'Fingerprints don't lie': Retiring Ardmore crime scene investigator reflects on career
After a long and fulfilling career investigating crimes across the state, Sherri Wallace is closing out her career where it all began.
Wallace worked at the Ardmore Police Department as a police officer in the mid-90s and later returned as a crime scene investigator in 2010. Now she is finishing out her days in the crime lab and going into retirement.
Throughout her career she’s been involved with many different cases, from a woman claiming to be robbed at ‘hook point’ to a homicide where the suspect returned to the scene of the crime covered in blood. Wallace also played a part in a 2014 racketeering case that helped clean up the streets of Ardmore.
“I was fortunate enough to start in law enforcement, there wasn’t really anything prohibiting me, but as a little girl you didn’t see that a lot,” Wallace said. “I grew up in the 60s so you didn’t see a lot of females.”
In her early 20s Wallace began working as a dispatcher in Healdton. By the time she accepted a full-time job as a dispatcher at the Carter County Sheriff's Office, more women were beginning to join law enforcement and she thought “I have a chance in this.”
She went from dispatching first responders to being the one responding after taking a job as a police officer at the Ardmore department in 1995, and joining the Oklahoma County Sheriff's Office two years later.
During her first two years at the sheriff's office she did a lot of detective work where she would have to interrogate suspects. Knowing the extent of the crime and that the person sitting in front of her was lying could be difficult at times.
“You know they’re lying, you’re going to disprove them in maybe cooperating statements from witnesses or co-conspirators or something,” Wallace said. “But when you’re sitting across from somebody that’s 'perped' on a child and you know they’re lying that’s difficult.”
When you’re a crime scene investigator, the evidence doesn’t lie. “It is what it is and it’s up to them to prove that it wasn’t them,” Wallace said. “Fingerprints don’t lie, DNA doesn’t lie, it’s evidence.”
Wallace officially became a crime scene investigator at the sheriff’s department in 2000.
In addition to a criminal justice degree, Wallace took hundreds of hours of forensic courses, which entailed things like fingerprint processing, blood stain analysis, reconstructing shooting scenes and creating sketches of suspects.
Sketching suspects: The woman robbed at 'hook point'
In 2004, she went to the FBI for a three week academy where she learned how to draw faces. “It doesn’t matter how good of an artist you are as long as you’ve got a good witness," Wallace said. "You draw through their eyes."
As the years have gone by Wallace has complied many sketches that have been on the news or in the paper, and many that have led to arrests.
One particular sketch she was asked to produce was a bit unusual. Wallace said a hotel clerk out of Edmond had reported being robbed and told officers a very specific story.
“Her story is that the lady pulled a hook on her and robbed her at hook point. Then I go in and I get to interview her myself,” Wallace said. “It’s amazing what you learn in these schools on how to read body language and understand human reaction to certain questions and things like that.”
Wallace said witnesses will normally describe something with a certain flow, but this woman’s description was systematic and she couldn't remember certain features.
“I asked her to draw the hook for me and she said, ‘You know, Captain Hook’s hook,’” Wallace said. When the interview was over, Wallace took the drawing to the detective and informed him that she thought the witness was lying.
In the end, the detective discovered that the witness had stolen the money herself and she was arrested.
Testifying in court: 'You could see the defense attorney's head go down'
The evidence Wallace has collected has not only led to arrests, but has helped convict individuals in court. Ardmore has one of four labs in the state of Oklahoma that is accredited in latent prints, meaning crime scene investigators can testify in court as an expert witness.
The other accredited labs are through the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, which Wallace has assisted in certain cases, the Oklahoma City Police Department and the Tulsa Police Department.
Wallace’s collection of evidence played a key part in the prosecution of a double homicide. Police found a video game box that had been stolen from the scene of the crime and taken to where the suspect was found.
Inside, there was a pamphlet with instructions and details about the game. “I finger printed everything including every page of that book and it was on the last page that I got the victim’s finger print,” Wallace said. “You could see the defense attorney’s head go down — it was an interesting court case."
Investigating the scene: Taking a suspect down at gun point
One of the things Wallace said she was taught when it comes to crime scene investigation is to always be aware of your surroundings, because a lot of times the suspect will return to the scene.
“I have actually taken a person down at gun point that came back to one of my crime scenes,” Wallace said. A man had stabbed someone near a water plant in Edmond and Wallace was called to help process the scene.
“We got the call because there was a lady driving at the intersection near where the stabbing occurred and said a man covered in blood jumped on the hood of her car and was screaming in another language,” Wallace said.
The scene of the crime contained both the suspect and the victim’s blood. “We tracked him all over the place and then he circled back under the tree line and was actually hiding in the work shed,” Wallace said.
Police guarded the front of the residence as the investigators analyzed the scene. Wallace was crawling around the floor looking for blood stains when she heard a knock at the back door.
“So I get up and I walk over there and I peek the door open and I said ‘Who is it?’” Wallace said. “He’s covered in blood and he’s looking at me and I’m thinking ‘Oh, this is my suspect’."
Wallace was able to take the man down at gun point and officers rushed inside to make the arrest.
Return to Ardmore: Cleaning up the streets
Wallace had plenty of crime to investigate upon her return to Ardmore. Gang violence was on the rise in the late 90s and resulted in many homicides and shootings.
“They would call us ‘Little Lawton’ at the medical examiner’s office when we would go process a body,” Wallace said. “They called Lawton, because you know how the crime rate is in Lawton, they called Lawton ‘Little Chicago’.”
One shooting that she worked in that time frame involved multiple shots fired at a residence off of D Street Northwest. No one was injured, but a 15-year-old girl got quite a scare. Wallace said you could see parts of the girl’s hair in the wall from where a bullet had went through her hair.
“That’s scary,” Wallace said. “That’s a 15-year-old girl who bent over and it went right through — she had longer hair so you could see where her hair was broken off."
In 2014, the district attorney and ATF cracked down on the violence by arresting several gang members on racketeering charges. Wallace said this ended up being quite effective in lowering crime.
“One of the defendants was charged and you have to do that to show the community that this is not tolerated — you can’t be shooting people’s houses up," Wallace said.
Shootings have begun to pick up around Ardmore again, and Wallace said this made going into retirement a tough decision. “It just started up again this year, and that’s not good,” Wallace said.
But ultimately, she said, “I have to step back and say ‘It’s somebody else’s turn’.” While in retirement, she wants to spend more time with her father, who's health is dwindling, and help take care of him.
Though her official last day was on Dec. 18, Wallace will still be helping out at the Ardmore Police Department as needed until someone is hired to fill her position.
"The people here are amazing. There’s a lot of the younger generation and I’m just ecstatic on being able to help them," Wallace said. "I’m not really a mom figure, a mother figure, but I feel like sometimes I am.”
Wallace said she will miss pretty much every aspect of the job, but is happy to have had such a fulfilling career. She hopes that her career might inspire future generations of crime scene investigators or police officers.
“If I could encourage another generation as a woman to do what I can do, that just tells you if I can do it, you can do it," Wallace said. "You can do anything you set your mind to."