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Backlog at Colorado's crime lab poses a public safety threat

CBI with delays of up to a year for critical evidence needed to solve crimes
CBI agents
Chris Schaefer sits down with Jenn Kovaleski
Ballistics file
Posted at 9:55 PM, Mar 17, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-18 13:28:37-04

DENVER — Critical missteps in an investigation into an apparent murder-suicide in Garfield County has exposed a major backlog within Colorado's largest crime lab.

“Unacceptable. Just completely unacceptable,” said Julie Sands, whose family had to wait nine months for scientists to process critical ballistic evidence in her mom's and brother’s death.

Darlene Brooks, 80, and her son Tanner Zancanella, 19, were both found dead with gunshot wounds a day apart inside their Garfield County home in April of 2022.

“It doesn't make me feel very safe in my community,” said Ali Wagstaff, Darlene’s granddaughter.

Colorado Bureau of Investigation Director Chris Schaefer admits overworked scientists and delayed forensic testing are putting public safety at risk.

“I think we got here with probably not growing as fast as we should. And at the same time, we have more pieces of evidence that are coming in,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer said the backlog is not acceptable and promised change with improved turnaround times.

Denver7 Investigates discovered there is roughly a year delay to process firearm ballistic evidence. Fingerprint and DNA testing also have significant backlogs, leaving victims like Julie and Ali in the dark.

“It almost feels like we don't have permission to grieve yet,” Ali said.

They couldn't grieve because they didn’t have answers. And Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario said this was out of his control.

“I know they were in the dark. We're in the dark, too. We were waiting, just like they were waiting,” Vallario said.

Internal CBI data obtained by Denver7 Investigates revealed the extent of the backlog. Firearm ballistic testing has the longest delay, taking examiners 337 days on average to process. The turnaround time for fingerprint analysis is 217 days, and 183 days for scientists to process DNA.

To manage the backlog, Schaefer said cases are processed based on need. That means cases with an unknown killer or with an upcoming court case are given higher priority.

“Everything we get is of great importance. But there's different urgencies for different types of cases, so we triage those cases,” Schaefer said.

In the case of the deaths in Garfield County, Schaefer said the evidence wasn’t processed sooner because agents were told it was a murder-suicide. Because there was no apparent threat to the public, the case was given a lower priority.

“If we would have known or had any indications that this was anything other than what it was first labeled — as a murder-suicide — then we would have moved it up quick,” he said.

After nine months with the case still open, something did move it up quickly. Denver7 Investigates contacted the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, inquiring about the status of the case. CBI was able to complete its ballistic testing four days later.

Darlene and Tanner

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“Quite honestly, your involvement… bringing it to the forefront and me making a couple of phone calls to folks at CBI helped get that push through,” Vallario said. “Otherwise, I have no doubt we'd still be waiting.”

Once the bullets were processed, CBI’s tests proved Darlene and Tanner were both killed with the same gun. Garfield County investigators ruled it a murder-suicide and were finally able to close the case. And while the family still questions parts of the investigation, they said they believe no one should have to wait nine months for closure.

“There's always an option to do better,” Julie said.

Schaefer said he agreed.

“I just can't imagine what that family went through. But we will continue to do better," he said.

Murder on County Road 243: Family questions investigation in Garfield County

Retired Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said the backlog is a result of an agency that is overworked and overburdened.

Spurlock’s agency felt that the CBI delays were so extensive, he had to push for his own crime lab.

“There was a period of time in Colorado where we would send a sexual assault investigation kit in and we would wait 18 months,” Spurlock said. “We told them without this lab, more victims are going to become that because perpetrators are out there running free because we have to wait on another jurisdiction to help us.”

In 2018, Douglas County, Aurora and Arapahoe County opened the Unified Metropolitan Forensic Crime Laboratory. Spurlock said once the lab was in use, sexual assault kits could be turned around in weeks.

But smaller agencies don’t have the same resources or access to fund their own labs.

With public safety in mind, CBI took its concerns to state lawmakers last year. The agency asked for more scientists and agents to help local law enforcement investigate serious crimes.

“We had the fourth-lowest amount of scientists per population in the country. And that really brought it home, was that we needed more people,” Schaefer said.

The state gave CBI $15 million over a three-year period, growing the agency by nearly 30%. Schaefer said it will help his agency do better, and cut back on turnaround times.

“I'm very, very confident in that,” he said.

And while CBI is promising change, it’s too late for the family of Darlene and Tanner.

“I don't know that we'll get the closure, but this makes me feel better to be able to hopefully prevent others from having to suffer like we have,” Julie said.