Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

CSI: Yakima – What it’s really like to investigate crimes

Kristen Drury grew up in Yakima and has been with the Yakima Police Department for 15 years. (Shawn Gust / Yakima Herald-Republic)
By Emily Goodell Yakima Herald-Republic

Kristen Drury laughs when she thinks about TV portrayals of crime scene investigators.

“First of all, I do not come to work in pumps and a cashmere sweater,” Drury said. “Most of the time my real work is done in a Tyvek suit and I look like an Oompa Loompa. I don’t even own a cashmere sweater.”

As the forensics lab supervisor for the Yakima Police Department, Drury collects physical evidence, analyzes it and testifies about it in court. She doesn’t watch “CSI” on TV; she’s a dedicated “Jeopardy” fan, true crime podcast enthusiast and self-described “total nerd.”

However, she’s all too familiar with the stereotypical on-screen depictions of her job; fictitious crime scene investigators solve complex crimes quickly, using advanced technology and unlimited manpower — all while looking glamorous.

Drury says her job lacks the drama exhibited on TV: While police officers’ work starts in the heat of a crime, it’s not until the echoes of gunfire fade on the scene of a Yakima shooting that Drury is tugged to the scene by her “electric leash” — her nickname for her work cellphone.

Kristen Drury, crime scene investigator for the Yakima Police Department, 38, is photographed in Yakima, Wash., Monday, May 15, 2018. Drury is the only firearms examiner in Washington who is not employed by the state. (Shawn Gust / Yakima Herald-Republic)
Kristen Drury, crime scene investigator for the Yakima Police Department, 38, is photographed in Yakima, Wash., Monday, May 15, 2018. Drury is the only firearms examiner in Washington who is not employed by the state. (Shawn Gust / Yakima Herald-Republic)

The majority of cases Drury responds to involve violent crimes: homicide, robbery, rape and suspicious deaths or body recoveries. At the scene, clad in her protective suit, she takes photographs, swabs for DNA, lifts latent fingerprints and collects other physical evidence.

The amount of time Drury spends on scene varies. If it’s a complex crime, involves multiple locations or is spread over a large area, Drury knows she’s going to be there for a while. She once spent 24 hours at the scene of a homicide and fire.

Drury takes the evidence back to the lab, where much of her work takes place. She uses a comparison microscope to pore over fingerprints or shoots a firearm into a ballistic shoot tank to test its fire or collect evidence.

When Drury matches fingerprints or firearms to potential suspects, she gives the information to detectives. Unlike TV, solving real-life crimes rarely takes just days; weeks, months, years, even decades can go by before a case is cracked. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all.

“You don’t always get it right, and there could always be a missing piece of something,” Drury said. “You don’t solve every case. There’s some you have to leave unfinished.”

Although the challenge of solving cases is part of the allure for Drury, unsolvable cases nag at her: She can’t stand not being able to put all the puzzle pieces together. It’s especially frustrating considering the cases won’t fade over time or be forgotten by Drury. She has an eidetic memory.

“I could tell you every homicide we had in 2005 by case number, by victim name, and probably almost by address,” Drury said.

While many find the lab boring, for Drury every day spent analyzing evidence is an exciting challenge. Finishing a case or having that aha moment where all the pieces come together is one of Drury’s favorite parts of the job.

With their added complexity, cold cases hold a particular allure. One of her most memorable investigations was a 15-year-old homicide she helped solve.

In 1993, the body of a young woman, Shawna Yandell, was found floating in the Yakima River near Yakima Sportsman State Park by a group of Boy Scouts on a canoe trip. Despite detectives’ efforts, her homicide remained unsolved.

Yakima police reopened the investigation in 2008 after Drury found viable DNA samples while looking through unsolved cases. They found a match in 2009, and investigators arrested the suspect.

A jury convicted Clayton Gene Stafford of aggravated first- degree murder in 2010. Drury testified in the case. Stafford was sentenced to life without parole.

“The young woman’s mother was grateful to have an answer, finally,” Drury said. “I’m glad I was able to help the family get closure.”

The notoriety of a conviction more than 15 years post-crime was not lost on the public. The case was featured on “On the Case with Paula Zahn,” in an episode called “River of Sadness.” Drury appeared on the show, talking about the case.

In her first five years as a crime scene investigator, Drury testified in three cases that resulted in life sentences for the accused. She never got used to it.

