search articles: 

   from the issue of February 1, 2007

Graduate chambers unique niche in state crime lab


"I've fired hundreds of guns. And that was just during my first few months on the job."

TEST FIRE - Kent Weber, a UNL alumnus, fires a 9mm handgun into a water tank designed to aid with the...
TEST FIRE - Kent Weber, a UNL alumnus, fires a 9mm handgun into a water tank designed to aid with the collection and testing of bullets. Weber, who earned a bachelor's in anthropology and international studies, is a forensic scientist in the Nebraska State Patrol Crime Lab. Photo by Sara Pipher/University Communications.

Kent Weber grins and slides a 9mm weapon onto its shelf as he says this.

Weber is not a robber, and he's not a cop.

He's an anthropologist.

Well, kind of.

Weber received his bachelor's in anthropology and international studies from UNL in 1998, and a formative experience at the university led him to his current work as a forensic scientist in the Nebraska State Patrol's Crime Lab.

To be precise, it was a special topics course in forensic anthropology, taught by adjunct professor Doug Scott, an expert in forensic firearms. Scott offered to teach any interested students more about the field and Weber jumped at the chance to learn about firearm and toolmark examination. By scrutinizing microscopic markings on weapons and tools, Scott taught Weber that he could understand a great deal about the history and use of a given item.

Weber has been on a path to achieve his professional dream ever since. After college, he took a job as a crime analyst for the State Patrol, and also enrolled in a master's program in forensic science at Nebraska Wesleyan University, where once again he had the chance to study with his mentor, Doug Scott.

In January 2005, Weber moved from his analyst position into an apprenticeship of sorts, working for Mark Bohaty, the chief firearms examiner at the Crime Lab. From day one, the job was a perfect fit.

"I have grown up around shooting sports and hunting," Weber said. "I always find great interest in examining the firearms that come in, even if they aren't in the best of shape. This profession involves perpetual learning, so it pays to notice the small details of one firearm so you can compare it to or remember it on the next firearm that comes through the door. The same holds true for other examination items (tools, shoes, tires), but the forensic firearms work is what interests me the most."

His brightly lit office hardly resembles the creepy, subterranean workspaces on most crime shows, but his actual work duties would fit right in to an episode of CSI. Weber spends a typical day scrutinizing evidence that can arrive in many forms: bullets, cartridge cases, firearms, tools... or any combination thereof. He takes detailed notes, measurements and photos of the evidence. And he has seen it all.

"Pretty much any crime you read about in the paper, we see the physical evidence from it," he said. Weber and his colleagues use high-powered microscopes to assess nuances in the structures of, for example, bullets. He can compare two bullets to see if they were shot from the same gun, and can search an international database of more than 95,000 bullet images to source those guns.

Piles of confiscated weapons line the lab's back room-some sort of antique rocket launcher, a baseball bat wrapped in electrical tape, and, inexplicably, a decorative sword covered in fake gems.

Sometimes Weber and his colleagues must recreate circumstances under which a gun or tool was used. They utilize an indoor firing range, (they fire into a gigantic water tank or a rubber and steel bullet trap) in which they can test fire guns creating a known standard, which they can then compare back to evidence. They do the same thing with tools-by creating test toolmarks, such as a cut by a bolt cutter, they can compare their test marks to markings on evidence.

"Typically when we get evidence, there's already been a crime scene," Weber explained. "The officers send as many components as they can find to our lab to be analyzed. And sometimes, much later, they will recover something else... Our work pretty much falls in the middle of the process; so much happens in an investigation. There's crime scene work and interviews, then lab exams of various kinds, then court stuff...all the legal matters that surround the case. It can take months."

Weber spends almost all of his time in the lab; he is only called into the field for special circumstances, like recreating a shooting, or capturing a shoe print left in mud or snow. But the lab is, to Weber, a pretty cool place to be. He has access to walls of guns, the shooting range, microscopes and trays of tools, and down the hall, DNA analysts, drug screeners, and an evidence garage filled with "just about anything you can imagine - you name it, we've seen it!"

While he has learned a great deal on the job, Weber has had additional opportunities to hone his skills at a training academy created by the Association of Firearm and Toolmark Examiners and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Twelve students are accepted each year, and Weber was the first person from Nebraska to attend the academy.

Weber's training isn't complete. The process of becoming a firearm examiner typically takes a minimum of two to three years.

Once he finishes his training, Weber has no plans to change careers or relocate - ever.

"I have a great job, and this is what I've wanted to do for almost a decade... why would I leave," he said.



First-time gallery event draws 140 students
Economist to tender Feb. 8 Thompson talk
Gallagher chronicles state's No Child Left Behind effort
Graduate chambers unique niche in state crime lab
Research eyes climate shifts, instability at end of last Ice Age
Robotic outreach