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Brittany Lawonn, Published July 06 2009

Toxicology reports more than just a test

Popular crime shows often depict a lab technician whipping out a toxicology result soon after someone has died and quickly telling the investigators exactly what medications or drugs were involved.

But that kind of quick turnaround isn’t always a reality.

“It’s only on TV that it takes an hour,” Frank Dolejsi said with a laugh.

The length it takes to obtain toxicology results often depends on what investigators are looking for and the circumstances surrounding a case, said Dolejsi, the director of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s Crime Lab in St. Paul.

“Saying toxicology sounds real simple, when in fact it really isn’t,” he said.

The results can paint a better picture for investigators of whether or not an individual may have been intoxicated and or whether a chemical substance played a role in someone’s death.

Dolejsi used the investigation into Michael Jackson’s death as an example, saying if authorities are aware of particular medications or pain killers he was using, “that would probably be one of

the first things you would

look for.”

If investigators don’t have any information, the testing may need to be much more extensive, as one can overdose on almost anything, such as over-the-counter medications like aspirin, Dolejsi said.

Toxicology results will likely tell authorities whether Joel LaFromboise was under the influence of something when he entered an unlocked Moorhead apartment last month and was shot and killed by the resident, Vernon Allen. Allen and others described LaFromboise as being intoxicated. The 17-year-old’s family has said they do not believe he was using drugs or alcohol.

“If the question is just whether they’re under the influence of drugs, now you’re looking at lower levels of drugs instead of looking for lethal levels … (which) is going to be a little more difficult,” Dolejsi said. “Like a lot of things, it’s easier to see a large quantity of something than it is to see a small quantity.”

In general, toxicology testing begins with a screening process for a panel of drugs. If something is found, a further analysis is conducted to confirm what was found and how much.

“Screening can be done fairly quickly, but the confirmations are usually analytical techniques that are more time-consuming,” Dolejsi said. “Some drugs you don’t even find in their native form anymore. They are metabolized by the body to other compounds so sometimes you’re looking for not the original drug but their metabolite.”

Testing results can take a month or two, or longer depending on what is or is not found.

“If we end up finding a lot of drugs, which sometimes happens with what they call poly-drug abuse, then it might take several months,” Dolejsi said.

The length it takes to obtain the results can also depend on the lab itself and how it is set up.

Minnesota’s lab is currently backlogged due to recent court challenges regarding breath testing instruments, leading to more blood and urine tests to process for alcohol and drugs, Dolejsi said.

The lab used to get a handful of such tests, but “now we’re getting 100 a day,” he said, estimating the lab previously performed about 7,000 to 8,000 tests a year related to driving while intoxicated cases.

“That may be going up to maybe 20,000 to 24,000 if they keep going the way they are,” he said.

And those aren’t the only cases where toxicology comes into play. There are also death investigations, homicides and sexual assault cases where date rape drugs might have been involved that need such tests.

A recent Minnesota court ruling may also lead to more lab employees going to court to testify about their findings, causing even further delays as the scientists are then out of the lab more often.

Information about North Dakota’s crime lab was unavailable.

“We’re not able to answer even general questions on those issues,” said Liz Brocker, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office.

She added that commenting on toxicology testing could impact ongoing cases.

The smaller caseload size in North Dakota allows the state crime lab to perform DNA tests in property crimes cases, something which would be less likely in other states with larger caseloads, Fargo Police Lt. Pat Claus said.

Claus said authorities understand that toxicology results often take weeks to obtain.

“That just takes longer to do and they have more of it,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Brittany Lawonn at (701) 241-5541