A Baltimore crime lab technician moves through a surreal city

People danced their hearts out to the Cupid Shuffle as Rodney Montgomery collected forensic evidence at a gruesome Mother's Day homicide scene.

That night a 22-year-old man had been shot in the head several times in southeast Baltimore while various family gatherings and holiday festivities were in full swing nearby. Montgomery, a crime lab technician for the Baltimore Police Department, was trying to perform his duties while wedged between a dance party and a crowd of folks who were angry that the homicide scene had interfered with their cookout celebration. Music and curse words echoed through the night as he meticulously worked alongside fellow technicians and police detectives in a quest to reconstruct the crime scene and collect enough clues to identify the killer.

The memory of that 2012 homicide scene remains firmly entrenched in the 36-year-old squad leader's mind as a surreal yet indicative moment: Sometimes Baltimore's numerous, grisly crime scenes are considered more inconvenient than tragic.

"It just shows that life has to go on, you know? Everything can't stop for this one incident," he says. "And even the people that were fussing at us towards the end—you can always see when I'm finishing a crime scene, because I'm rolling the [walking] tape. That means I'm pretty much done. I'm doing my measurements. And by that time they were nice to me. They were like, ' Oh, do you want us to fix you a plate?'"

Working as a crime lab technician can be that way. Sometimes he is out in the field placing yellow markers next to bullet casings and other evidence or taking pictures of blood spatter. Sometimes he is in the lab documenting and processing evidence. He is one of 27 crime lab technicians that work crime scenes in the city. And it is not completely unfamiliar terrain for him.

Montgomery was raised in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Poppleton by a "strong-willed" single mother who did her best to protect him and his younger brother from the dangers of the city. She didn't let her boys play outside nor did she allow drugs or crime to play a role in their lives. The only time the two brothers got a taste of the dangerous world that surrounded their home was during a nearby shooting, Montgomery says. "There were times when we would hear gunshots and my mother would say, 'Turn everything off. Lay on the floor,'" he says. "We had to stay away from windows and everything else. So we were cognizant, or very conscious, of where we were, but it was more so that we weren't immersed in it. It's just that we were there and it was occurring around us."

As a young child, Montgomery fostered dreams of becoming a doctor. He eventually ditched that goal after carefully considering the amount of schooling and funding his dream required. Those concerns, coupled with his studies at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a high school with a math and science-based curriculum, helped push him away from his medical dreams and toward obtaining a bachelor's degree in chemistry.

For the past six years, Montgomery has used that chemistry education to help police solve crimes—a job that has become more and more demanding as the number of homicides increases.

There were 344 homicides in Baltimore in 2015, which set a record for per-capita homicides in Baltimore. The crime lab is bustling with a steady workload. The city hired 10 lab technicians in late 2014, before city homicides spiked unexpectedly. The new staffers have alleviated some of the stress tied to the uptick in crime, Montgomery says.

But even a new batch of technicians—the largest group hire Montgomery has seen during his six years at the lab—just "isn't enough to fill the needs of the department," he says.

"On average we could have four or five people working a shift and we can handle calls," he says. "But if it picks up just a little bit, if one major call happens, it can kind of back up a lot of calls that will happen around the city. Sometimes it's like a domino effect. One major thing happens and something else happens and something else happens and it can kind of back us up."

Still, days where the workload is heavy and the work environment is electric with raw emotions come with their own set of lessons, he says. They can teach a crime lab technician how to operate efficiently under duress as well as control his or her feelings around grieving families, which is very important to learn how to do, Montgomery says.

"You don't want to tap into too much, I guess, too much of your emotions, because then it will keep you from being able to do what you need to do," he said. "And what I'm responsible for is to document what occurred or any evidence on the scene that may help solve this case, that may give this family some type of peace of mind."

That feat isn't always easy, Montgomery admitted. There is only so much evidence and information that technicians can collect from a crime scene and if there isn't enough of both, the crime remains unsolved. "Unsolved cases can be a pain in the butt, and anything with kids still gets me," he says.

Once, Montgomery was sent to a fire after firefighters discovered the bodies of two young children and their father. Montgomery stayed on scene until the fire department had finished its investigation. He then returned to his office at Baltimore Police Department headquarters, stood next to a cabinet, and cried.

The complexities of working with crime scenes are part of the reason that Montgomery spends his downtime enjoying simple things, such as watching Netflix and playing with his rescue dog Delilah.

Montgomery adopted Delilah, a pit bull mixed-breed dog, from the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter in April and said being with her is a good distraction, giving him some relaxing time away from the challenges associated with a staggering amount of crime "that is just frustrating."

"I grew up here in the late '80s and '90s, so I'm familiar with the 300 number and the amount of violence," he says. "I'm just floored that I have to see it again."

Baltimore Police Department Crime Lab Director Steven O'Dell says he intends to alleviate some of the stress that the crime lab is under in the coming months. By July the Crime Scene Sciences section of the crime lab will have 36 technicians and four supervisors, he said. Those new technicians will all be acquired from local universities and colleges.

The promise of a robust crime lab comes just as fresh concerns are stirring among city residents that the 2015 uptick in homicides and shootings could spill over into 2016. So far, the new year has yielded several shootings, an arson homicide, and a battered body left to rot in the confines of a northeast hotel. O'Dell noted that the crime lab experienced a 5.4 percent overall increase in demand for technicians to gather evidence at crime scenes in 2015, a demand that was cushioned slightly by the presence of new employees.

For O'Dell, that means his efforts to fill as many lab vacancies as possible played a critical role in assisting the department with the unexpected rise in crime.

"It turned out that, 2015, we didn't have such a great year," he says. "And it worked, as timing would have it."

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