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From clues … to facts … to convictions

UND Forensic Science students tour North Dakota State Crime Lab, learning firsthand how evidence analysis works

Malia Wellens (center), along with Nicolette Ras (left) and Jaden Eviota swab the inside of their cheeks to collect DNA samples at the North Dakota State Crime Lab. The UND Forensic Science students took part in an all-day field trip to learn how the experts process all sorts of evidence that eventually may be used to convict or clear suspects of a crime. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Author’s note: When the director of UND’s Forensic Science Program asked if I would like to tag along with her students for an all-day field trip to Bismarck, I jumped at the chance.

After all, the last fun field trip I could recall was when my sixth-grade class in Devils Lake, N.D., crammed into a sticky yellow bus and headed to the Big Top in the big city of Grand Forks. Our end goal, of course, was to see the Shrine Circus in the Hyslop Sports Center.

This time around, our destination would be the pristine North Dakota State Crime Lab — where the only clowns would be the criminals, and the only talk of elephants would relate to an animal tranquilizer 100 times more powerful than fentanyl.

Warning: You may find parts of this story disturbing. If you dare, come along with us for the ride …

* * *

We gathered before sunup — myself, about three dozen students and Assistant Professor Lavinia Iancu — in the Chester Fritz parking lot. Coffee in hand and wearing comfies and caps, some of us looked fresh out of bed yet ready for adventure.

We had a long haul ahead, but no worries. We had WiFi, so there’d be plenty of time for Netflix and naps before we’d need to crack open the three coolers stocked with sack lunches and sodas. (Thank you, UND Catering.) If we got hungry sooner, well then, our bus driver Kevin was sharing his butterscotch candies.

UND Forensic Science Director Lavinia Iancu gets ready to announce plans for her students’ trip to the lab. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

“OK, listen up,” Iancu said, lifting a small red-and-white megaphone to her mouth before lowering it and adding with a wry smile, “I have a siren, and I’m not afraid to use it.”

We laughed up front, but she apparently meant it and showed us by quickly flipping the switch to release a high-pitched wavering scream all the way to the back of the bus. She had everyone’s attention now.

“OK, so the plan for us today is to go visit the DNA, toxicology and forensic chemistry divisions. We will rotate as three groups and have discussions with the experts,” she explained. “They are going to do demonstrations for us. So, we will see how much interaction we can have. They are very busy and working on cases all the time, so we are lucky — not everybody gets this kind of opening. This is your chance to ask questions.”

Students settle in on the bus. Photo/J. Vonasek.

The tour truly would be a one-of-a-kind learning experience. Not only would it mark the first time in 17 years a UND class had visited the lab, the students ranging from freshmen to seniors also would have all-afternoon access to about a dozen forensic experts.

“This is a first, but I hope we’ll be able to do it at least once a year,” Iancu said. “We’d also like to establish some summer internships. Unfortunately, that’s not possible right now because they’re understaffed, but we are working on it.

“I absolutely love what I do, but forensic science can be very stressful, hard work. For me, it’s also incredibly rewarding, but I want my students to understand that as forensic scientists, they’ll have some very serious responsibilities. There’s nothing closer to reality than what we’re going to see today.”

A very eager group of UND Forensic Science students waits outside the North Dakota State Crime Lab minutes after arriving in Bismarck for their all-afternoon tour. UND Forensic Science Director Lavinia Iancu (in front) says she strives to give her students as many hands-on and real-life experiences as she can. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

It’s time for a meet-and-greet

After all of the passenger names are called and checked off — and a buddy system established for rest stops — it doesn’t take long for everyone to settle in. I figure it’s as good a time as any to meet my neighbors.

Students watch a chemical reaction.

To my left was senior Yuliet Monatukwa, a double-major in Forensic Science and Chemistry. Already accepted into two graduate chemistry programs, Monatukwa said she hoped the tour would give her clarity on another possible career path — one focused more closely on analytical chemistry and toxicology.

It so happened that the very next day, she was flying to Denver for an interview with the University of Colorado’s Toxicology Department.

