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Bemidji crime lab shows lag

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MOORHEAD -- Moorhead police are still waiting for final forensic results in the fatal shooting in June of 17-year-old Joel LaFromboise, delaying the investigation's outcome.

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Waiting half a year has frustrated authorities and the boy's family, as the public knows little more now than what was released in the days after the incident - which hasn't led to charges for the shooter.

"I'm hoping they don't think I'm going to forget about it," said Joel's father, Ralph LaFromboise. "I think about it every day."

Perhaps the delay should not be entirely surprising.

Evidence sent to a state-run crime lab in Bemidji, Minn., like the firearms testing holding up release of the LaFromboise investigation, takes on average several weeks longer to process than similar material submitted to the main lab in St. Paul, according to state records.

Analysis of reports from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the agency that runs both labs, shows turnaround times are from 20 days to 59 days longer at the Bemidji lab, depending on the type of evidence.

The gap between average turnaround times were the worst for latent prints: 69 days for St. Paul and 123 days for Bemidji. Firearms evidence saw the smallest disparity, with results from Bemidji taking 109 days to St. Paul's 89 days. It was a 38-day gap for nuclear DNA and 40 days for drug cases.

The averages are for the nearly eight years from the lab's first full year in 2002 to mid-November 2009.

Jim Dougherty, director of the Bemidji lab, said that the slower response times look "really, really nasty," but the department's focus has been more on reducing backlogs and balancing the casework between the labs.

Turnaround times should even out if those factors are emphasized, he said.

"You would think that those things would average out over the years," Dougherty said of the disparity.

Dougherty said the lab brings urgent cases to the top of the pile when a rush is needed, such as when a defendant requests a speedy trial.

Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger and Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist both agree that when necessary, Bemidji lab results are expedited.

Neither Ebinger nor Bergquist faulted the BCA for the longer processing times in Bemidji, where most of the forensics work for their departments is sent.

"I don't feel like we're getting the short end of the stick," Ebinger said.

But Bill Ingebrigtsen, a Republican state senator from Alexandria and former county sheriff, said the difference in turnaround times concerns him.

Ingebrigtsen, a member of the Public Safety Budget Division committee in the Minnesota Senate, said he was not aware of the disparity and will look into the matter.

"I don't like to see that kind of difference. That shouldn't be going on," he said. "I want to see the same kind of turnaround as St. Paul."

"If it's a matter of funding, I guess that's what I'll find out," Ingebrigtsen said.

The $4.6 million Bemidji lab, which broke ground in June 2000 and opened in October 2001, was built to give northern communities better access to forensics specialists. Supporters said they hoped it would reduce turnaround times for more far-flung departments.

It's difficult to determine how the turnarounds that out-state law enforcement agencies get from the lab in Bemidji compare to those it experienced before the lab was built and evidence was sent to St. Paul. Dougherty said the BCA hasn't done the comparison.

However, all but one of the annual averages for the St. Paul lab in 1998, 1999 and 2000 for the four types of evidence Bemidji handles were shorter than the 8-year averages from the satellite lab.

The Bemidji lab benefits northern communities in other ways, Dougherty said - making it easier to discuss cases and protocol with analysts and putting a crime scene team far closer to many cities, for example.

"There are a lot of other things other than turnaround time I'd take a look at," he said.

Dougherty said both labs have similar caseloads per analyst. Yet the St. Paul lab, with more scientists working the higher number of cases there, has a greater immunity to delays caused by staff departures or calls for the mobile crime scene team, which is staffed by forensic analysts who work in the lab.

A new scientist takes a minimum of 12 months to train, as long as 16 months for a DNA analyst, he said.

"When somebody leaves, that has a huge impact on us," he said.

The BCA is attempting to make more efficient use of its labs. Dougherty said a "process mapping" exercise this week in the drugs section of the St. Paul lab is meant to find ways to make the labs more streamlined.

It's also possible the territory served by the Bemidji lab - generally north of a line drawn across the state from Little Falls - could be tweaked, Dougherty said.

"It is something that is important, and something we've been trying to do things about," he said.

The lab director said he doesn't get many complaints about turnaround time, but that he knows it's a common concern.

"If I were to ask any of our clients what they thought of our work, most of the time they would say, 'I love the work that you do, but I wish you could do it faster,' " he said.

Bergquist said his investigators have noticed the difference in the response times of the two state labs.

"Obviously, it is an issue," he said. "It's one of those things we understand and get used to it."

Hopefully, the opening of a new lab in Anoka County last week - one run by a trio of counties, not the state - will have a ripple effect and take pressure off BCA labs, Bergquist said.

In the meantime, the lab's analysts always try to give an accurate timetable on when a report can be completed, Dougherty said.

"It's the only way we can get by with it," he said.

Ebinger said given massive deficits in Minnesota's state budgets - projected at $1.2 billion for the two-year budget that began July 1, $5.4 billion in the next budget - there's nothing to do but be understanding.

"I don't think anybody can overstaff any of these positions. There's going to be unfortunate waits," he said.

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