Abilene DPS crime lab & its role in the fight against deadly drugs

ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) in Abilene is one of 16 across the state. Abilene DPS Staff Sergeant Marc Couch told KTAB/KRBC that the even distribution of these labs and the caseloads they handle in their respective service areas is a key component of the court’s ability to respond quickly and accurately to the copious amount of cases they hear each year.

“I’m not a chemist… We have to have that hard evidence that we’re bringing to court because we’re talking about taking people’s liberty away — putting them in jail in most cases. There are already necessary delays trying to get attorneys on the same page about appearance dates and all the things that are involved with that, so we don’t want to be waiting upon evidence,” said Couch.

The Abilene lab serves a 40-county area, where lab manager Mary Avalosbelli oversees ten staff members. This lab focuses mainly on the chemistry aspect of forensics, such as blood and narcotics. In 2023, they assisted in evidence analysis for approximately 4,130 cases.

<em>Texas DPS crime lab service areas</em>
Texas DPS crime lab service areas

“It’s definitely helped our counties quite a bit. Our backlog right now is only 34, an average of 34 days,” Avalosbelli said.

Avalosbelli explained that evidence can be processed and returned in about 30 days from the time it is received. This is a relatively quick turnaround for this stuff, which wouldn’t be possible in Abilene without a locally based lab.

“Having this work spread around in regional areas really helps the flow of narcotics and keeping that testing and court cases moving across the state,” Couch said.

More and more of those cases are involving deadly Fentanyl, which Avalosbelli said they have seen come through the lab in the past couple of years. In 2023, it made up around 4% of their total cases. While that number may seem insignificant, Couch said it is concerning when taking into account the lethality of the drug, even in small doses.

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“Most of you’ve seen the graphic that has 5, 6 grains, or 15 grains sitting next to a penny, and that’s a lethal dose of fentanyl,” Couch said.

The danger was apparent in the “pressed pills” that the lab tests from time to time. These are pills that contain fentanyl, often in lethal or more than-lethal amounts, made to look like other drugs. Couch said this is usually done because Fentanyl is a cheaper and much more abundant substance. But it can lead to deadly outcomes for an unsuspecting public.

“They don’t have ten chemists working in their lab… You could get an unsuspecting teenager someone who’s trying something for the first time that gets a hold of a fake pill and all the sudden they’re dead… This lab stands ready to help us in that fight against drugs, trying to clean up Texas and make sure we stay safe,” Couch said.

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