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CSI: Rutgers

Three alumni working in the Miami-Dade Police Department’s crime lab, one of the nation’s busiest, play big parts in solving everything from murders to arsons. 

Jill Errickson CC’01 would like it known that the daily reality of the Miami-Dade Police Department’s crime lab bears little resemblance to the stylized forensic sleuthing portrayed by Horatio Caine and crew on the long-running television drama CSI: Miami. Errickson, unlike her blow-dried counterparts, does not spend her days dashing about southern Florida in search of bad guys. “That’s one of the misconceptions,” says Errickson, a firearms examiner for the department’s Forensic Services Bureau. “Unfortunately, we’re lab rats. We stay in the lab.”

Fortunately, she has plenty of company, including a pair of fellow Rutgers graduates. Karen (Levy) Fleisher DC’78, who analyzes trace evidence and controlled substances, arrived first, in 1982. (“I go back before all these forensic shows, before Miami Vice, she says.) Gabriel Hernandez RC’02 came aboard in 2005, a year after Errickson was hired. Even the guy who hired Fleisher was a Rutgers man, Alan Lynn RC’66, then the supervisor of the Analytical Section.

Fleisher was the section’s first female chemist. Today, her expertise is in fibers and fire debris, which could be just about anything taken from a suspected arson site. She has trained with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, testified as an expert witness at more than 100 criminal trials, and taught forensic science at the Miami-Dade Public Safety Training Institute. Over nearly three decades on the job, she appreciates the value of the lab’s latest technology. “The instrumentation has changed immensely. I can look at fiber using a microscope that’s attached to an FTIR,” she says, referring to a Fourier transform infrared spectrophotometer, an instrument used to examine specimens to detect the presence of target compounds and to measure their quantities. “Having a microscope attached to find the sample is a great improvement.”

Errickson and Hernandez work in the lab’s Firearm and Tool Mark Unit, mostly scrutinizing evidence from firearms, such as microscopic marks left on a bullet when it passes through the barrel of a gun. “There is a series of spiral grooves on the inside of a gun barrel,” Errickson says. “When a gun is fired, the bullet will pick up those spiral grooves. Those spiral grooves are called rifling. The rifling you can see with your naked eye.” The smaller marks, however, require the use of what’s known as a forensic comparison microscope, which allows Errickson to look at two items simultaneously through a single set of eyepieces.

Of the three Rutgers grads, only Hernandez envisioned making a career of forensic science while an undergrad. He credits adjunct professor Michael Emanuel with sparking his passion through the course “Scientific Applications in Justice.” “It was just so interesting that you could apply all these methods to solving crime, and violent crime at that,” Hernandez says. “Being part of that process, taking the bad guy off the street, was something I liked.”

Hernandez had never lived outside New Jersey before taking the job in southern Florida. It was a surprise to find common ground with his new colleagues—1,300 miles from home—in one of the nation’s busiest crime labs. “If I ever mention the grease trucks or the ‘fat’ sandwich,” Hernandez says, “it’s wonderful that someone knows what I’m talking about.”              

                                                                                                                                                   — Christopher Hann