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Cracking the Case
By Kerry Shannon ('10)
Latent print examiner Michelle Waldron ('00) examines a soda can found at a crime scene.
The popular TV show CSI centers on criminalists who dramatically investigate and solve crimes. They carry guns, make incredible last-second deductions and chase down criminals. Michelle Waldron (’00), who is a real-life criminalist and latent print examiner for the Missouri Highway Patrol Crime Laboratory in Springfield, Mo., can only smile at the show’s portrayal of her career. “I do like to watch CSI on occasion because it makes me laugh,” she says. “My co-workers and I like to joke about it. We will give each other a hard time by saying, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t get a fingerprint. I saw them do it on CSI!’”
Waldron’s job as a criminalist may not be quite as dramatic as those of her TV counterparts, but it is no less interesting or rewarding. She grew up in Fairfax, Va., with law enforcement “in her DNA.” Her father, Ronald J. Waldron, served as a New Jersey State trooper before devoting the bulk of his career to the Department of Justice. When she enrolled at JMU, Waldron knew she wanted a career in criminal justice, but was unsure of exactly which aspect of the field. She majored in computer information systems because, she says, “It would help me no matter what path I chose.”
At JMU, Waldron played on the women’s rugby team and took advantage of the natural beauty of the Harrisonburg area with her teammates. “Whether we were swimming at Blue Hole, watching a sunset at Reddish Knob or grabbing a late night bite at Jess’s Quick Lunch, we always found a way to enjoy what Harrisonburg had to offer. The valley has so many beautiful areas where you can get away from the crowd,” she says.
After graduation and while working for the Department of Justice, Waldron accepted a field job at a federal prison in San Diego. There, she used her JMU-acquired computer information systems skills to track inmates and their movements via computer. She eventually decided to return to school and graduated from the University of New Haven in 2005 with a master’s degree in forensic science. Then came a short stint providing surveillance for a private investigator. Later, she worked for the private MSSU Regional Crime Laboratory. For the last three years she has worked for the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s latent print crime lab developing fingerprints for criminal investigations.
“The great variety among my daily activities and between each criminal case is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job,” says Waldron. Beyond examining and processing evidence, she also trains new examiners, testifies in court and occasionally heads to crime scenes to search for prints.
Cracking a cold case is especially satisfying to Waldron, who enjoys seeing victims get justice. “I like to imagine the so-called ‘bad guy’ sitting on the couch eating potato chips a year or two after the crime and thinking, ‘I sure got away with that.’ Then the doorbell rings and Joe Cop makes the arrest.”
Waldron remembers one particular case where she developed prints off of tape used in a pipe bomb. “That was the first case where I was able to get fingerprints from the sticky side of duct tape using a dye stain,” she says. The case seemed completely cold after three years without a fingerprint database hit. Even though the statute of limitations had expired when the team got a hit, Waldon says, “It’s nice to feel like you are having a positive influence. Getting a positive I.D. from the U.S. National Automated Fingerprint Identification System was exciting.”
Waldron’s motivation to do the job is simple: “When I work a case, I try to handle it the way I would want it handled if I was the victim. Then I know I am doing all I can.”