Crime lab lapses scrutinized

FRIDAY, MAY 24, 2013

Eight instances of unprocessed evidence involve Spokane County

Donita and Karl Ambrogini’s 16-year-old daughter hovered at the edge of the roof, turning to look at her parents as tears rolled down her face.

“Mom, I can’t do this, I can’t jump,” Donita remembers her daughter yelling.

The parents put one hand on each of her shoulders and pushed.

They pushed her away from the heat, smoke and flames that were ripping through their home on East Cataldo Avenue in Spokane. And then they jumped.

Ten years have passed since someone ignited fuel under a woodpile that spread and ultimately destroyed the Ambroginis’ two-story house.

Investigators never found anyone to charge with the arson, but the case is now part of a different investigation – into the Washington State Patrol crime lab in Cheney.

The arson is one of 20 cases in which a crime lab worker failed to process evidence, according to the WSP.

Crime lab employee Kevin Fortney resigned last month amid accusations that he lied to his boss about completing tests that he didn’t actually do.

Spokane Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer called the mishandling of evidence “unimaginable and despicable.”

Donita Ambrogini broke her leg jumping from the roof, which was about 10 feet off the ground. After her brief hospital stay, the family spent a week in a motel and six months subletting from a friend of a friend before finding a new home.

Ambrogini said she can’t imagine who would set fire to their house – or who at a crime lab could let evidence go untested.

“It was quite horrific to live through that,” she said. “To think that somewhere along the line that somebody just didn’t do their job is … it’s hard to explain.

“It’s almost like being violated all over again.”

Of the 20 cases in question, eight are from agencies within Spokane County, according to a list provided by the state patrol. Each is at least 10 years old and most are fire investigations. Three are homicide investigations from outside Spokane County.

As the investigation into the crime lab continues, local agencies are scrambling to figure out what to do with the evidence that involves their cases.

Four of the cases originated with the Spokane Fire Department, Schaeffer said; no one was convicted in any of them.

The evidence likely would not have identified a suspect anyway, as arson evidence often confirms only if a fire was arson, he said.

Trust in the crime lab is violated nonetheless, he said.

WSP spokesman Robert Calkins said the investigation into Fortney’s actions is largely complete, and an audit of the crime lab found every piece of evidence was where it should have been.

“That gives us fairly good confidence that the lab is functioning correctly overall,” Calkins said.

The initial investigation, which was spurred when another employee blew the whistle on Fortney, turned up five pieces of evidence that had gone untested. Calkins said last month that the number was likely to go up.

Charges are not expected to be filed against Fortney, Calkins said, as it doesn’t appear the former employee committed perjury or falsified results.

Calkins said the crime lab director contacted the chiefs of each affected department to apologize.

Much of the evidence has degraded over time, he said, and the statute of limitations of 10 years for arson is up in most of the cases.

For the Ambrogini family, 10 years was up last week.

Donita Ambrogini, who now lives in Coeur d’Alene, said the fire gutted the house that she, her now-ex-husband and their daughter Krystina lived in for over a year.

“There was precious little that the fire didn’t eat up or damage in some way,” she said.

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