Local lab director Mark Hopwood will continue processing major crime scenes for those agencies as a special agent with the Calhoun-Cleburne Drug & Violent Crimes Task Force.
After months of worrying over how to mitigate the loss of a lab that for 37 years has helped local police solve high-profile criminal cases, Calhoun County officials have hammered out an agreement that will add Hopwood to the drug task force payroll as a regional crime scene investigator.
“The basis of the plan is that it’s not just Calhoun County but the area itself that is going to lose a pretty vital resource when it comes to violent crimes,” Task Force Investigator Randall Sanders said. “This will fill some of that void that’s going to be left when forensics closes.”
DFS director Mike Sparks has cited fiscal 2011 proration and 15 percent budget cuts for 2012 as the reason the McClellan lab — along with two other satellite laboratories in Dothan and Florence — had to close.
For months, local law-enforcement officials have decried the decision to close the facility, located at the Jacksonville State University complex at McClellan.
While those public safety leaders predicted delays in the processing of evidence from crime scenes and in the justice system as a whole when the lab closed, drug task force leaders, the Calhoun County District Attorney’s Office and Hopwood were quietly working out the details of the first step toward a regional crime scene processing addition to the task force.
“Our hope in doing this was to make sure that every jurisdiction, every law-enforcement agency in the … area has sufficient resources to continue to work crime scenes and that the crime scene work would be consistent,” Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh said.
Hopwood, one of the first two Alabama investigators to be nationally certified in crime scene processing, will take his 20-plus years of experience to the task force sometime at the end of the summer. Sanders said Hopwood’s salary — and money for the special processing equipment he will need — will come out of the task force’s $850,000 annual budget. That budget was recently stabilized after the state Legislature passed a law allowing the task force to collect $20 from all traffic, criminal and juvenile cases in Calhoun County.
“He will be a sworn agent with us. We were short an agent as it stands; basically what we are doing right now is filling that agent’s position,” Sanders said.
Officials said Hopwood will begin his work based out of the drug task force’s office on Gurnee Avenue in Anniston. His addition to the task force is what officials hope is a first step toward creating a regional crime scene processing team.
“It gives me opportunity to spend more time out in the field and get some kind of standardized thing going,” Hopwood said during a phone interview Friday as he took a break from going over the final payroll for the DFS lab. “And I will have time to train the investigators at the different agencies.”
Officials at those agencies are breathing a collective sigh of relief at the news they will continue to have an expert to help them lift fingerprints and DNA evidence, collect blood and tissue samples and take photographs at major crime scenes.
The McClellan lab was instrumental in closing homicide cases and other criminal investigations because its scientists innately understood proper chain of custody, processing techniques and offered juries neutrality and objectiveness that investigators with the lead agency in criminal cases could not.
“From a crime scene response, it will allow us to breathe easier,” Weaver police Chief Wayne Bush said. “I think it’s a wonderful idea, and Mark is very capable … yes, this relieves some of the burden.”
Officials point out the plan will not completely replace the loss of the McClellan lab — local law-enforcement agencies will still incur the costs of transporting drug evidence to and from a Hoover laboratory instead of making the short trip to McClellan.
“But Hopwood will replace the lab sufficiently on the crime scene stuff,” Jacksonville police Chief Tommy Thompson said. “He’s a good instructor, and that will be able to get some of our folks notched up in their crime scene training.”
Sanders said Hopwood’s upcoming role is also supported by the university.
In fact, JSU officials and the task force are working together to come up with ways to grow the regional crime scene presence and foster a partnership between it and the university in the future.
But Sanders declined to elaborate on what form that partnership would take.
“All of that is still in the works; nothing has been set or finalized,” the task force investigator said.
In the meantime, Hopwood said he plans to spend the last few weeks in the McClellan lab helping his staff pack up and move out.
“It’s not exciting,” Hopwood said of what he called the “empty the building” process.
Later in his phone conversation with The Star, he considered the lab’s work over the past four decades and his decision to sign on with the drug task force.
“I mean, we’ve been doing the scene work for all these agencies for years, to leave them cold turkey … well, I hope this will prevent that from happening.”
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562.