Analyze This

The camera swoops down and zooms across Tampa Bay toward the Pier in St. Pete. It glides over the Vinoy, past Bay Walk and down Central Avenue. 'Who Are You" blares from the screen as crime scene investigators race to their van and speed off down First Avenue North toward the scene of the crime. It's CSI — St. Petersburg.

Real life might not be as action-packed as its Hollywood imitators, but screenwriters could not imagine the characters crime scene technicians of the St. Pete Police come across every day; the worst of the worst, the dumbest of the dumb, and the weirdest of the weird. It's a menagerie of humanity against a backdrop of hard science working to clean up the streets — and in some cases get someone's stolen stereo back.

I rode along with crime scene technician (they are called technicians in St. Pete, not investigators) Candace Marklin on two 11 p.m.-to-7 a.m. shifts to see what a crime scene tech really does.

The streets of St. Pete are a different world after dark. A strange sense of calm enveloped the night, yet one turn down an alley and you were watching the drug dealers ply their trade. The streets were mostly deserted, but some late-night hangouts were filled with people even on a weeknight. We drove through upscale neighborhoods and down-at-the-heel parts of town. We even took a side trip through Roser Park, which takes on a Twilight Zone air late at night, with its stately homes towering above the twisting streets set 30 feet below the surrounding land.

Crime scene technicians are not sworn police officers in St. Petersburg. They are officially civilian employees. They do not carry guns or even pepper spray to crime scenes. Of course, there is always a police officer with them, but it still seems odd that they have to go out to an active criminal investigation scene with no protection. As any cop will tell you, things are very unpredictable and situations can change in a heartbeat.

Thursday, April 4, 11 p.m.

The first night, I meet crime scene tech Candace Marklin at the lab across the street from the St. Petersburg Police Department's main building. I half expect the place to look like the lab in CSI. It doesn't. The walls are not glass; the machines are not quite state of the art, and no one has an individual office. There are some cool gadgets, though, large storage areas for evidence, and a coffee machine.

Some of crime scene technicians are certified through an academic program, like one at St. Petersburg College (formerly SPJC), which has one of the top forensic programs in the state. A few techs who have been around since before the certification program began five years ago don't have the certification but may have degrees. Marklin has a bachelor's degree in criminology from the University of Tampa.

She did an internship back home in Nassau County, N.Y., during her college years. 'I worked with the latent examiners, photo section, lab guys, even the handwriting analysis guys," she says. 'But where I loved spending the most time was with the crime scene search section. I realized that was a way to be part of the action without actually being in the action."

11:20 p.m.

The first call comes in at the beginning of the shift. A domestic dispute. We get in the van and race over to the west side of U.S. 19, near Gulfport. When we arrive, two patrol cars are there, finishing up their questioning of the victim and some witnesses. Marklin walks over and gets the lowdown on the situation.

The victim says her boyfriend broke into the house and smacked her around. Then he took off. Marklin is there to take photographs of the victim's injuries. Before she starts, she fills out a sheet of paper with the case number on it. Then she readies her digital camera (all crime scene techs use digital cameras and camcorders).

I'm allowed to walk in with her. It feels weird, invading the space of a woman who was just assaulted. No one notices though. The house is a mess, with newspapers and pillows strewn about and chairs overturned. It's hard to tell whether it's from the fight or it's always this way.

The victim has some minor cuts on her arms. Her face is red and puffy from crying; her hair is disheveled. She looks scared. The tech takes pictures of injuries from a variety of angles and uses a ruler against them for scale. Since the police know who the perpetrator is, there is no need for fingerprints or further processing of the scene.

Back in the van, Marklin talks about the huge interest in forensics and the popularity of forensic TV shows. 'It's just like anything; people like to learn how things are solved in these unique ways. It's just like watching detectives. How did they solve the crime? It's good to see people wanting to learn what we do."

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