Real Life

On the case: ‘We’re the real-life CSI’

Helping catch the bad guys is all in a day’s work for these three kiwi mums.

When Wendy Janes is woken by a ringing telephone in the middle of the night, it can mean only one thing – someone has been murdered. It is her job to hurry to the crime scene and search for evidence to help catch the killer.

Wendy and her colleagues, Janina Neale and Sally Coulson, are the real-life versions of the characters on television’s CSI series. They are forensic scientists for the ESR (Institute of Environmental Science and Research), and their work features in Prime documentary series Forensics NZ.

It’s a demanding role covering everything from examining decomposing corpses to analysing blood spatter patterns, but it has always been a dream job for Christchurch-based Wendy (41).

“I wanted a career where I could use science to help people,” she explains.

Her average day might involve witnessing scenes most of us would hope never to see and in the beginning, Wendy was concerned about being able to handle it.

“I’d only ever seen one dead body before I got into the job,” she recalls. “Very early on, I attended a post-mortem and that was quite an experience. But it wasn’t something that grossed me out. I found it really interesting.”

Wendy knows a night-time phone call can only mean one thing.

Fourteen years on, homicide scenes are routine for Wendy and she’s had to develop a certain amount of detachment about the victims of violent crime.

“It sounds callous but you can’t think of them as people; they’re bodies, a piece of evidence to process,” she says. “You’re thinking about what you need to do and being meticulous. When you’re in someone’s house and you see their family photos on the wall, of course you have respect for them. But you want to help get justice. And if you were too attached to who they were and the horribleness of what has gone on, you wouldn’t be able to do the job for long.”

Wendy has three daughters, Cassia (9), Annique (7) and Meisha (4) with her husband Gertjan, a stay-at-home dad.

“It’s very important to be able to go home at night and switch off,” she says. “But I think you’re more conscious of the world and what your children might be exposed to, so you’re more protective of them.”

Janina says now she’s a mum, cases can be more upsetting.

Janina (43) has also been working in forensics her whole career and says having her son Daniel (4) changed things.

“Cases around children are more upsetting than they used to be,” she explains. “Becoming a mum means your shell gets a little cracked. But still you just get on and do what you have to do.”

Wellington-based Janina is literally married to her job; husband David is also a forensic scientist.

“If I’ve had a particularly gruelling homicide, it helps to be able to go home to someone who knows what I’ve been doing,” she says. “But we also have a policy of trying not to talk about work too much.”

Sally at work filming Forensics NZ.

Sally is currently juggling more than 40 cases and for each, she has to liaise with police, analyse samples in the lab, write up reports and potentially give evidence in court. It’s challenging but satisfying.

“I like to think that in some way, it’s contributing to society and doing good,” she says. “Being able to prove that suspects are innocent is just as important as showing they’re guilty.”

While even the most hapless criminal knows to wear gloves so as not to leave fingerprints, many aren’t aware just how much of their DNA is left behind.

“Even when we’re talking, tiny aerosols of saliva come out of our mouths so we’re probably leaving a little DNA, although not always detectable levels,” says Janina. “Every time we touch something, skin cells are sloughing off or we may leave a hair behind.”

Examining what has been left at crime scenes is a large part of Auckland-based Sally’s job.

“The type of work I do is all chemistry- based,” she explains. “I look at trace evidence, analysing paint and glass fragments, liquids and fibres. Most stuff is quite small so there is a lot of fine handling with tweezers.”

Janina, Sally and Wendy all say they can’t imagine doing any other job.

Although she has seen some of the CSI series, Sally (47) would much rather watch a cooking show.

“The techniques they use on CSI tend to be correct but they’ll do things a hundred times faster than we’d be able to, so they fit into that hour time slot. Often, they’ll have someone who does absolutely everything and in real life you could never be qualified enough for that.”

A part of the job Sally really enjoys is presenting evidence in court.

“I like the challenge of explaining complicated things. It’s my job to make sure everybody understands and I find it fulfilling.”

Although she deals with crimes all day, it doesn’t leave her more worried for the safety of her children, Zara (13) and Scott (10), or husband Ryan.

“I take a different perspective,” explains Sally, pointing out that most homicides are committed by people the victims know. “So the chances of being randomly attacked are very low.”

For a career in forensics, you need attention to detail, good organisational skills, perseverance and natural curiosity.

And while the blue jumpsuits, shower-style caps and masks worn on crime scenes may not be the most glamorous workwear, all three say it’s a great job and they can’t imagine doing anything else for a living.

“Science is about finding hidden truths in the world around us,” says Janina. “It can be exciting.”

Forenesics NZ screens on Prime, Sundays at 8.30pm

Words: Nicky Pellegrino

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