Behind the (crime) scenes

Women in the workplace –  A series by Carmel Kelly Palmer Behind the (crime) scenes From the small fishing village of Killala in Co. Mayo where she would perhaps have caught salmon or trout, Valerie Gallagher O’Loughlin has moved on into far deeper and distant waters. She is now employed as a Garda working in the Crime Scene Investigation Unit, now part of the Roscommon District Headquarters. Why did she choose the Garda Síochána as her career? ‘It is something I became interested in at a young age and applied in 1985 but at that time they were not recruiting. In 1989 I received a letter from the department (of justice) to see if I was still interested in applying and so I decided I would.’ It was during the 1980s that she met her husband Gerard, well-known Roscommon photographer. They have two sons, Daniel (13) and Jordan (6). Valerie joined the force in 1991, with six months training in Templemore Garda Training College. ‘I moved to Rathfarnham and Tallaght as a student and my permanent station was Pearse Street in Dublin where I was stationed for two years.’ She commuted from Roscommon town to Dublin on a weekly basis. Now married and living in Roscommon, with her son Daniel still a baby, she often found herself finishing a work shift at 6 am and going home, having to be back again for the 10 pm shift the following night. ‘I was then transferred to Boyle, where I stayed for two years and in 1996 I moved to Roscommon. I was very fortunate to get to Roscommon station and I have the advantage of having my home and work here. I began working on the regular unit, normal Garda patrols, working irregular hours with a shift pattern of 6 am to 2 am, 2 pm to 10 pm and the night shift 10 pm to 6 am.’ Valerie mentioned the job variations and units in the force: traffic, detective duty, drug units, community policing, etc., and now her role within the crime investigation unit, where specific Garda personnel deal with forensic science. Forensic science means any science which is used in a court of law. It is also taken to mean scientific analysis and comparison used in the detection and investigation of crime. The idea of using science in the fight against crime arose originally from the frequency of human poisoning across Europe during the middle ages. Poisoning was difficult to detect because the symptoms were similar to many of the untreatable infectious diseases of the time. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the first steps were made to demonstrate the use of poison by analysing the corpse for toxic substances. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the acceptance of the idea that everybody has different fingerprints made a great impression on the detection of crime, as did the discovery that people had different blood groups, so that blood stains left at a scene or found on the injured party could be linked to a suspect. Valerie says that there hasn’t always been such a unit at Roscommon. ‘It is a fairly new unit, started off as a pilot scheme and came into being in 2006. Now there are divisional units around the country.’ She is part of the Roscommon/Galway East Division. This would cover all of County Roscommon, parts of Galway from Ballinasloe to Shannonbridge, Tuam, Dunmore, Williamstown, Corofin and Glenamaddy. The present team is made up of five personnel, headed by Sergeant Phil Coffey who has 22 years’ service in the force. He applied with many others for the coveted position and as the successful applicant, he is now in charge of the crime investigation unit at Roscommon station. He maintains there has been a noticeable rise in the volume of crime and that the increase in population could be a factor. Valerie explained that they are an independent unit. ‘If there is a serious crime we have the personnel and equipment to deal with it, so the Technical Bureau in Dublin is no longer drafted in.’ I asked her what specific crimes the unit would investigate. ‘Burglary, serious road traffic accidents, suspicious deaths, fire investigation, any serious crime. Staff receive very rigorous fire training. If there was a serious crime in the town, a Garda would go out, assess the situation and fill out a report form and a crime scene log, which is then passed on to us. We then proceed in our fully equipped van to the scene of the crime.’    The unit covers approximately 2,000 km a week as they travel through the counties of Galway and Roscommon. Their fully equipped van contains all the equipment which personnel need for the investigation. It contains a scene examination kit, consisting of a special powder to develop fingerprints and footmarks. There are also powders for different surfaces. Also included are gloves, disposable tweezers for handling evidence and equipment for taking fingerprints from an individual. There are also brushes and wands for developing fingerprints and marks at the scene of the crime.  The kit also includes presumptive blood testing kit and photographic equipment, digital cameras, which also play a very important role in the examination. As she talks, you can sense the excitement in her voice and you are aware that this is a job she really enjoys. ‘We carry out an intense examination of the scene individually, bag up our samples, data, etc., and return to Roscommon Garda station. From here samples are then sent to the Forensic Science Laboratory at Garda HQ, Phoenix Park, Dublin. We then await their findings. Our evidence files would of course be submitted to the DPP before prosecution could take place.’ ‘The forensic team undergo training at the detective training Garda school at HQ, Phoenix Park. Highly skilled staff of the Garda technical bureau specialise in fingerprinting, ballistics, documentation and photography.’ The Forensic Science Laboratory was established in 1975 and Dr Jim Donovan was appointed Director, a post he has occupied since. The purpose of the laboratory is to provide a scientific analytical service to An Garda Siochána in the investigation of crime. The same service is also provided to other government agencies when investigating crime, such as Customs and Excise, Military Police and the Department of Agriculture. The laboratory is located in Garda HQ and is staffed by civil servants of the department of Justice. It is divided into three sections: Biology, chemistry and drugs. The history surrounding forensic science goes back as far as the 1950s when James Watson and Francis Crick, Cambridge graduates, figured out the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA. In 1962, along with their associate Maurice Wilkins, they were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work. It was one of the most important biological discoveries in the 20th century.      Deoxyribonucleic acid is found in virtually every cell in the human body and does not change whether it is in a person’s saliva, blood or skin tissue. The structure has novel features, which are of considerable biological interest. In 1984 Alec Jeffries and colleagues developed genetic fingerprinting using DNA to positively identify individuals. In 1986 the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was first described in scientific literature. PCR enabled scientists to rapidly multiply small areas of DNA. In 1987 in the UK, forensic investigators used DNA testing to help solve the Black Pad murders and identify the killer as Colin Pitchfork, who later confessed to the crimes. This was the first case in which DNA evidence was used to determine the identity of a murderer and it also involved a mass screening process. In addition, it also marked the first case in which a prime suspect was exonerated due to DNA evidence. In 1994 the Dublin laboratory began using DNA technology. The first case involving DNA evidence heard in the Irish courts was DPP v Mark Lawlor. By 1995, PCR and DNA fingerprinting played a starring role in the OJ Simpson murder trial.  I asked Valerie if she would move on, perhaps join some other interesting area within the force. ‘Oh no, I love my job and look forward so much to coming into work,’ she said. It would appear that this is where all her previous years were leading her. She was convinced for a long time that there was some specific work she would like to be involved in and when this particular unit loomed on the horizon Valerie O’Loughlin was convinced that this was what she had been waiting for. Who would not go for such a fascinating and interesting job? It may mean many hours of tedious travelling every day to various crime scenes where they have to give their undivided attention to every detail, checking, examining, scrutinising, going over the same area again and again, making sure that every scrap of evidence has been detected. Challenging it may be, but also ‘exciting, interesting, rewarding, variable’ is how Valerie O’Loughlin describes her job in the Crime Investigation Unit.