“I’m really looking forward to finding out what it takes to be a criminal investigator at a crime lab,” Monatukwa said. “Dr. Iancu has given us so many hands-on experiences, and I think that really has cemented my decision to do something down that path. A person really has no idea about the application of theory until you actually try to apply it yourself. So I’m curious, and I’m going to ask a lot of questions today.”

Yuliet Monatukwa, a double-major in Forensic Science and Chemistry, gets up close to watch a forensic expert conduct a color test for cannabis plant material. Before the 2018 Farm Bill defined hemp as any plant of the cannabis genus containing less than 0.3% THC by dry weight, scientists had a considerably easier task because all cannabis was deemed illegal. Now, they must conduct more targeted testing to differentiate between legal hemp and illegal marijuana. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Malia Wellens, a senior and double-major in Forensic Science and Criminal Justice Studies, said she already had settled on graduate school at the University of Connecticut in New Haven.

Though she also started out at UND as a chemistry major, she said she switched to Forensic Science with a focus on forensic biology.

“I think it fits more with what I want to do,” she said. “Once I learned about DNA analysis and the different branches of forensic biology, I was like ‘That’s my bread and butter.’ I love it.”

Just a month earlier, Wellens began working for Iancu as a junior research assistant studying the effects of Clonazepam and Flunitrazepam — common drugs, known as benzodiazepines or psychoactive drugs, prescribed for seizures and panic disorders — on blowfly development. (The results of that research eventually could alter how scientists estimate time of death, but that’s another story.)

Lethal drugs are kept under a protective hood.

In the blue bucket seat next to Wellens was Jaden Eviota, a junior and another double-major in Forensic Science and Criminal Justice Studies.

He said: “As much as I find the lab interesting, I still think I’m more into getting out in the field to do crime scene investigation. Growing up, I found that pretty much everything I watched on TV or the movies was forensics-related, so that’s what got me interested at first. I’m not sure exactly where I’ll land, but all of this is helping me shape that decision.”

And in front of me sat Nicolette Ras, a Pre-Med senior and double-major in Forensic Science and Criminal Justice Studies. She recently began working part time for Iancu as a teacher’s assistant — doing everything from setting up lab trays and equipment for classes to handling logistics for the day’s field trip.

Ras said her ultimate goal is to become a medical examiner, and thanks to Iancu’s tip about a job post, she’s now learning the ropes as an autopsy technician at UND’s Department of Pathology. The office handles cases of suspicious or unattended deaths in North Dakota.

Wearing a quirky, sitcom-inspired Schrute Farms sweatshirt with a giant beet imprint, Ras added, “It’s all so fascinating. I just love forensic science.

“On the TV shows, it’s the next day and you have a DNA result. That’s not quite how it works, but it’s still going to be pretty cool to see where all the evidence we’re packing up is going and to actually meet some of the people who are processing it. I’m so excited for today.”

This tagalong agrees. There’s no place an avid Ann Rule reader and true-crime junkie would rather be.

UND graduate and forensic scientist Charlene Rittenbach is the technical leader of the North Dakota State Crime Lab’s Forensic Chemistry Unit. Above, she goes through the rules — no bags, no liquids, no photos — and the day’s game plan with the students. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Souvenirs from ‘fantastic drug busts past’

It takes a little more than four hours to reach our final destination, which turns out to be a gray building in a complex of other nondescript, one-story concrete buildings. First impression? From the outside, meh, nothing fancy. Inside, it’s state of the art.

UND graduate and forensic scientist Charlene Rittenbach is the first to greet us at the security entrance. We shuffle past a glass showcase of early-era breathalyzers and a collection of wildly artistic bongs — no doubt, paraphernalia treasures seized from fantastic drug busts past — into a large room that looks almost like any other business office. It’s wall to wall cubicles and computers.

Rittenbach, who also serves as technical leader for the lab’s Forensic Chemistry Unit, tells us that this is where the scientists write their reports and review cases. Unlike some other crime labs, she explains, this one is all digital. Next, we’re introduced to Brian Herz and Marc Larson, two more forensic scientists and UND alums. We hear a few rules — no bags, no liquids, no photos — and then we’re off to the laboratories.

For the next several hours, we’re in a different world — a fascinating world where hard science turns evidence into fact. It’s a world where criminal prosecutors get the goods to prove guilt or innocence in illegal drug and DUI cases, arson, rape and any number of other assaults and untimely deaths.

