At the New Jersey State Police Technology Complex, located in an unassuming building in an ordinary Hamilton office park, the 100 to 120 scientists of the New Jersey State Police conduct forensic analyses that help investigators all across the state.
It was here that investigators determined that the blood found in a dumpster behind Wolfe Hall belonged to freshman John Fiocco Jr., who has been missing since March 25.
The Signal received a behind-the-scenes tour of the New Jersey State Police’s forensic sciences laboratory by its director, Thomas Brettell. Brettell explained the process that investigators used to identify Fiocco’s blood, from crime scene to final report.
Brettell’s office dispatched scientists to the scene behind Wolfe Hall to help search for and collect evidence.
While Brettell was not involved in the investigation, he said that the Kastle-Meyer test is typically performed on possible blood stains, such as those found in the dumpster.
This test uses ethanol, a reagent, and hydrogen peroxide. In the presence of hemoglobin, a component of blood, the reagent turns pink. The test can be completed in six seconds, and while it does not definitively prove a sample is blood, it helps investigators separate rust and ketchup from real investigative leads.
When the test comes back positive, investigators take as much of the item that the blood stain was on as possible. For example, if investigators find a bloody piece of clothing or piece of a rug, they take it. In scenarios where this is impossible, the scientist takes a swabbing.
Brettell said he was unaware of where in the dumpster Fiocco’s blood was found, and New Jersey State Police Captain Al Della Fave said that he could not comment on the specifics of the “presently active” case.
Samples are then placed placed in a sealed plastic bag to prevent contamination and taken to the Technology Complex in Hamilton.
At the side entrance to the building, investigators take the sample bag up to a reception desk. Here, the bag is given a case number, entered into the lab’s computerized system and given a bar code to track it.
The bag is then placed in the lab’s evidence vault until a forensic scientist is ready to work on it. In the vault, the bag is sealed with tape around the edges to prevent tampering before the scientist works on it.
The laboratories themselves are separated from the administrative offices, meaning that only individuals authorized for the labs have access to the equipment and evidence.
Once the evidence is checked out by a scientist, it is then taken to an examination room. Here, the scientist, clad in mask, hairnet, lab coat and eye protection, places the entire piece of evidence on white paper. From this, the scientist removes the blood.
The blood is taken into a separate room where the DNA is extracted. The scientist picks up the sample from an envelope with tweezers and places it in a micro centrifuge to separate out the DNA from the blood.
Through a process called quantitation, the scientist checks the DNA for its degree of concentration. For forensic analysis, one nanogram (one billionth of a gram) of concentration is ideal, and the scientist can use solutions to dilute or strengthen the sample as required.
The scientist copies the DNA found in the blood. The process is informally known as “molecular Xeroxing,” in case one sample is ruined during the testing process.
The DNA is placed in a machine that generates a computerized “DNA profile.” The scientist focuses on 13 specific locations on the DNA strand, comparing the information from those locations to a known sample. The 13 locations are very well-known to biologists, and the scientist cannot tell anything about genetic disposition or diseases from the locations.
Brettell said that DNA samples from the bone or teeth of a body can confirm a victim’s identity.
If it is impossible to get a sample of blood from the suspected victim, the DNA profile is compared with that of his parents.
In the case of Fiocco, police took cheek swabs from his parents. The profiles matched, which meant that the lab could report that the blood at the scene was consistent with being from the offspring of Fiocco’s parents.
Technically speaking, DNA sampling cannot prove that two DNA samples are the same. But investigators can estimate the probability that the samples are a match to determine whether the samples could have been from some other individual. Such a chance is incredibly small, as small as one in 244 quadrillion (one followed by 15 zeroes) in some cases.
Usually, Brettell said, if a piece of evidence is not rushed, it can take two to three months for the lab to analyze it and issue a report.
In Fiocco’s case, the lab did its work from start to finish in 24 hours. Scientists worked through the evening to set up the test, which was left to run overnight.
Though the lab’s scientists can produce impressive results, Brettell said forensic science isn’t what “C.S.I.” makes it out to be.
“We’re doing some amazing things,” Brettell said. “But it takes a lot longer to do things (than on TV).”