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Stand down Grissom; new $85 million 'CSI San Diego' unveiled

If you are a fan of the popular crime scene investigation programs on television like “CSI: Las Vegas,” “CSI: Miami” or “CSI: New York,” you should know that the facilities depicted in those award-winning shows are nothing like the new real-life forensic center that serves San Diego County.

The opening of San Diego County’s new $85 million Medical Examiner & Forensic Center on Overland Drive in Kearney Mesa makes all those Hollywood wannabes pale in comparison.

“Welcome to CSI San Diego! This new facility has been recognized as the finest facility of its kind in North America,” exclaimed County Supervisor Dianne Jacob at the ribbon-cutting event held December 17.

Dr. Jonathan Lucas, who specializes in x-ray and fluoroscopy services in this intricate area of science, said he is amazed at the innovative new equipment the facility is outfitted with.

“This is so far ahead of what we are doing now that we are beyond excited,” said Lucas, who demonstrated how bullet wounds and related trajectory can be better studied because of the new state-of-the-art equipment. “We have better abilities with 3-D imagery and in being able to reconstruct what happened to an individual.”

Designed to serve the needs of San Diego County for the next half-century, the new facility is comprised of 84,000 square feet, almost five times the size of the old one. It contains not only the morgue, 17 autopsy rooms with electronic touch-screens for use during exams, a specially designed teaching room, expanded histology and toxicology labs, bereavement rooms, conference rooms, a call center, property room, enhanced diagnostic areas like x-ray imaging, fluoroscopy and DNA testing, but also much more.

While the budget for the facility was $85 million, expenditures currently stand at $73 million, an outcome the county supervisors are pleased with.

“It came in under budget and the County has paid for it all in cash; no stimulus funds were used,” said Supervisor Jacob, whose statement was followed by applause from the audience at the grand opening ceremony.

County Medical Examiner Dr. Glenn Wagner explained that his office, which is open 365 days a year, 24 hours per day, looks into approximately 11,000 deaths (51 percent of total) each year throughout the county, but less than 20 percent are autopsied.

“Anyone who hasn’t seen their doctor in the 20 days prior to his or her death comes to us to have their case reviewed, unless that individual’s doctor is comfortable signing the death certificate,” said Wagner.

Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Christina Stanley said the county staff performs about 2,000 autopsies per year.

“Generally, an autopsy is done on anyone that is perceived as dying prematurely,” said Stanley.

The medical examiner’s team works diligently to help solve complex crimes and also tracks diseases.

Equipped with all the latest bells and whistles available in the forensic world, Wagner said the new forensic facility “expands our capabilities and ability to provide service, education and research.”

The new facility isn’t the only thing that has gained Wagner and his staff national respect. San Diego’s award-winning “John and Jane Doe Center” has earned significant praise as has the amount of brain research his team has compiled in cooperation with the University of California at San Diego.

Gretchen Geary, an investigator with the medical examiner’s office explained that both tangible and intangible elements make San Diego’s “John and Jane Doe Center” superior to others.

One of the newest tangible elements is a multi-million dollar radiology machine that creates 3-D photography images of the entire body. Geary said the new device makes it possible to help identify human remains, as a photo can now be compared to an x-ray or CT scan through superimposition.

“We are the first medical examiner’s office or coroner to have this machine,” she said.

“Intangible elements that allow us to be superior are our personnel,” said Geary. “For example, our forensic artist, who is a volunteer, is able to help us create images of people to allow for identification.” Geary also said anthropologists on staff play a key role in the success of identifying individuals.

At the grand opening festivities, County Supervisor Ron Roberts reflected on an experience he had with the medical examiner’s office concerning the family of a young accident victim.

“I saw first-hand how our staff is the most compassionate, professional,” said Roberts. “They help families through the worst of times.”

“Consoling families is something they do every single day,” said Supervisor Jacob.

Part of the commitment that Wagner and his staff make to families is to do their best to help solve the questions surrounding a loved one’s death.

“For the patient, it’s a final opportunity to tell their story,” said Wagner. “It’s a story worth hearing and learning from.”

According to Supervisor Jacob, every dime was well spent in building this facility for the residents of San Diego County.

“It’s worthy of the people in this region,” she said.

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