Crime scene techs determined, dedicated

Jan. 1—When Cynthia Gomez was a senior in high school a prominent Odessa couple was stabbed to death. She saw crime scene techs spend hours at the scene collecting evidence. She knew then what she wanted to do for a living.

The man suspected of killing Dick and Peggy Glover was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to three life terms without the possibility of parole in November 2012. Among the things linking James Burwell to the scene? Fingerprints and bloody boots.

Gomez now spends her days dusting for finger and palm prints, photographing crime scenes and collecting blood and other evidence as a crime scene technician with the Odessa Police Department. She recently testified during a high profile aggravated kidnapping and aggravated assault case in Ector County District Court.

When fully staffed, Crime Scene Unit Supervisor Stephanie Bothwell has 10 employees working under her. In addition to six crime scene techs, she has three property technicians who are responsible for logging evidence in and out and making sure it remains secure when it's not being analyzed or used in court. She also has a clerk.

Bothwell, who described her staff as dedicated people with a lot of fortitude, is retiring Jan. 17.

"They are determined to do the best job they can to tell the story and they know they may have to testify one day," Bothwell said. "They know what they do has value and may mean someone may get justice or may not get justice based on what they do."

Because they are often dealing with victims on what may be the worst day of their lives, crime scene techs need to be circumspect and respectful, but they also have to find ways to prevent themselves from crying and that sometimes means sharing a joke with colleagues, Bothwell said.

Although all of the crime scene techs can be summoned at any minute of the day or night, they typically rotate every two weeks between three different shifts, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday. Those assigned to the late shift are on-call after hours and during the weekend.

Fans of the CSI shows may immediately think of murder scenes when it comes to techs, but they also are called to assaults, burglaries, thefts, robberies and serious car wrecks, Bothwell said.

Some scenes could require one tech, others all six of them, Bothwell said. Everyone was called out on Odessa's mass shooting because they were dealing with so many crime scenes, but also all techs could be called out to collect fingerprints if multiple cars are burglarized at one location, she explained.

Her techs also help out smaller agencies and the Texas Rangers on occasion, she said. Every so often, she finds herself out in the field, too. She went to a gunshot victim call that turned into a homicide case in the spring.

Each piece of evidence collected receives a bar code, Bothwell said. In 2019, the year before COVID-19 struck, 26,263 bar codes were created. Through early December, that number was 13,241 for 2022.

Bothwell said unlike what you see on CSI, much of the evidence her techs collect is actually sent to other labs. For example, blood for DNA is sent elsewhere and forensic science experts study blood spatter to recreate crime scenes.

Most crimes aren't solved in an hour either, although recently two of her colleagues were discussing two separate burglary cases and realized within an hour the prints from both matched, Bothwell said.

Each state has an automated fingerprint identification system and the FBI maintains an integrated AFIS, Bothwell said. From 1926 to 1946, the FBI collected 100 million fingerprints and by 1971, they had 200 million prints. Nowadays, they have more than 56.8 million people in the system.

Gomez quickly learned that unlike what you see on TV, it's not always easy to find fingerprints that can be used for comparison purposes. A lot of it depends on the surface being dusted and other factors. In fact, in less than 10% of the cases involving shell casings can useable prints be found, she said. It's much easier to find useable prints on smooth surfaces, like glass and windows.

Back in 1995, Bothwell was working at Strike it Rich Bingo when the security officers suggested she apply for a job as a police dispatcher. The job was already closed when she went to the city, but a crime scene tech position was open.

When she applied, her husband said it was the perfect job for her because she had a "nosy" nature. When she was hired she thought she was going to be logging in evidence, but she was given the opportunity to go through all sorts of training pertaining to evidence collection.

She feels very fortunate, she said.

While you might assume her staff all have degrees in science or criminal justice, that's not the case.

"We don't require a degree to come here. We'll educate them and get them prepared," Bothwell said.

Over the years, she's met crime scene techs without a formal education who remain in the business and others with formal educations who quickly abandoned the profession.

"You can have someone with all of the education in the world, but when it comes down to it they can't handle the smells and the sights," Bothwell said.

Crime scene techs don't get to pick the environment they're working in, either.

"They're feeling the elements. They're out there in the wind and the cold, they're dealing with flies and the discomfort of the emotions at the scene," Bothwell said.

The great thing about OPD is it has a peer support group for employees when it's needed, she said.

"People do mean things to themselves and to each other and over time that can wear on you," Bothwell said.

Although she's been at it for so long, Bothwell said she still looks forward to getting to work every day.

"It's been very rewarding," she said.