I must admit for someone without a chemistry background, it felt as though everyone else was speaking a different language. Gas chromatography. Mass spectrometry. Liquid chromatography quadrupole time-of-flight mass spectrometry. Huh? Over and over again, as fast as my head was spinning, the students’ heads were nodding as they peppered the experts with questions.

Marc Larson, another UND graduate and forensic scientist at the lab, holds up a brick of cocaine. Yes, it’s the real thing, and it was confiscated in North Dakota. The top three drugs the experts say they usually see coming through the lab are cannabis, methamphetamine and fentanyl. For the most part, they said the clandestine manufacturing of fentanyl is taking place in Mexico, and the precursors of the drugs are originating in China. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Up close, we watched the so-called presumptive tests and confirmatory tests to identify all sorts of suspected illegal drugs. FYI: The top three in North Dakota are cannabis, methamphetamine and fentanyl.

“The uptick in opioids and fentanyl compounds and new synthetic drugs in the state is just huge,” Rittenbach said. “It’s like Whac-A-Mole just trying to keep up, and it wasn’t that way with opioids just five years ago.”

“The most common way we see a lot of the opioids and fentanyl compounds now is in counterfeit oxycodone tablets,” Herz said.

Then pointing to a teeny-tiny drug sample under a protective hood, he added: “It’s just crazy what people are putting into these things. You just think about how much is right there compared to a lethal dose. It’s enough to kill everybody in this building at least four times over.

“That’s all these drug dealers really care about is making money. They don’t care who overdoses or dies because once that news gets out on the street, it actually makes the product even more valuable — as messed up as that is. A lot of the users have been abusing opioids for years, so the heroin doesn’t do it anymore. They’re looking for something stronger.”

Very sophisticated machinery can break down the exact contents and amounts of particular chemicals in a single pill, explained Brian Herz, another UND graduate and forensic scientist at the lab. “With some of the most potent stuff, as much as a grain of salt can be a lethal dose to somebody. It’s no joke,” Herz said. “We’ve seen pictures from the DEA, where people are just putting a pill press in the middle of the room and cranking these out. There’s powder all over. There’s no quality control. They don’t even know themselves what all they’re putting in it. They just want to make money.” Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Remember the elephants? Well, the latest trend for illegal drug dealers is to cut their opioids with veterinarian medicines such as the deadly large-mammal synthetic opioid called Carfentanil, and more recently with the tranquilizer Xylazine. FDA-approved as a veterinary medicine, Xylazine, known on the street as “tranq” or the “zombie drug,” extends the effects of fentanyl and mimics the high of heroin. Narcan cannot reverse a Xylazine overdose, yet users continue to crave the high even while suffering from the drug’s other nasty side effect: persistent infections that rot their flesh to the bone.

“Sometimes people don’t even know this stuff is in there,” Herz said. “They can be at a party and think it’s just a regular oxycodone tablet, but it’s likely not. Your age group is their prime target. They want to get you hooked young. So, if you ever hear of anybody who has these (nonprescribed oxy) or wants to get some, I implore you to stop them or it could be the last time you see them alive. What’s out there now is very scary stuff.”

Sobering advice for sure, but what the DNA experts had to say next was equally sobering.

Students put on amber glasses so they can see otherwise invisible stains pop out on a training T-shirt. After cutting the lights in the room, the forensic experts shined different types of lights on the material to pick up biological traces of blood, saliva and semen. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Oh, you think you can hide? Think again.

There’s just something particularly discomforting about being asked to swipe a sterile cotton swab on the inside of your cheeks before sealing it inside an envelope with your name printed out front.

“It won’t go anywhere, I promise,” Rittenbach assured us before we entered the DNA unit. “We just need your sample for quality control in case some of your DNA would shed here and we would find a foreign profile in some of our evidence.”

Ohhh … OK, I guess that makes sense. Even so, most of us agreed it was an unsettling, eerie feeling to be sharing something so near and dear as our own personal DNA with a state crime laboratory. (I mean, really, in what other situation would this be a good thing?)

