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Speckin Builds National Reputation

How about Speckin Forensic Labs?

In 1984, Len Speckin was a chief document examiner for the Michigan State Police (MSP). He realized that regulations preventing officers from working noncriminal cases during company time had resulted in a growing demand for forensic work in the civilian world—medical malpractice cases, alteration of documents, and forgery detection to name a few. For a number of years, Speckin took these jobs on after hours while still with the state police.

In the late ’80s, he left the MSP and turned Speckin Forensic Labs into a full-time business. His son, Eric, was the first person Len brought in (Eric is now president and owner of the company). The elder Speckin then recruited several people from the state police to work as everything from document and fingerprint examiners to ballistics testing experts.

Until about 1998, document examining and crime scene reconstruction were the bulk of their business. It was about then, coincidental to the debut of TV show CSI or not, that business began to boom. A little over a year later, Roger Bolhouse, laboratory director, forensic analyst and consultant, came onboard. “I was a laboratory director for the state police,” he said. “I retired from the Grand Rapids lab branch and came here.” He began as a trace evidence examiner, but, as with most of his colleagues, he took on added responsibilities. Included in them was consulting work for Hollywood.

“They’ll call us, or they’ll e-mail us questions,” Bolhouse said, “and then we’ll answer the questions. Then frequently, they’ll follow up with an e-mail with some actual dialogue. They’ll ask us to make sure that it makes sense.” A letter from the CSI producers and a picture autographed by the cast hang on a lobby wall.

Traditionally, most of the people in the forensic business have been police officers. However, more and more are rising through the civilian ranks. Bolhouse said that they’ve hired people who’ve graduated from the forensic science master’s program at Michigan State Univeristy.

Most of their clients are attorneys, but large corporations also use their services for a large variety of reasons, along with private investigators and some private citizens. The police come to them frequently, as well as the Department of Corrections and Michigan Attorney General.

One of Speckin Lab’s specialties is something called ink dating. Explained Bolhouse, “It’s determining when ink is placed on the paper. We’re one of a few labs in the world who make an attempt to do this.” It grew out of an association with a gentleman from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Eric Speckin learned from him and took his practice over.” As a result of ink dating, and many other services, Speckin Labs does work all over the world.

What else do they do? “Computer forensics —looking at the hard drives for images. It’s not as much the hard drive as it is the operating systems where information is left behind,” Bolhouse said. “[Microsoft] Windows does allow us to go in and look back several layers. If you take a hard drive and do a complete erasure on it, many times we can still find data; but if you do a wipe on it, that’s really beyond our capability.” However, there are companies who can go back to the magnetic level and recover bits (and bytes) of data from as far back as 10 erasures ago.

Speckin Labs employs five full-time examiners and another five that work as consultants. All come with a set of skills, “but quite a bit of additional learning is necessary, including a rigorous three-year training program,” he said. “There’s a lot of reading involved, a lot of practice tests, a lot of proficiency type tests. There is a national testing program that we’re becoming involved with—the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors— which MSP is accredited through.”

How has CSI the TV show has affected real-world forensics? “The C.S.I effect is really quite a well-documented term in the forensic community,” Bolhouse replied. “The juries, the judges and the attorneys are expecting that something will have been done on a forensic basis, which is good because in the past, police officers would not be held accountable to collecting the evidence. And now, the jury says, ‘Why didn’t you do this?’ or ‘Why didn’t you do that?’

“But the other side of it is they expect more than is possible; for example, trying to get latent fingerprints off cement. People expect it when an officer goes out to a house to investigate a break-in. They say, ‘Why aren’t you dusting my cement to see where he might have bumped up against it?’” The reason why, of course, is that it’s impossible. Because of expectations such as these, Bolhouse said, “It’s good and bad, because the TV shows portray that we can do a lot more than we can. That’s one of the negatives, because we have to let them down. But overall, it’s been really good to bring forensic science out in the open like [TV] has.”

Looking at the future, Bolhouse said that new methods are always being developed to advance detection. Alternate light sources and digital photography make it easier than ever to detect thingsand “DNA is really the buzzword. Contact DNA is becoming a very powerful tool. You can swab a doorknob and see if a person’s touched the doorknob. Don’t need fingerprints anymore.”

Speckin may expand and start putting in instrumentation, but the equipment is very expensive. As for now, “We’re finding now that more of our work is on the consultant side, and not on the hands-on analytical” such as helping the Houston Criminal Laboratory rebuild. “We have a team of people in Houston that are looking at the entire crime lab system.” And Bolhouse is coordinating the review of over 3,000 cases to see what kind of work has been done in the past and what practices may need to be corrected.

In short, bad guys in Houston—and everywhere else—beware.

Author: Jack Schaberg
Photography: Terri Shaver

Roger Bolhouse, Forensic Analyst & Consultant / Laboratory Director

Speckin Forensic Laboratories

2105 University Park Drive, Suite A

Okemos MI 48864