Monroeville lab hits the bull's-eye on gunshot tests
A.J. "Skip" Schwoeble, director of forensic science at RJ Lee Group Inc., sits with a scanning electron microscope linked to a computer at the company's headquarters in Monroeville.
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Pennsylvania State Police investigators turned to a private Monroeville laboratory when they needed to know whether any gunshot residue was found on an 11-year-old suspect in the Feb. 20 shotgun killing of his father's pregnant fiancee in New Beaver, Lawrence County.
Subsequently, Lawrence County District Attorney John Bongivengo said he considered the gunshot residue found on Jordan Brown's shirt and jeans by scientists at RJ Lee Group as some of the strongest evidence presented at a preliminary hearing last month for the fifth-grader, who was held for trial on a homicide charge.
State police aren't alone in contracting with RJ Lee, whose scientific development, innovation and expertise in the field over the past 20 years has made it world renowned. The company has criminal forensic contracts with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well as 500 other law enforcement agencies in the United States, the American Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda and, until recently, the entire country of Switzerland.
In fact, A.J. "Skip" Schwoeble, RJ Lee's forensic sciences director and an internationally respected expert in gunshot residue -- known as GSR -- was scheduled to leave today for St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, to testify in a murder trial. Over the past decade, he has testified in more than 150 trials and analyzed evidence in more than 1,500 cases.
"It's very interesting work," said Mr. Schwoeble, whose book, "Current Methods of Forensic Gunshot Residue Analysis," is used in college courses and by law enforcement agencies.
"I like the whodunits. Every case is different," said Mr. Schwoeble, one of 27 experts in an international working group sponsored by the National Institute of Justice to upgrade standards for GSR collection, analysis, interpretation, report writing and testimony.
GSR is the expelled microscopic particles of the heavy metals barium, lead and antimony that make up the primer of a bullet or shell. When the firing pin strikes the primer, causing it to burn and ignite the gunpowder, the created gases carry the heavy metals' particles through any opening in the weapon. Those particles adhere to the shooter's hand, clothing and elsewhere in the vicinity.
The presence of GSR tells investigators a suspect either fired a weapon, handled a fired weapon or was in an environment in which a weapon was fired.
"It's one part of the puzzle," Mr. Schwoeble said. As with most trace evidence, other physical evidence or eyewitness testimony is necessary to create the whole picture of a crime.
Criminal forensic analysis accounts for only 10 percent of the $25 million to $30 million in annual revenue earned by the company headquartered in a nondescript building on Hochberg Road that gives no hint of the scientific brainpower, sophisticated equipment and innovation inside. The scientists in the materials analysis laboratory study everything from manufacturing problems to irritants inside NASA's space shuttle fleet to what New Yorkers were exposed to when the World Trade Center towers collapsed.
Dr. Richard J. Lee, the company's president, started the firm, which now employs 250 people in several states, after he was laid off in 1985 as head of U.S. Steel's microscopy research and analytical research laboratory. He bought the lab's equipment and hired most of his colleagues, including Mr. Schwoeble, whom he credited with discovering that there was a niche in criminal forensics for the company.
The firm's entry into the field occurred because of coincidence and insight. The company had developed a scanning electron microscope for use in its various materials analyses in the late 1980s. About the same time, it developed an adhesive.
"We had a transparent glue we couldn't find a market for, so I told Skip to go find me a market, something this stuff can do," Dr. Lee said.
He had no idea the search would lead to criminal forensics. "I was looking at anything that spelled money," he said, laughing.
Mr. Schwoeble thought the burgeoning field of criminal forensics might be a market, so he contacted his brother-in-law, an FBI agent, who introduced him to scientists at the FBI lab. Mr. Schwoeble spent the next two years traveling the country, visiting other crime labs. He realized that GSR analysis could be a good fit for RJ Lee.
At the time, potential evidence was lifted from suspect's hands, clothing and other materials with melted wax or a liquid chemical.
A chemical solution then would be used to analyze what had been collected to see if GSR was present.
But Mr. Schwoeble realized that the company's adhesive would offer a much more effective way to lift evidence. And RJ Lee's sophisticated scanning electron microscope would provide a much better method for analyzing lifted samples for the presence of GSR. What he developed is now the preferred method of GSR collection and analysis.
Furthermore, he helped develop a computer program that automated the analysis, allowing the microscope to operate 24 hours a day. That allows the company to promise law enforcement clients analytical results in seven to 10 days rather than the months they would have to wait to get results from their own backlogged crime labs.
Dr. Lee said he is pleased the company's innovations and expertise have aided the criminal justice system.
"For us, it's a great treat when you see a successful prosecution that would not otherwise been possible," he said.
"It's interesting, one of the things we've been told is that confrontation with the [GSR] evidence eliminates a lot of trials" because suspects then enter a plea bargain.
Mr. Schwoeble noted that because of the company's varied analytical abilities, crimes other than those involving GSR can be investigated. One of the most unusual cases involved a man arrested on the East Coast on charges he stole a woven basket from an Indian burial ground in the West.
The man denied it, but RJ Lee scientists were able to match dirt embedded in the basket with dirt from the burial ground.
As it turned out, the evidence wasn't as crucial as it normally would have been -- authorities discovered a photograph the man had taken of himself as he was stealing the basket from the burial ground.
That's a case you likely won't see on "CSI," but the fictionalized work on that television show is the real-life work for Mr. Schwoeble and five other scientists he works with in Monroeville.
First Published April 13, 2009 12:00 am