“I’ve been doing this 15 years, and court is still nerve-wracking for me,” Drury said. “I’m a pacer, and I’ve worn that courtroom hallway down from walking so much; there’s probably a Kristen Drury trench up there.”

Early on, Drury remembers expecting to feel different at the conclusion of court cases in which she testified, something like the feeling of gratification TV investigators exhibit when the verdict comes down. She didn’t.

“I’ve never watched something of that magnitude and walked away feeling victorious,” Drury said.

Instead, Drury said those proceedings are usually accompanied by a feeling of deep sadness for everyone in the room experiencing the life-altering verdict.

“Nobody wins. It’s not about winning and losing,” Drury said. “It was eye-opening for me and always very emotional, experiencing that loss with everyone in that courtroom. Because it is a loss for everyone.”

Drury said she might have felt differently if she’d had experiences with law enforcement or in a courtroom prior to her career as a crime scene investigator, a path she hadn’t foreseen.

She wanted to be a dental hygienist.

“If you ask my mother, she says I took a left at the top of the stairs instead of the right,” Drury said. “They were really looking forward to free crowns, you know? I really failed them.”

Born and raised in Yakima, Drury went through the West Valley School District, later attending Central Washington University as a dental student. Her plans changed when she studied forensic anthropology in Barbuda, a small island in the eastern Caribbean.

“I was on an island for three months digging up ancient human remains, and I loved it,” Drury said. “It was fantastic, and I was like, ‘Yes, this is where my life needs to be. I need to be doing this.’”

Drury graduated from CWU in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. After realizing jobs examining ancient human remains were limited, she got her master’s degree in forensic science from the University of New Haven’s Sacramento, Calif., campus in 2003.

“That changed gears for me,” Drury said. “Where I had been previously looking at historical remains and cases, I now was looking at fresh cases.”

When graduation was approaching and Drury began to look for jobs, her dad told her there was an opening in Yakima. She applied and took it, going back to her roots.

“Since coming here, though, I’ve been able to continue learning,” Drury said. “That’s probably the best part about my job is I get to be a lifelong student.”

As forensic science is growing and changing so rapidly, being in the field means constantly being re-educated about the latest technology. Drury takes that commitment a step further, teaching students at CWU about forensic science.

Looking at the gender representation in her classroom, Drury is excited about the number of young women in the program. When she started in the field, she was often the only woman in the room.

Starting young and female in a previously male-dominated field, Drury remembers not being recognized in her position. Some people thought she was a visitor at the crime scene, and some male colleagues wouldn’t learn her name.

“There was definitely a lot of hazing and practical jokes,” Drury said. “I was afraid to speak up. I was younger, more meek, with less experience and less confidence in myself.”

One such practical joke happened at her first autopsy. The men in charge told her to go into the freezer and pick a subject to work on. When she walked in, they locked her inside and turned off the lights.

Drury was annoyed, but laughed — until she felt a hand grab her. The medical examiner had been lying on a table waiting to scare her.

Drury tells the story matter-of-factly, laughing at how ridiculous it was, but she says she wouldn’t put up with something like that now.

“I’m to the point now that I’m older, that I’m like ‘No, that’s not happening. Let me tell you why,’” she said.

Drury said age and experience helped her to stand up when it’s important and ignore it when it’s not. She said she doesn’t have a lot of those experiences anymore, as awareness of sexual harassment and other training have evolved through the years.

Being in the field such a long time, Drury has been witness to a lot of those positive changes. However, being in her line of work, she’s been witness to a lot of darkness as well.

Investigating crime scenes is rewarding, helping people and making the community safer. But that feeling of loss that comes with constant exposure to the horrific aftermath of tragedy — being inundated with evidence from the worst days of people’s lives — takes a toll.

As a logically minded person, Drury said she masked the negativity by filing the information away in her brain without processing the emotional impact.

“I didn’t take a breath in between those cases to really digest them,” Drury said. “It can get really down and depressing when you go to that dark space. I reached a point where I was just full and I could put no more in the data bank.”

When compartmentalizing stopped working, Drury had to find new ways to cope. She realized the importance of balance in her life: As much bad as she sees daily, she tries to create an equal amount of good.

Drury found that balance in her support system: her family and her husband, with whom she just had a child. Staying involved with people, particularly teaching and working with youths, helps her to balance it out.

“I just want to give the best service to my community because I live here too. This is my home,” Drury said.