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Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Dave Young, manger of the Fort Wayne Police Crime Lab, compares fingerprint matches by hand.

Rash of homicides tests city crime lab

3 full-time technicians also work burglaries, robberies

Handguns and magazines are put under special lighting that would show any latent fingerprints on them. Dyes are put on the gun and magazines to highlight the prints under the lights.
A fingerprint from a burglary is run through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or AFIS, for a possible match.
Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Eric Black, one of three full-time employees at the Fort Wayne Police Crime Lab, checks a handgun for latent fingerprints.
A handgun and a clip dry after being soaked in a dye stain to develop any latent fingerprints on them.

– Between the three of them, the men analyzing much of the evidence collected from the city’s homicide scenes have more than 50 years’ experience in the lab.

That doesn’t count the years they put in as police officers prior to their jobs in the Fort Wayne Police Crime Lab.

But for lab manager Dave Young, Eric Black and Tom Pitzen, and the men and women in crime scene management unit, this year’s staggering number of homicides are putting more gray in their hair.

The evidence that the civilian analysts dust, heat up, steam, throw under a microscope, photograph and scan comes not only from the homicides. Crime scene management crews and officers collect it at the scenes of burglaries, robberies, vehicle break-ins and shootings.

The lab does not handle DNA evidence or firearms evaluations, such as identifying marks on shell casings. Those tasks belong to the Indiana State Police’s four forensic laboratories spread throughout the state.

It is safe to say, though, that all the other evidence collected at crime scenes, such as tire tracks, footprints, discarded firearms and fingerprints are keeping crime lab technicians plenty busy.

As of mid-October, the Fort Wayne Police Department handled 369 robberies and 1,934 burglaries. Both numbers represented an increase from the same period in 2012, according to department statistics.

“We have a larger backlog,” Young said of this year. “Even a minor case takes four hours to do. Homicides can take two to three weeks.”

All the city’s officers carry fingerprint and evidence collection kits in their vehicles, including the frequently-shown-on-television dusting powder and swirly brushes. While that makes it easier on crime scene management crews, it increases the amount of evidence brought into the lab, Pitzen said.

As of Friday, Allen County tied a record set in 1997 for the number of homicides in a single year at 44, with all but two having occurred within the Fort Wayne city limits.

It’s likely the record will be broken, with one suspicious death still undeclared – that of a man found in a burning car – from August.

And there are three weeks left to go in the year.

The lab has only three full-time employees, and all three were working in the lab in 1997. At that time, though, the lab was housed in the old Creighton Avenue station.

That rickety old six-story building, which once housed the offices for Phelps Dodge Magnet Wire, was largely not up to the task of housing a police department, let alone a crime lab. To keep the lab dark enough for the special lights used to examine fingerprints and other evidence, staff blacked out the windows with newspapers.

But since the department moved back downtown to the Rousseau Centre, formerly the City-County Building, the lab is back in more modern-looking, appropriate digs. Large windows stream in natural light. The dozen or so filing cabinets housing fingerprint cards have their own room and there is adequate room for the fumigation hood, dryers and the contraption that photographs evidence as a variety of lights are put to it.

Pitzen was a rookie in the lab in 1997, just beginning the first year of the two-year training protocol and learning how to analyze fingerprints, tire tracks and other physical evidence collected at the city’s burglaries, robberies, shootings and homicides.

Hired in June 1997, as his co-workers processed the evidence from the homicides, Pitzen classified old fingerprints, un-glamorous work.

A police officer in 1997, Black was the sergeant in charge of the crime scene management unit until October of that year.

“We made all the death scenes, except natural (causes),” he said.

In 1997, the city had not yet invested in AFIS – the Automated Fingerprint Identification System. The system gives analysts the ability to find possible fingerprint matches more quickly, tapping into local, state and federal criminal databases. Police Chief Rusty York pushed for the system in 2001.

The average burglar commits about 20 burglaries before getting caught, Young said.

“The idea is to catch these people early, to break the cycle of crime,” he said. “(AFIS) solves crime.”

The fingerprints are collected from either people at the time of arrest, or are latent – found within the environment where a crime occurred, such as on a window pane, a door frame or the slide of an automatic handgun.

Thursday morning, analysts were comparing a latent fingerprint collected from the scene of a burglary with an AFIS hit showing a possible match to that of someone previously arrested. Even though the computer will show a possible match, the men will put their own eyeballs on the evidence and its possible match, comparing it side to side under magnification.

As certified fingerprint analysts, the three men are a relative rarity in crime scene analysis – there are only 900 certified latent fingerprint examiners in the world, though there is a movement afoot to require those who analyze fingerprints to become certified, Pitzen said.

At some point in the future, they could find themselves sitting before a jury, explaining to to the jurors that the fingerprints match.

Or, as is often the case, that in spite of their hours of efforts in a particular case, no fingerprints of value, meaning nothing useful, had been found, and they must tell the jury that it is not, in fact, a television show.

Pitzen is looking forward, though, to testifying in late February in the case against Devonte Hamlet. The 21-year-old is accused of multiple counts of robbery, as well as burglary causing injury. He was one of a four men arrested after a string of robberies at area apartment complexes bedeviled the community late last year.

Fingerprints found on a garbage bag and duct tape used to bind a victim tied Hamlet to the crimes, according to court documents.

On Thursday morning, a semiautomatic handgun hung over a counter, its slide back. An extended magazine capable of holding more than 15 rounds was suspended in the air nearby. The gun had been super-glued and dye processed, techniques designed to help draw fingerprints out into the open.

The super glue is an old-school method. In a while, one of the analysts will take the gun into another room, painting the dye with a black light and other spectrums, any fingerprints showing up as a swirled-glow of neon in the darkened room.

While the equipment in the lab is getting more sophisticated, so are the tools of those who make mayhem in the city.

As Black handles another pistol, picking up the special light, the former cop noticed the quality of the firearm.

It’s a quality gun he wouldn’t mind owning, he said.

In years in law enforcement, Black has learned to compartmentalize – keeping the horrors he saw at crime scenes and the instruments of death he handles every day away from his personal life.

“You have to be careful what you bring up at the dinner table,” he said.