Real life CSI: Montgomery County forensic science lab


by Shern-Min Chow / KHOU 11 News

Posted on March 7, 2012 at 11:49 PM

Updated Friday, Mar 9 at 7:04 PM

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Texas—Laura Ackerson, 27, was found dismembered in Oyster Creek last summer. Her ex-husband is now awaiting trial, accused of transporting her remains in ice chests from North Carolina to Fort Bend County.

It’s a nightmare case in many ways, including for the real-life CSI "Body Farm" in Montgomery County. It’s one of only four forensic science labs in the country. Scientists there were called into assist in this case in the beginning. They routinely consult for Galveston, Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties.

It is not a job for just anyone: taking apart a human body, putting it under a microscope, measuring it, cataloging it, dissecting it and learning its story. Donated bodies arrive in the processing room. Their first stop is a freezer, set at 11 degrees Fahrenheit.

Angela Rippley, 30, is graduate student at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility. When asked if the work is a bit creepy, she laughs.

"No I love it, but I’ve been told I’m weird. You have to desensitize yourself to this," Rippley said.

That is clearly a necessity. Kevin Derr, 24, is also a graduate student working in the lab. He is learning about forensic science and teaching it to instructors and to police.

"I would love to go into law enforcement, to be a federal agent would be one of my dream jobs: U.S. Marshals, the FBI, the DEA, to do actual hands on field work," he said.

Lab Director Dr. Joan Bytheway points to a skull with a small clean round hole on the side of it. While it doesn’t take a forensic scientist to know it’s a bullet hole, there is much more to know about how someone was killed. Special instruments measure the size of the bullet. That’s important information when the bullet can’t be found.

Here, she estimates the slug "Might have been a 38." She points to both sides of the skull highlighting the clear difference, "The exits are typically larger than the entrants."

Inside this secured location, researchers also study how bodies decompose which can tell detectives how, when and where someone died.

"Forensic Entomologists study insects. We have microbiologists. We have geologists studying soil of decomposing bodies," Bytheway said.

All of the bodies here are donated, some by those still living, others after death, by relatives.

To most of us, it seems a gruesome task, but to these researchers it’s a labor love.

"I love that I can help people, knowing that what I do could help a family," Rippley said. "One of my cousins was murdered when I was younger. I don’t want to get into the details of that, but that is one of the things that has driven me into the forensics field…do maybe they won’t question the past. That’s important to me."

For Angela, the case closest to her has not been solved - at least not yet.

For more information and how to donate, click here.