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Volunteers set to comb crime scenes

GRANTS PASS — Mikel Dugas, a grandfather and retired contractor, is about to help catch burglars and thieves now operating with impunity in beleaguered Josephine County.

He's part of a unique new squad of volunteers who will investigate crime scenes. Dugas and his partners will head to reported burglaries and thefts where they'll gather fingerprints, collect fibers and look for footprints. They'll write up the details and be ready to testify if the suspect is tried.

Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson created the innovative team to counter budget cuts that have left his rural agency short staffed. The team, framed with guidance from Josephine County District Attorney Stephen Campbell, starts work next month.

Gilbertson said his office hasn't investigated property crimes in more than two years.

"The ability to do it has been severely limited" by budget cuts, Gilberston said. Voters in the county have repeatedly rejected tax increases that would have restored the sheriff's operations.

Across the state, other sheriffs are confronting similar challenges. Detectives are in short supply and patrol strength has dwindled significantly in many locales. Polk County, for example, has no deputy on duty at night. Recently, Curry County voters rejected yet another tax proposal, this one to keep open the remote coastal county's jail.

Dugas has lived in Cave Junction, southwest of Grants Pass, for 25 years. He retired from general contracting four years ago and last year chatted with Gilbertson about how he could help.

He later got the call: How would he like to become a trained crime scene investigator?

The idea intrigued Dugas, who has no prior policing experience.

"I'm too healthy a guy to sit around and not do anything," he said.

Gilbertson put Dugas and nine other volunteers through vigorous training — more than 200 hours for some. They first had to clear the same background checks as police officers.

The volunteers learned the ins and outs of the criminal justice system, including the surprising volume of reports required to document a crime.

"There's so much paper involved in this," said Dugas.

They learned techniques for salvaging fingerprints — and when they're not worth processing. Dugas said they were taught one other surprising skill.

"They taught us to think like a burglar," Dugas said. "We were being taught about how they would touch things at a scene."

Then came rigorous testing.

"Mock crime scenes were long and tedious — eight hours in the sun, 50 hours of report writing, then the district attorney reviewed them and the sheriff reviewed them," Dugas said.

Meticulous attention to detail is needed to convict offenders, Dugas learned. He knows he and his partners will be tested in court. Gilbertson said those potential court appearances are one reason he designed such extensive training.

"I've been working with the DA very closely so we can actually stand the challenge of courtroom scrutiny," Gilbertson said. "We know defense attorneys are going to try to tear down the individuals that we're using for this."

Gilbertson said each team will include a retired police officer to add law enforcement experience and credentials for court.

Other police agencies use volunteers to conduct crime prevention missions. Retired officers also work on unsolved murders, but Gilbertson said he knew of no other agency resorting to volunteers for crime scene work. He noted they would not be involved in major crimes such as murders. Regional policing teams still will handle that, he said.

He said others are asking about what he's doing.

"Other sheriffs' offices are starting to feel the discomfort we've felt the past two years," said Gilbertson.

Dugas expects to stay busy. He's been told citizens daily file about a dozen burglary and theft reports online just for the Cave Junction area.

"My bottom line is I hope we improve our community and stop what's going on here," Dugas said.

Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson created a squad of volunteers who will investigate crime scenes, to counter budget cuts that have left his rural agency short-staffed. The Oregonian / Les Zaitz