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Thursday, December 12, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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State opens its new, $13 million crime lab

Seattle Times staff reporter

A nondescript door in an unremarkable office building in South Seattle leads to an enormous yet otherwise unremarkable room full of microscopes, centrifuges and tidy, unassuming technicians in bleach-white lab coats.

Only the tiny, barely noticeable sign by the doors — "BIO/DNA," it says — lends a clue to what really lies inside: the state's new $13 million crime lab. Yesterday, Gov. Gary Locke, State Patrol Chief Ronal Serpas and other state officials threw open the doors to the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory and proclaimed that the state, at long last, will have the technology, manpower and elbow room to plow through what have become embarrassing backlogs of evidence and DNA tests and start closing the books on more murders, rapes, assaults and drug cases than ever.

"This new, state-of-the-art lab is where law enforcement, science and technology all come together," Locke said. "This is where we work to explain, but more importantly solve, crime."

The old crime lab for King County, one of seven state-run crime labs statewide but by far the busiest, survived for years crammed into the Seattle Public Safety Building, which is slated for demolition to make room for the new City Hall complex.

Scientists tripped over each other to try to analyze bloodstains and bullets; and advancing technology, especially the explosion in DNA-testing technology, put a strain on the crime lab's resources, said Barry Logan, director of all the state's crime labs.

The result was that hundreds of methamphetamine-lab cases and thousands of DNA samples sat in wait while detectives all over the area waited and waited for results that could catch a killer — or clear an innocent suspect.

Even more hand-tying, the Seattle crime lab hadn't had a working firearms ballistics-testing facility since 1993, when it had to be mothballed because lead levels became dangerous. Detectives had to hand-deliver bullet casings and guns to labs in Tacoma and Marysville for testing.

With 48,000 square feet of total space — including six examination rooms, 3,000 square feet of evidence storage, room for 56 scientists to work, and a $22 million annual budget — the new lab, Locke, Logan and Serpas promised, will solve all those problems.

"This new crime lab is a long dream of mine, because we had to make sure they have the space and the technology to do the job," said Locke, a former King County deputy prosecutor.

And even as Locke and his entourage toured the lab with television cameramen in tow, forensic scientist Katie Woodard, a 27-year-old University of Washington graduate, quietly spread out a pair of grubby khaki pants on a long lab table.

A chemical test had revealed tiny blood spatters on the pants sent to her by Seattle police detectives, and Woodard had drawn tiny circles around each one. Her next job, she said, was to identify DNA in the blood — and see whether it matched the victim of an assault.

In the old crime lab, "it was hard to spread anything out and get analysis," she said. "... All of this is going to make the casework go faster for everyone."

Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or iith@seattletimes.com.

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