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Forensics unit at OPP GHQ in Orillia helps ensure justice is served

'There is a sense of pride because we did our job. We were thorough and objective,' says official from Orillia-based unit that helped solve 25-year-old murder
OPP acting staff sergeant Vern McLean is pictured dusting a glass bottle for fingerprints inside one of the forensic labs at OPP General Headquarters.

Unlike popular crime dramas, a murder case — or any criminal investigation, for that matter — can take a long time to solve. 

Just ask the family of Renèe Sweeney. The 23-year-old was stabbed in a Sudbury video store in 1988.

In March of this year, 25 years after the grisly murder, Stephen Wright was found guilty of the young woman's death.

After the jury reached its verdict, Sweeney family friend, Kelly Irvine, spoke on behalf of Kim. 

“After 25 years, the Sweeney family is very happy with the verdict that came out today,” Irvine told members of the media. 

Justice was finally served thanks, at least in part, to the expertise of the forensics unit that works out of OPP General Headquarters in Orillia; those dedicated officers assist in major crime investigations from all over Ontario.

Jeff Myatt, the acting quality assurance manager for the OPP's Forensic Identification Services (IDENT) unit, provided expert evidence as a fingerprint examiner in the Sudbury homicide case.

“It was unsolved, and we had DNA and fingerprints,” Myatt explained. “There were no hits on the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) or the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS).”

Through familial DNA searching, forensics were able to identify a target and collected his DNA. Through Myatt’s fingerprinting, the accused was finally identified as the prime suspect. 

Vern McLean, an acting staff sergeant for the OPP, who has been working in forensics for 13 years, says it's a source of pride for the forensic unit when their work leads to the conviction of a dangerous criminal.

“There is a sense of pride because we did our job,” he said. “We were thorough and objective.”

As much as forensics officers work to put criminals behind bars, they equally work to protect the innocent, he explained.

“We are not just here to collect evidence to put bad guys in jail,” he said. “There may be an innocent party that is accused of something and so we work for the court is the way we operate.”

The Orillia-based IDENT unit responds to criminal occurrences, but is also called to investigations for unexpected deaths, industrial accidents, vehicle crashes, and anything that requires documentation from the OPP.

“We follow a systematic approach. We document the scene exactly the way we find it using photography, videography, and now we are using 3D scanning that can place everything in a three-dimensional platform," said Myatt, who has been working in forensics for 22 years.

McLean echoed those sentiments.

“We identify, collect, and preserve evidence,” he said. “We are experts in the identification of fingerprints, footwear, tire tracks, and those types of things.”

In cases that require biology, DNA, chemical identification, chemistry, gunshot residue, firearms analysis, or toxicology analysis, evidence is sent to the Centre of Forensic Sciences in Toronto.

“Basically, our process is to maximize the potential of any piece of evidence,” McLean explained.  

Over the course of a year, the eight forensic Identification constables, sergeant, and staff sergeant, who work out of the Orillia forensics unit, each attend more than 100 scenes from all over Ontario. While there are 13 deployed forensic units across the province, the Orillia unit has worked on cases from Kenora to Windsor.

While the job of a forensic investigator sounds like it could be exciting, it’s not quite the way it is perceived on popular television crime shows. Often, cases are solved through dogged, behind-the-scenes work.

“They do have real forensic people who give them ideas,” Myatt explained of television dramas.

“But they really glamorize it and speed up the timelines,” McLean added.

It typically takes the Centre of Forensic Sciences 90 days to process the evidence that is sent in from the Orillia unit.

When it comes to fingerprinting, forensics can receive a possible hit from AFIS in a couple of hours to identify a suspect. However, the average time is a week to two weeks, if not more. Forensics also rarely return to a crime scene once they’ve left it the first time; they also never interrogate suspects. 

“Detectives deal with the subject part of the investigation,” McLean explained. “They collect statements, eye-witness testimony, and humanistic factors.”  

Forensic identification officers independently deal with the objective portions of the investigations such as photos, fingerprints, and intangible things that you can see and don’t change.

“The case manager, like an inspector, marries both up and puts context to both,” McLean said.

“The way they do it on TV, they would be so biased from the results that they could misinterpret their evidence such that it would be destroyed in court, and it could be incorrect,” Myatt added.

Where the job is like the way it is reflected on TV, it can be dangerous. Sometimes, suspects will return to the crime scenes where forensic officers are collecting evidence.

“A former boss of mine was shot at,” Myatt recalled. “The odd time we do aerial photographs, and after the helicopter pilot dropped him off at a cultivation, the person growing the marijuana there started shooting at him.”

There have been other times when police have cleared a scene and missed a suspect who was lurking in the shadows, putting forensic officers in danger. 

“I wouldn’t say that is a regular occurrence,” Myatt told OrilliaMatters. “They are one-offs, but there still is some danger.”

Sometimes when suspects are still outstanding in an investigation, the OPP’s Tactics and Rescue Unit will provide cover to ensure the safety of forensic officers. 

Myatt, 52, is originally from Owen Sound. He got into the forensics field after he was approached earlier in his career about becoming a scene of crime officer.

“I come from a science background, so I thought it was interesting,” he said. “When I came into IDENT I never wanted to leave.”

In 22 years, Myatt says he’s never been more passionate about something in his life.

“IDENT is all I care about,” he said. “I’m going to stay longer, past retirement because I love it.”

McLean, 44, is originally from Iroquois Falls. He started his career as a police officer in Timmins where he became a scene of crime officer. When he applied to the OPP, he moved to the Cochrane detachment before eventually being transferred to North Bay where he is currently posted.

To become a forensic officer today, you need to be a first-class constable with the OPP. Generally, from there, it’s suggested that officers become a scene of crime officer, before applying for the forensic unit. Officers will then get sent to either the Ontario Police College in Aylmer or the Canadian Police College in Ottawa for specific training.

“We have a wide range of people that come into our units,” Myatt said. “More and more we are seeing people with forensic degrees.”

To do the job of a forensic officer and to process evidence takes a certain personality with a specific skill set, McLean explains.

“The skill and talent involved to be able to do those things, there aren’t a lot of people in our field that could do them,” he said.

“Most road officers look at what we do and are going 'That is way too boring,'” Myatt said. “It’s very methodical and we move at a set rate and set process.”

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Tyler Evans

About the Author: Tyler Evans

Tyler Evans got his start in the news business when he was just 15-years-old and now serves as a video producer and reporter with OrilliaMatters
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