By the time the dead body was found, it had been decaying in the back seat of the car for two or three days, enough time to acquire an odor so foul that Ricky Nichols had to wear a white hazmat suit and a gas mask to even get near the vehicle.
"It was pretty rough," Nichols said. "I've been around here a long time, and it was still rough."
But all in all, it was just another day at the crime lab; or, as officials referred to the newly expanded facility during an open house last week: "CSI: Charles County."
The county's forensic specialists demonstrated their trade for the county commissioners and local dignitaries Tuesday during an afternoon tour. The recently renovated sheriff's office crime lab, which has taken over the former Board of Elections office on Kent Avenue in La Plata, has grown from two small, windowless offices a decade ago into a 6,400-square-foot complex with a 1,600-square-foot, four-car garage that features an automobile lift.
For the six specialists who work there -- all civilians except the supervisor, Sgt. Joseph Goldsmith -- the population growth in Charles County has meant more crime scene evidence to pore over. In various rooms of the crime lab, wall charts display the rising frequency with which their equipment is used. The photo processor, for example, now runs 3,000 rolls of film and prints 10,000 photographs a year. The marijuana testing station, which handled 217 cases in 2000, worked on 394 last year.
"We're up to 311 [cases this year], and we're only through October," said James Ammons, a forensic science technician.
There is much the Charles crime lab can study: fingerprints, tire tracks, surveillance tapes, blood splatter marks, body fluids and any of the unspeakables that might be put in the "putrification shed" out back. The facility is also used by Calvert and St. Mary's counties, and the goal, said Nichols, is to "make sure our presentations in court put the person [on trial] behind bars."
But there are limits. The crime lab cannot test for some other drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, or do DNA testing. For DNA work, the sheriff's office must send samples to the Maryland State Police lab in Pikesville, although the backlog there means it takes about six months to get results, Goldsmith said. He said the Charles lab is considering hiring an expert firearms examiner so such work would not have to be outsourced to Prince George's County.
Charles County Commissioner Al Smith (R-Waldorf) said he wants Charles to have a ballistics lab and to investigate the cost of bringing DNA analysis capabilities to Southern Maryland.
"It's just outstanding," Smith said of the crime lab. "This is my alter ego. I would love to be a detective."