The Montana Department of Justice unveiled a new crime lab in Billings earlier this year to address a larger number bodies requiring investigation and a large amount of land left without a nearby forensic team.
Yellowstone Public Radio News toured the facility. It includes a morgue and a chemical analysis lab where scientists examine the content of drugs that law enforcement seizes.
Montana Department of Justice and local partners see the new space as a step forward in speeding up processing times and improving communication between the county sheriff, the chemical lab and the morgue.
Before now, most bodies needed to be transported to Missoula for investigation or outsourced to an independent examiner. Missoula had also been the main location for drug testing up until 2016, when DOJ set up a satellite lab in Billings.
With a growing crime rate and need for autopsies in Yellowstone County, DOJ felt a need to bolster the Billings staff.
Billings didn’t have a dedicated state examiner and was using the morgue in St. Vincent’s hospital. In 2015, the state switched from a contract examiner and hired a full-time state examiner. Since then, they’ve also hired assistants, and another full-time forensic pathologist.
The new building also means added space to store bodies.
Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder says that’s a big advantage for the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s office.
“If you really wanted to force the issue, you could put maybe three bodies into the holding facility up there at the old morgue,” said Linder. “Here, we have this cooler here, we are able to hold more. Before, we were paying funeral homes to hold these bodies for us during the investigation. And that added up. It added up quickly.”
According to the Montana Department of Justice, DOJ, the state legislature, and Yellowstone County put nearly $1 million dollars into the renovation. $800,000 of that came from the legislature.