Contra Costa's crime lab chief has a passion for solving the tough cases.
Photograph by Jamie Kripke
As he leads a tour through the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s crime lab, Paul Holes, the lab’s chief, chuckles at the image of crime solving presented in CSI and other police dramas. For one thing, he says, the TV crime labs, which all resemble cool urban offices, suffer from really dim, moody lighting.
“There’s no way we could work in that kind of light,” he says.
The lab’s painstaking work of puzzling out clues from bodily fluids, bullets, and fingerprints takes place in cramped, fluorescent-washed portable trailers in downtown Martinez. The two trailers went up in the early 1970s as temporary quarters for a narcotics unit.
Even if the TV view of what Holes and his staff do is glamorized, a few of them actually resemble the young, hip science geeks who populate those TV shows—listening to alternative rock while peering through microscopes to identify the minute piece of evidence that can solve a crime. Holes himself is only 39, possibly the youngest chief in the county’s history.
With his friendly, handsome face, Holes wouldn’t be out of place on one of those shows. And, like all TV detectives, he loves looking for answers that crime scenes provide: What does that spray of blood say about where the shooter stood when he fired? Is the murderer’s DNA under the dead woman’s fingernails?
“It’s the ultimate mystery,” he says. “You’re presented with a tremendous tragedy, and you’re responsible for recovering evidence and for reconstructing the events to help the investigators so they know what the evidence is telling them.”
Before becoming the county sheriff’s department’s chief of forensic services last year, Holes worked as a crime scene investigator and then lab supervisor for a total of 18 years, at one point visiting the scenes of “pretty much every homicide” in the county: the bludgeoning death of a reclusive Orinda heiress, gang executions in North Richmond, and the exhumation of the body of a 17-year-old Walnut Creek girl in a 28-year-old cold case. He spent countless other hours peering through microscopes to analyze DNA and worked on some of the county’s other most noteworthy cold cases.
Now, as the lab’s top administrator, he faces the daunting task of elevating it into a truly top-notch crime-solving agency. Doing this means finding ways to reduce the lab’s backlog of DNA, firearm, and fingerprint testing, and updating its outdated facilities.
A 2007 county grand jury report praised the crime lab’s high-quality work but criticized its serious understaffing and “chronic inability” to turn around test results in a timely manner. The report noted that the backlog for some cases was three years and that it could take six months to turn around a request for a DNA test, unless the case was high priority, such as a fast-developing homicide investigation.
Although this backlog is similar to that at other police labs, Holes worries about the offender who continues to commit crimes while some bit of identifying evidence—fingerprint, semen, or bullet—sits in a case envelope, waiting to be analyzed.
So, he has been busy securing local, state, and federal money to hire three new criminalists, to eventually increase his staff of criminalists to 14. He has also worked with Sheriff Warren Rupf to eliminate the long-standing requirement that new hires also be sworn deputies. Holes says this requirement was deterring good scientists who had no interest in becoming law enforcement officers.
Finally, Holes has shuffled assignments to make DNA analysis a top priority, along with ballistics testing for west Contra Costa shootings. Already, his team has reduced the backlog so that, for example, his two firearms experts are actually working on 2007 cases.
As much as Holes derides TV shows for their inaccuracy, he acknowledges that they get one thing right: They show the increasingly important role that forensic science plays in solving crimes. As the grand jury report noted, “lab test results serve as a good, sometimes the only, source of leads” for solving crimes.
Plus, DNA testing, barely in use in courts 20 years ago, has uncovered flaws in traditional investigative techniques and exonerated inmates wrongfully convicted through coerced confessions or supposedly reliable eyewitness testimony. DNA also yields more precise results than older, more subjective forensic methods, such as hair and fiber analysis.
Holes’s fascination with gory tableaux springs from his childhood love of Quincy, M.E., the TV show starring Jack Klugman as a crime-solving medical examiner. And like Quincy, Holes has even devoted some of his off-hours to the study of crime.
This father of four’s reading material consists of psychological studies of serial killers and books on criminal profiling. He has used days off to visit remote East Bay spots where the bodies of teenage girls and women were found in the late 1960s and ’70s; Holes believes they might be victims of Phillip Hughes, a serial killer who has been serving three concurrent life sentences since 1980 for the murders of two young central Contra Costa women and a teenage Oakland girl.
Who are these people who commit these crimes?
Holes’s wife, Sherrie, understands his fascination. Before becoming a full-time mom, she was a DNA analyst at a private lab who helped him identify a suspect, Charles Jackson, in the 1978 killing of 11-year-old Cynthia Waxman of Moraga.
Once Holes hires more staff and clears other administrative hurdles, he hopes to devote more time to these unsolved cases. Even now, he consults with investigators on them and occasionally reviews old police reports and photos filed in binders on his office bookshelf. He will stare at a 30-year-old photo of a girl lying dead in a field to see if it reveals some overlooked clue.
“I don’t know if you want to call it dark and twisted, but I want to know, Who are these people who commit these crimes?” he says. “What can I get from the crime scene that tells what the offender is doing and why he’s doing it? It’s just absolutely fascinating to me."