From .44 Magnums to Uzis, hundreds of handguns and rifles line the walls of a makeshift armory tucked inside northern Colorado’s newest crime lab.
Those guns, collected from jurisdictions across the region, are a demonstration of collaboration, authorities say.
If a suspect reports that a specific weapon accidentally went off in Weld or Larimer counties, authorities can locate the same model of gun and determine how plausible the suspect’s story is.
Everything from how much pressure must be applied to the trigger to potential weapon modifications can be compared to fully operable weapons.
And a couple doors down the hall in the sprawling complex, a series of ballistics testing contraptions — a high-tech pool with water and a column lined with cotton to absorb the impact of weapons including a .50-caliber rifle — stand ready to stop bullets for additional analysis.
Such investigative steps and collaborative resources were largely absent until construction was completed last fall on the Northern Colorado Regional Forensic Laboratory in Greeley.
Now, nearly six months after authorities from Larimer and Weld counties, as well as investigators from across the state, started working in the lab, things are moving smoother than ever before.
And that’s something that Lab Director Ronald Arndt — who helped design the project while drawing on 23 years with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation — said will only get better.
“We’ve got what we really need,” Arndt said Tuesday after leading Tribune staff and Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., on a tour of the 20,000-square-foot crime lab. “It’s worked out really well in a lot of ways.”
The $4 million facility situated on the southeast corner of U.S. 34 and Colo. 257 at the Highpointe Business Park in Greeley was completed last August.
It serves investigators from the Larimer and Weld counties sheriff’s offices, the Greeley, Loveland and Fort Collins police departments and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
Weld, Larimer, Greeley, Fort Collins and Loveland agencies each contribute 20 percent of the operating costs of the lab. The CBI contributes one person to the lab but no money, and officers from northern Colorado agencies and beyond all have been known to contribute to the lab’s success.
Prior to its completion, authorities sent the bulk of their evidence to Denver to be processed. Evidence analysis and finger print collection that took days under the previous system — adding to a backlog at the state level — can now be completed in hours if needed, Arndt said.
And that speeds up entire investigations.
In addition to weapons comparisons and ballistics testing, authorities in the lab have seen success with a finger printing system.
Rather than waiting for print checks to come back from the state, the lab has two full-time analysts and one part-time analyst devoted to pulling fingerprints off of everything from guns to paper. The items are placed in a high-tech, sci-fi-looking locker with a window that uses a range of techniques to pull a print.
Tucked in the corner of that same wide-open room is a division devoted to pulling marks from tire treads and even footprints. Then, analysts relay their findings to other authorities pursuing suspects on the ground.
And when it comes to bloodied crime scenes associated with shootings or stabbings, the lab’s biological analysts work with others in law enforcement to determine which blood splattered piece of carpet or part of a shirt should be swabbed for DNA and analyzed by the lab’s computers.
It’s not altogether unlike what happens in crime shows on TV, but not all blood splatters or DNA swabs are created equal, Arndt said.
Instead, it’s up to investigators to put the pieces of the puzzle together and get to the truth.
That was the most surprising piece of the tour, Gardner said after the two-hour tour of the maze-like facility.
As the region’s population grows, the potential for crime spikes increases. So seeing the innovative ways authorities can tackle investigations was eye-opening.
“You see the working relationships here in real time,” he said.
Though the lab is still in its infancy, Arndt said he hopes to expand the amount of effort being poured into digital multimedia investigations. That’s where the future is going, in his mind.
From cell phones with saved messages, images and metadata such as times, dates and places to computer hard drives loaded with everything from emails to even child pornography, the lab recognizes the surge in electronic crimes.
Through additional training, heightened certification and supplemental resources beyond the high-tech cameras and lightning-fast computers, Arndt wants to expand the lab to stay ahead of the curve in the world of cyber crime. “Digital multimedia is really the DNA of the next generation.”
Reporter Jason Pohl covers public safety issues for The Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @pohl_jason.