Next, we moved into the adjacent room, where we put on amber glasses and watched in the dark as forensic DNA experts demonstrated how different light sources can make otherwise invisible stains pop into view on a tattered black tank top. That’s blood. That’s bleach. That’s saliva. That’s semen. Eww.

In this case, the clothing and stains were used only for training exercises, but when investigating a real crime, the experts said they would darken the room lights to mark the stains and then cut small samples from the fabric — always preserving enough DNA for the defense team — to run their tests.

Students try out the “drunk” goggles.

As though these demonstrations weren’t macabre enough, things were about to get more shocking as DNA analyst, forensic scientist and state CODIS Administrator Amy Gebhardt shared the “case of (her) lifetime.”

It was in the fall of 2006, Gebhardt began, when a Valley City, N.D., college student was found brutally killed in her off-campus apartment. Two friends had discovered her body with a belt around her neck and a broken knife in her throat.

As is common practice, the medical examiner had taken scrapings from beneath the victim’s fingernails.

“Now I’ve worked with fingernail scrapings my entire career, and most of the time, there’s very little blood DNA from the perpetrator,” Gebhardt explained. “It’s usually mostly from the victim, but that’s what made this case so rare.”

The preliminary tests were showing a male had contributed significantly to the blood sample. The lab then immediately entered the profile into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, to see if it matched the DNA of any previous convicted offenders or arrest suspects. And they got a hit.

The DNA belonged to an unknown perpetrator who had raped a woman two years earlier in Fargo. That victim survived, but she could tell police little about her attacker other than his race.

Longtime forensic scientist, DNA analyst and North Dakota CODIS Administrator Amy Gebhardt shares with students her “case of a lifetime,” when DNA played a significant role in quickly finding a Valley City, N.D., killer. She told the students, “Find ways to rejuvenate, recharge and keep perspective because in this job, you are immersed 100 percent of the time in the worst of humanity.” Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

“The rest of the story is pretty crazy,” Gebhardt went on to say as the wide-eyed students listened intently. She then explained how that following Monday, an overly curious man who lived in the same building as the victim had approached investigators who still were gathering evidence and taking pictures outside the apartment complex.

“A man comes up to one of the BCI agents and says, ‘So do you have any idea who this could be? Do you have any leads on who could have done such a horrible thing?’” Gebhardt relayed. “And they’re like, ‘Probably you.’ But they didn’t say that.

“Instead, they said, ‘No, but we’re interested in collecting samples from people in the area who are willing to be elimination samples.’ And the guy actually said, ‘Oh yeah, sure, no problem.’

“That’s … what … we … count on: Stupidity! It’s what I live for! These guys are so arrogant, and they think they’re so much better and so much smarter than everybody else, but it’s just beautiful.”

The investigators collect his sample, along with “elimination” DNA from the victim’s dad, her boyfriend and a couple of other friends, then drive from Valley City to Bismarck to hand-deliver the samples to the lab by midafternoon.

Just three hours earlier, Gebhardt’s supervisor and then-CODIS director had left for a meeting in Arizona.

“We knew they were driving these samples up, so I quit what I was doing and got them on the instrument right away. … It’s almost midnight. I’m burned out. I’m fried, but I’m going to check the instrument one more time before I go home.

I look … AND IT’S HIM! IT MATCHES HIM! Oh my God! I’m freaking out. I’m alone in this small room. I’m pacing. My hair on the back of my neck is standing up. I’m shaking, and I’m about to cry.”

Moments later, Gebhardt wakes her boss with a phone call only to be directed to run the tests all over again. They must be certain none of the samples had gotten mixed up. Nope, by 4:30 the next morning, she gets the same results.

This was an especially horrific crime, and now they know who did it.

“We said, ‘This is your guy, Mo Maurice Gibbs.’ They arrested him by 6:30 that evening and had a TV press conference by 10:30 that night,” she said.

Janelle Portscheller (blond-haired woman at left), state toxicologist and technical leader of the Toxicology Unit’s biological section, explains to students how complex instruments can separate chemicals to determine their presence in infinitesimal amounts to the fourth decimal place. “These time-of-flight mass spectrometers are a newer instrument for labs,” Portscheller said. “The reason they’re being used for toxicology labs is because we have a huge problem with opioid abuse and analogs. Analogs are compounds made by attaching different portions to a core structure to make a new molecule. They’re making a lot of different drugs, and this instrument will help us keep up with the different analogs emerging in the illegal drug market.” Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Come to find out, she added, the suspect coached youth basketball and also worked at the jail, where he later was accused and convicted of assaulting several female inmates. He was shutting off the cameras to their cells.

