Crime lab scrambles to find new gun expert
When a gang member was shot to death at an Independence Day celebration in 2006, it was Dave Wakefield who analyzed the bullets to determine there was only one shooter.
Wakefield was the one who matched plastic ties on the hood of a suspect's truck to those found near the body of the man's wife in 2007.
And in 2008, Wakefield's expert analysis linked a gun found in a man's home to the bullet casings sprayed across Interstate 15 during a drive-by shooting.
Since 1999, Wakefield has been the only person in Utah who had the high level of training that allowed him to draw such conclusions.
But this summer, he left the Utah Bureau of Forensic Services to take a job in Iraq as a private contractor, leaving Utah prosecutors scrambling for expert witnesses in a number of gun-crime cases.
"It has and will delay some of our cases, and then we'll just have to have some of our evidence retested," said Paul Parker, justice division administrator for the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office. "He has left a big pair of shoes to fill with his status, background and acceptability in court."
For more than a decade, budget constraints and lengthy training programs left Wakefield as the state's only firearm and toolmark expert.
Before Wakefield announced he was leaving, state lab director Jay Henry realized he needed a backup analyst in case something befell his one gun expert.
"From a state liability point of view, I'd have been dead in the water," Henry said. However, that analyst won't be ready for several more months.
Henry has taken on many of the cases, doing more basic analysis on some guns and bullets and calling in favors at labs across the country, having sent out three cases for analysis elsewhere.
"We are getting cases that are really pressing, and we have the resources to get the testing done," Henry said."I don't think any cases have been jeopardized."
Wakefield testified in as many pending cases as he could before his departure.
In the Jason Clark capital murder trial that concluded Tuesday in Salt Lake County, Wakefield delivered his testimony via a video recording. Clark was found guilty of shooting one man to death and wounding two women in 2007. Wakefield completed the analysis and was able to record his testimony before he left.
However, Salt Lake County prosecutors won't know the full effect of Wakefield's departure for at least a year, Parker said, because some gun-crime cases will take about that long to come to trial.
"These cases will have to work through the system, and when we realize it's a Wakefield case, we may have to send it back again for analysis," Parker said.
However, Henry hopes to have a new expert by then.
Lab chemist Justin Bechaver attended the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' prestigious National Firearm Examiner Academy in Maryland. The academy is a yearlong school that focuses on topics such as firearm identification, bullet-path analysis and wound effects, according to ATF spokeswoman Joyce Patterson. The U.S. Department of Justice pays for the class and a panel of professional examiners selects 12 students each year out of a pool of between 24 and 26 applicants.
"They are taught firearm identification by the best of the best," Henry said. "Firearms are a very challenging examination, and academy trainees are able to convey that result in court and survive the scrutiny of the justice system."
Henry also wants to cue up another lab analyst to train as a firearm expert and hopes to go three deep if he can. However, the lab has faced a tight budget and cuts from the Legislature. When he pulled Bechaver, it left him short one chemist to analyze drugs and other substances, which has been even more challenging because the lab has been inundated with analyzing "spice," an incense laced with a synthetic THC that is said to mimic marijuana.
For now, Henry continues to do the analysis with Bechaver assisting. While Bechaver completed his classroom training in September, he is now doing hands-on training, learning how to deal with real-world situations, such as how to best test a blood-covered gun, Henry said. He should take over in the next several months.
"Justin has a great eye and is a great analyst," Henry said. "I've been playing backup quarterback, and soon enough, he'll be relieving me."