PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Inside the basement of the Rhode Island Department of Health laboratory, front line investigators uncover clues that can help solve homicides.
“We are practically starting the investigation at the same time police do,” state Medical Examiner Alexander Chirkov said.
From digital photographs of autopsies to gun powder residue to evidence storage – they assist with every deadly investigation.
“We give the material to build the case,” he added.
It’s not just today’s cases. The medical examiner’s office is integral to cold cases as well.
In the last year, Eyewitness News has highlighted the new energy building behind the state’s oldest and most unsolvable cases. There’s a new cold case task force that meets nearly every week. Plus, DNA technology is accelerating every year.
All of this means detectives continue to ask for older evidence, sometimes long forgotten.
Not a problem.
“We keep evidence of homicide that was performed before World War II,” Chirkov said. “We have evidence of homicide that was convicted in the 1950s and 60s. Everything stays with us forever.”
Evidence is a sweeping term.
Chirkov testified in Boston Federal Court in May 2018 about the mob dig of Steven DiSarro. Investigators say DiSarro was murdered by Boston wiseguys in 1993 and buried in Providence. Chirkov worked with the FBI to carefully sift through the soil to collect all of the evidence.
“Every case is a challenge,” he said. “There is no repetition. Everything is challenging.”
His expertise also came into play in a nearly 50-year-old cold case. Louise McMillen was killed in South Kingstown. Whoever did it has never been found.
South Kingstown Police Detective Ray Lamont added the case to a deck of cold case playing cards to shine more light on the investigation and potentially bring in new tips.
One of the challenges of that case: the death certificate never listed a cause. So, in 2016, her body was exhumed by the medical examiner.
“When we have some unanswered questions… and most of this is driven by families. They want to know what was done wrong,” Chirkov said. “Why do we have no answer?”
Lamont said the new autopsy was a significant help to their investigation.
“I can’t get into the specifics of it but we were able to have the autopsy report changed, which is big for the case,” Lamont said. “It was a homicide.”
Chirkov said as technology has helped detectives, it’s also changed their job.
For instance, pacemakers now reveal far more information.
“It can give us exact time of death up to minutes,” he explained. “That was not possible two years ago.”
He also said digital photography has helped investigators. Before, an autopsy would have 20 to 30 photos. Now, Chirkov said they can take thousands of photographs.
Anyone with information on a homicide investigation in Rhode Island should call 1-877-RI-SOLVE.