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Published: 3/22/2005

Lucas County enters crime-lab business

BY CHRISTINA HALL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Tim Aukerman, toxicologist supervisor for the Lucas County coroner's office, works on extractions of samples from coroner's cases in the spacious new forensic toxicology lab on Arlington Avenue in South Toledo that is now almost fully operational. Tim Aukerman, toxicologist supervisor for the Lucas County coroner's office, works on extractions of samples from coroner's cases in the spacious new forensic toxicology lab on Arlington Avenue in South Toledo that is now almost fully operational.
KING / BLADE Enlarge
Jason Burns, a toxicologist lab technician with the Lucas County coroner's office, conducts drug tests in the new laboratory, which will cost more than $200,000 a year to operate. Jason Burns, a toxicologist lab technician with the Lucas County coroner's office, conducts drug tests in the new laboratory, which will cost more than $200,000 a year to operate.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

Tim Aukerman is back to work again locally - two years after the Medical College of Ohio closed the forensic toxicology lab he supervised.

His new job is similar to his old one, only this time it's at the Lucas County coroner's office.

"I like this a lot better," he said from the new spacious, second-floor forensic toxicology lab in South Toledo he supervises. "[At MCO], we were in a basement in a cage."

With equipment and three employees from the MCO lab - including director of toxicology Dr. Robert Forney and toxicology lab technician Jason Burns - the lab at the coroner's office is almost fully operational.

While some samples are still being sent to a contracted lab in Montgomery County, local officials hope that will end within a few weeks.

"It's exciting. It's very nice to be able to do a case on the weekend and, by Tuesday, know if something is there and within a few days, get confirmation," coroner Dr. James Patrick said.

MCO closed its lab in March, 2003, in a money-saving effort. It had done all the toxicology work for the coroner's office since 1985 and performed about $100,000 worth of testing for Dr. Patrick's office annually.

That work included cases for more than a dozen counties in northwest Ohio and Michigan that contract with the county for autopsy and related services.

Nine months after the MCO lab closed, Lucas County commissioners approved the creation of a lab at the coroner's office on Arlington Avenue.

Since 2003, the coroner's office has been sending samples to the Montgomery County lab. Last year, about $100,000 was spent on those samples even though Dr. Patrick said his office cut back on sending some things.

The new lab is screening samples and sending some of the positive ones to the Montgomery County lab to confirm the type and amount of drug. The local lab has done about 100 screenings since the end of January, Dr. Forney said.

Within a few weeks, it hopes to be confirming the vast majority of its samples, eliminating the need to send them out of town. It currently is doing quantitative tests on alcohol.

While the Montgomery County lab has been helpful, turnaround times have been slow - in some cases up to three months, Dr. Forney said.

Officials with the new lab said they hope to have results for routine cases within a few days to a week. J. Christopher Anderson, an assistant county prosecutor, said that's good news.

He said the local lab will allow authorities to receive coroner's rulings and prosecute suspects more quickly. They also will be able to consult with local people who are performing the tests and have them available to testify.

"Experts are essential for us to prove our cases," Mr. Anderson said. "It's always better to have someone who does the actual test."

Though it's been two years since the MCO lab closed, the new facility came together quickly. MCO agreed to give the coroner's office its lab equipment, some of which had to be refurbished, Dr. Patrick said.

Officials want the lab to be certified at state and national levels and hope it will be a resource and reference for those in the law enforcement, health care, and legal communities.

"We have to accumulate some experience in doing tests before we open the door. We're not quite there yet," Dr. Patrick said. "The last thing we're going to do is run a crime lab without good quality."

Dr. Patrick said it will cost more than $200,000 a year to run the facility. The lease for the space costs about $20,000. Renovations were budgeted at $150,000, he said.

However, officials hope to recoup part of the cost by not sending samples to the out-of-county lab and getting back some of the more than 300 clients MCO had.

"We hope to use this as a building block for a more comprehensive regional crime laboratory," Dr. Patrick said.

Contact Christina Hall at

chall@theblade.com

or 419-724-6007.



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