Her voice cutting out and now in tears, Gebhardt tells the students, “That’s why I say this is a case of a lifetime. I guess my reason for sharing this case is to tell you that all these little steps — so clinical and sterile, piece by piece, the data, the profiles, the peak heights and all the statistics — sometimes it all comes together so beautifully.”

Then, almost in a single breath, she blurts out: “This job, I’m going to tell you, is dark. You should not be looking for semen in a diaper or on an ‘Ariel, Little Mermaid’ blanket. There are horrible things that happen in this state. Do not let our general good nature and low crime statistics fool you. Bad things that never make the news are happening in this state all the time. This is real life. I’ve been here for 25 years, and there are days I’m burnt out.

“I was probably like you in my 20s, morbidly curious. I was ‘Yes, give me all of it.’ But it wears on you, and that’s not something I expected. That’s why I’m telling you to be prepared. Keep your mental health a priority. Find ways to rejuvenate, recharge and keep perspective because in this job, you are immersed 100 percent of the time in the worst of humanity. … It is rewarding and it is wonderful, but IT IS DARK.”

Finally, pausing to catch her breath, she asks, “Do you have any questions?”

Somber and silent, the students have nothing to say.

UND Forensic Science Director Lavinia Iancu (holding heart sign on left) and her Forensic Science students join with scientists from the North Dakota State Crime Lab for a quick photo op before thanking them and saying their final farewells. Both Iancu and leaders at the lab say they are working on establishing a summer internship program for some time in the future. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Back on the bus …

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from the field trip, but it certainly was eye-opening.

On the long ride home, Iancu tells me she’s always looking for ways to add value to the student experience.

“I love what I do and I can teach my courses, but we really have to think further than the academic training. What are my students going to do after they graduate? I feel responsible for their future,” she said. “I’m always thinking ‘How can I improve? What can I add? What types of scholarships are out there? What sort of collaborations can I find?’

“I want my students to be able to network and make these connections. The most important goal for me with the crime lab and other hands-on experiences is to give these students their best chance to get hired in this profession.”

And what insight did the four students — Monatukwa, Wellens, Eviota and Ras — gain from hearing about real-life crime cases and seeing forensic science in action?

Goggles mimic different kinds of impairment.

Monatukwa said it was extremely valuable to learn what the labs are looking for in potential hires as far as specific education and training — not to mention, she was able to compile some great questions for her next-day interview in Colorado. And as an undergrad teaching assistant, she also was keenly interested in how the experts communicated the science to people with different levels of background and understanding.

“I’m trying to learn how to be a teacher at the same time I’m trying to learn how to be a forensic scientist, so watching how they might explain something to a layperson, or jury, was fascinating,” Monatukwa said. “I think you actually added value by being here and representing that layperson. Plus, all kinds of cross-networking happened on this trip, and I really enjoyed that.”

For Wellens: “People learn in a lot of different ways, and I think the hands-on experience can help a lot of people better grasp what they’re studying. It’s kind of a different experience when you’re actually doing the work vs. just reading about the work. It makes me more excited to get to work in the lab setting.”

Eviota agreed: “I thought it was really cool to see how this CSI stuff actually works. In my mind, I was still thinking of everything in kind of sci-fi style with these big machines doing a lot of different things. This brought everything down to earth for me.”

And Ras summed it up this way: “Today was so much fun and so inspiring. Everyone was so passionate about what they do, and it made me more passionate. We’re so lucky to have someone like Lavinia who’s pulling strings everywhere to get students experiences they’d never get anywhere else. I absolutely loved it. Today just solidified how awesome forensic science is.”

READ PAST FORENSIC SCIENCE STORIES: A little fly told her and Was it the knife, the candlestick or the rope?

Charlene Rittenbach points out some visual cues often spotted by investigators when trying to first identify suspected illegal drugs. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.