An assemblage of news reporters, law enforcement, local and state officials and staff crowded into the new Eastern Montana Crime Lab in Billings on Thursday for an open house, and  to recognize the efforts of so many who helped make possible a sorely needed addition to the state’s justice system.

The turnout seemed to underscore the community’s awareness of the importance of the lab in the battle against escalating drug and violent crimes in the region.

The Eastern Montana Crime Lab, located at 1516 4th Ave. N., will save law enforcement and the state’s justice department time, and it will save taxpayers money, said Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, during the open house. Fox declared that the opening of the lab puts Montana at the fore in forensic sciences and “doing better all the time.” The new lab brings all aspects of forensic science in Yellowstone County, together under one roof, and it has the ability to expand in the future as needed.

It is a state-of-the –art facility, all the more amazing in having been built for less than a million dollars, said Dr. Rob Kurtzman, who is Billings’ medical examiner.  The cost was “obscenely low,” said Dr. Kurtzman, who credited “a lot of people who came together to make it happen.”

The state legislature appropriated $800,000 for the facility in 2017 and Yellowstone County contributed another $150,000 to the project.

The crime lab will function in tandem with the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula, under the direction of Scott Larson. In the past much of the analysis and processes needed by law enforcement and prosecutors in Yellowstone County and 32 eastern Montana counties had to be sent to Missoula, resulting in delays and unnecessary costs.

Stating that the crime lab in Billings was “a long time in coming,” Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito explained that even if each delay is a small amount of time for each case, there are so many cases that it quickly mounts up.

Dr. Kurtzman stated that the purpose of the morgue is about more than just investigating the cause of unnatural deaths but also “to improve the lives of the living.”

He pointed out that the morgue is where donor organs and tissues are taken to save the lives of those who need transplants. Determining the cause of death can, in some cases, be of importance to those related to the deceased, in that they are made aware of genetic issues that they may need to address. It is also where a communicable disease can be identified and its spread halted, and the public warned, to further save lives.

The lab will also provide services to the hospitals, which very frequently need lab analysis but find it is less expensive to pay the state lab for those services than to operate their own lab. That arrangement with the hospitals becomes an opportunity for the Eastern Montana Crime Lab to generate some operating revenues, pointed out Dr. Kurtzman.

Previously, forensic facilities in Billings were scattered and wholly inadequate, conceded many who spoke during the open house; and they thanked St. Vincent Health Care and the Billings Clinic for their cooperation and contributions in the past to meet those needs. Yellowstone County’s morgue was previously located at St. Vincent Healthcare and chemical analysis was done at Billings Clinic.

The major benefits of the Eastern Montana Crime Lab is that all functions are co-located, and the morgue has been expanded, said John Barnes, Deputy Communications Director for the Montana Department of Justice. The morgue in Yellowstone County typically performs 500 to 600 autopsies annually.

The gleaming white expansive room has two autopsy tables. Another autopsy room can be seen through a glass partition at one end of the main room, where cases involving communicable diseases can be isolated to prevent contamination and spread. A cold chambers room, where corpses are held, is at the other end of the main autopsy room.

The medical examiner oversees all autopsies, which in cases of suspected crime are also observed by the county coroner, which in Yellowstone County, is Sheriff Mike Linder, who is assisted by Chief Deputy Coroner Cliff Mahoney, as well as other officers who have been trained to serve as deputy corners.

The State Crime Lab in Missoula will primarily be responsible for toxicology, DNA, firearms, and prints, while the facility in Billings will primarily handle chemistry and medical examining.

The Eastern Montana Crime Lab will operate with a staff of seven, working in the two separate areas of the building – the morgue and the chemistry analysis lab. Dr. Kurtzman will oversee the operations of the morgue and Misty Icard will be in charge of the evidence and chemical analysis division.