Charles Heurich, former science ‘nerd,’ recognized for contributions to forensics

August 24, 2011

Between Henry Winkler’s “Fonzie,” Lynda Carter’s “Wonder Woman” and Lee Majors’s “Six Million Dollar Man,” kids who came of age in the late 1970s had no shortage of television characters to idolize.

But for a preteen Charles Heurich, the choice that called out wasn’t exactly cool, sexy or exciting. He dreamed of growing up to be just like Sam Fujiyama. Name not ringing any bells? Sam was the faithful lab assistant, played by Robert Ito, on the old NBC show “Quincy, M.E.” — “CSI” before there was “CSI.”

“It sounds like a hokey story, but in middle school I became obsessed with this show and the use of science to solve crimes,” Heurich said. “And for some reason, I really related to Quincy’s assistant.”

Today, at 46, Heurich is no one’s assistant. The Maryland resident, who goes by “Chuck,” is the program manager of the National Institute of Justice’s forensics division. He is a finalist for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America justice and law enforcement medal for his part in developing the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a clearinghouse for missing and unidentified persons’ records.

The Samuel Heyman awards — sponsored by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and known among government workers as the “Sammies” — are considered by the 800,000 federal employees nationwide as the Oscars (or, in the case of Heurich’s television-inspired career choice, the Emmys) of the public-service world.

If you ask Heurich, he’s quick to play down his role in NamUs (pronounced NAME-iss). He attributes the strides NamUs has made since it was launched in 2009 to “a great team of people” — not his own 12-hour days, which include commuting between the home he shares in Frederick and his D.C. office — and he is reluctant to discuss his own success as an adult without acknowledging the curiosity he felt as a teenager.

“I really liked biology,” he says simply.

Heurich, a native of Buffalo, got his first taste of forensics in high school when, as a member of the gifted-and-talented program, he enrolled in an eight-week summer program at the Maryland Academy of Sciences taught by Mark Profili of the Baltimore Police Department’s crime lab.

“When Chuck was taking my class, forensic science wasn’t the cool, sexy field it is today because of its portrayal by TV shows and movies. We were science nerds,” Profili said.

“Today, students would be lined up to take the course, but then some of the students just wanted to see pictures of dead people,” he added. “But Chuck was always interested in doing something in forensics — in and for forensics.”

At Profili’s urging, Heurich majored in biology as an undergraduate, graduating in 1987 from Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, he called Profili again. This time, his mentor gave him a job tip: Baltimore’s crime lab was looking for someone to do fieldwork. Heurich got the job.

From 1988 to 1991, he collected data from the scenes of 3,000 crimes, 300 of which were homicides.

“This was back when it was a high-crime city,” he said. “It was just mind-boggling. In my last year, it came to a point where [the crime scenes] just blended together.”

The job involved three rotating shifts shared among eight people, including Heurich. “There was very little downtime.”

There was also very little opportunity for moving up. Heurich, again, turned to his friend Profili.

“He asked me how to advance his career,” Profili said. “I told him to get his master’s degree, and he did. . . . I didn’t make all Chuck’s decisions for him — I didn’t introduce him to his wife,” he joked.

Heurich went on to get his master’s in forensic science from George Washington University, and after graduating in 1993 took a job with the Montgomery County Police Department’s crime lab, a job he said was less stressful than his previous one.

But after 12 years, Heurich once again got the itch for a change. This time, he didn’t call Profili to ask for advice, but instead called his old friend to tell him his decision: Heurich was taking a government job as program manager of the Investigative and Forensic Sciences Division of NIJ’s Office of Science and Technology.

The title is a mouthful, but the position essentially involves managing hundreds of grants relating to forensics.

The grants have funded training plans for investigators, DNA-matching technology at police departments nationwide, and initiatives for solving cold cases and identifying missing persons.

The biggest change in his life in the transition from investigator to manager, he said with a laugh, is the meetings. And the greatest success, if the “Sammies” are any indication, is Nam-
Us.

NamUs was created in 2005, when the deputy attorney general formed a task force to determine what police departments needed to do their jobs better.

“The consensus was that we need a database,” Heurich said.

The NamUs database is made up of two parts: The unidentified-victims portion launched in 2007, and the missing-persons portion in 2008.

But the real milestone was in 2009, Heurich said, when “a developer got those two databases to communicate.”

Anyone — from law enforcement officials to investigators to forensic scientists to members of the general public — can access, search and add to the NamUs database. (A police report case number is required to enter new information to prevent people from adding fake cases into the system.)

“Families can sometimes feel out of the loop,” Heurich said. “If leads dry up and go cold, and investigators can’t always stay in touch with them, family members can feel left out.”

According to Heurich, NamUs hit a peak of 15,000 cases in June. The highest number of system users are members of the general public.

“This is good, because it shows there is public interest and that the database is filling a need,” he said.

But it also shows that law enforcement agencies have been slow to adopt the new system. “We need to convince [police departments] there’s a buy-in,” Heurich said.

Heurich hopes the NamUs technology will make investigations more efficient and help bring closure to families.

“You hear heartbreaking stories, but you see in their eyes the hope is high. They know the outcome won’t be positive, but they want to know what happened. Not closure, exactly, but a resolution.”

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