great to work with. She's the only other person who has been there since the beginning. I don't know who better to have there," she said.

Johnson worked closely with former director Robert Briner until he retired. During that time and while she was interim director, Johnson helped guide the lab toward becoming a state-of-the-art facility. Plans are in place to move the university's Law Enforcement Academy under the same roof and to offer autopsies and other pathology now available only in Farmington, Mo.

"Having a regional pathology lab will be beneficial to all law enforcement in the area," said Cape Girardeau County Coroner John Clifton, who recently moved his office to the lab.

Since moving in 2003 into its location at 122 S. Ellis St., a building that was once a tire store, the crime lab has added equipment to aid in crime solving.

The newest piece of equipment at the lab is a $40,000computer-generated machine that quickly and more accurately determines a person's level of intoxication. It was just delivered in December, and Johnson said she has been validating the machine with the intent of having it up and running by the middle of the month.

The machine will be used in conjunction with other automated equipment that determines the level of narcotics in a person's system.

Johnson said most of the funding for the equipment at the lab comes from federal and state grants and from income the lab generates through fees.

The lab can do DNA testing but is waiting for an employee to become qualified as a serologist to fill a vacancy. Until then technologists prepare samples for testing before sending them to the Missouri State Highway Patrol lab in Jefferson City, cutting down on some of the time it takes to get the results back.

The lab has equipment that preserves evidence for testing, tests evidence for fingerprints, does ballistics testing and assists in solving homicides, drug cases, burglaries and other crimes.

Enderle takes 15 to 20 cases to the lab each week. The lab is valuable, she said, because it can provide results quickly.

"If we need to determine whether we need to go forward with charges or put somebody in custody or if we have to make sure fingerprints match, I can practically walk across the street and ask them and they are able to do it right away," Enderle said. "If we had to send everything to Jefferson City it would take months to get results."

Currently the crime lab provides services for 90 agencies in 20 counties.

The lab's first location was in a converted three-bedroom house near the university campus.

"They did so much with so little for so long everybody expected them to do everything with nothing," said Steve Sokoloff, Dunklin County prosecutor. He is the president of the advisory council that helps the staff plan future projects and raised money to buy the new location. "... Now they have someplace to really work."

Because of the limited space in the former location, the lab was never accredited by the state. It now has space where technicians can write their reports away from where they conducted the tests -- one of the requirements for accreditation. Johnson plans to get the lab accredited now that it can meet the guidelines. That will help secure more money for another employee or two so the lab can keep up with demand.

As technology advances, the crime lab does its best to keep up.

"I would like to be able to get into where we can have a computer at a crime scene and have experts to work with it," Johnson said.

She noted that in Southeast Missouri only two people are qualified to do computer document recovery. Lt. David James of the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department is one of them.

Having someone qualified to recover computer documents helps solve crimes involving pornography, tracking e-mail and records in drug cases, and solving identity theft.

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