URBANA — Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh can't wait for the day he can walk into his office, hold his hands up, and have the wall-size virtual computer screen appear that will instantly solve crimes.
Those are the tools of Hollywood studios that make for good television, not the reality of a county sheriff.
But Walsh is almost as proud of a used, full-size GMC van, once used to haul election materials around, that's been repurposed for his department's newly formed crime scene unit.
Rather than computers and instant DNA analyzers, the van is stocked with rubber gloves, brown paper bags, tweezers, swabs, crime scene tape and camera equipment.
"The county clerk had a van with very few miles that they were going to trade in. We asked if we could use that. They gave it to us. We've had decals put on and configured the inside with shelving," said Lt. Ed Ogle, head of the sheriff's office investigations division. "We've been doing it on a shoestring budget."
Late last year, Walsh decided it was time for his office to get back to having deputies comb crime scenes for evidence rather than rely on crime scene technicians from the Illinois State Police.
"With cutbacks at the state level, we were waiting 1 1/2 to 2 hours to get a crime scene tech," Ogle said.
He and Ogle put the word out among the deputies and found three who were interested.
In April and May, Deputies Jody Ferry, Jonathan Rieches and Nicki Bolt attended a 160-hour course at the Illinois State Police Academy in Springfield. With the van put into service last week, the trio is ready for its first big challenge.
"The first time, when it's the real deal, I'm sure it will be overwhelming," said Ferry, who said he and his colleagues passed all their practical tests at the academy.
So far, about the only thing Ferry has been asked to do as a crime scene technician is to try to find latent fingerprints suitable for lifting at a Savoy store where cellphones were stolen.
Ferry is assigned to investigations during the day; Rieches is a patrol deputy on midnights; and Bolt is a patrol deputy on the 3 to 11 p.m. shift. Having a crime scene technician on each of the shifts went into the thought process, Ogle said. All three volunteered for the duty.
"A lot of this stuff is not high tech but very tedious and detailed work," said Walsh. "Not everybody is suited for it. They are detail-oriented and do good jobs of investigating, they write good reports and they are very thorough, even when it gets boring."
Ogle said he and Chief Deputy Kris Bolt acted as the department's crime scene technicians years ago when they were both assigned to investigations.
"When Kris and I did it, we were lead investigators also. Aside from doing the crime scene, we had to jump into interviews, and make the arrest. It's too time consuming. When you deal with homicides, you want to make sure you jump on cases quickly and get it done in a 48-hour window. It's heck of a lot of work for a person to process a scene and conduct interviews as a case agent," Ogle said.
Ogle said the crime scene technicians will be expected to process all kinds of crime scenes from burglaries to armed robberies to homicides.
"You're looking to recover evidence to put a suspect at a crime scene," Ferry said. "It is a learned behavior ... that you need to pay attention to detail and look for things that aren't obvious."
Ogle said it cost $6,000 to send the three deputies to the training course but the state is expected to pay half of that. And in the future, costs may include new camera equipment, Walsh said.
"Most of the cost is just manpower and ongoing training," the sheriff said.
Ogle said the sheriff's technicians may also combine training opportunities with the Champaign Police Department, which has had its own in-house crime scene technicians since 1996.
Champaign police Sgt. Bruce Ramseyer said the 11 officers in their crime scene unit are also volunteers. The biggest benefit of having an in-house team is a shorter response time, he said.
"The State Police will come out and handle our scenes but they might be on a higher priority case or be a long distance away. We can also view the scene photos and evidence quicker when it's in our own building," Ramseyer said.
Urbana police call on the Illinois State Police to process their crime scenes.
"Whenever we have something like a homicide, the crime scene techs are there from the beginning. They do the scene. They will also take part in the autopsy the next day and then it takes time to catalog all their evidence. In this age of CSI, where we have to make sure we get every little tidbit of evidence, this is going to help us collect more and better evidence and hopefully result in a lot better cases," Ogle said.