Army Crime Lab Among Nation's Best

When the FBI needed help identifying the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it came to the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory.

Located at Fort Gillem just outside of Atlanta, the USACIL is the Department of Defense's most comprehensive lab for analyzing everything from handwriting to DNA.

Following Sept. 11, USACIL technicians helped identify victims at the Pentagon and World Trade Center using fingerprints.

"We are connected electronically better than almost any agency in the country insofar as our ability to either directly or indirectly access databases," said Lt. Col. William Schaff, USACIL's commander.

The lab's evidence rooms are stocked with samples from crime scenes as far away as Korea and Kosovo.

"We're the only forensic lab that sends examiners into combat zones," Schaff said.

USACIL handles about 3,000 cases a year, ranging from bad checks to murder. According to Army statistics, the lab solves 92 percent of the cases it receives. (The average "solve rate" for state and local agencies is 21 percent.)

USACIL boasts state-of-the-art equipment and a highly trained staff. But the lab's success rate may be as much the result of its policy of sparing no effort or expense in investigating all crimes, no matter how minor they may be.

"After you have looked into the eyes of an 18-year-old soldier, sailor, airman, or marine, you realize that you owe them a little bit more when it comes to forensics and the solving of a crime," Schaff said. "We expect them to go to war to serve their country and possibly die."

With an annual operating budget of $8.3 million, USACIL investigates any crime involving members of America's armed forces or their families living on military bases.

"It's difficult for a combat soldier to concentrate on his job if he has to worry about his family environment back at the base in the United States," said Special Agent Edward German, one of USACIL's criminal investigators.

While protecting America's military from outside criminals, USACIL investigators make no secret of the fact that their work often leads them to bad guys within the military's own ranks.

"What we're attempting to do is help solve crimes and get rid of individuals who are not there improving the morale of the force," Schaff said.