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Local

Gunshot residue tests key in recent death of Channahon dispatcher

Tests key in recent death of 23-year-old Channahon dispatcher

Criminal investigations many times rely on testing for gunshot residue to tell them a lot of information about crimes involving guns.

This includes one recent case in Will County, the death of 23-year-old Channahon dispatcher Samantha Harer in February 2018. After a 10-month investigation, her death was ruled a suicide by the Will County Coroner's Office, but her parents contend that she did not kill herself.

Harer was in her apartment with her boyfriend, Felipe "Phil" Flores, who was a Crest Hill police officer at the time. Flores told police he was in another room when he heard a gunshot while Harer was in her room, and he found her with a gunshot wound to her head.

Brother Pierre St. Raymond is a chemistry professor at Lewis University in Romeoville who is teaching a class this semester on forensic science. He's been teaching for more than 40 years and has a doctorate from the University of Maryland.

St. Raymond said forensic science is an outgrowth of analytical chemistry, which is something he said the fictional character Sherlock Holmes practiced. Basically, it's meant to find what and how much of a substance you have.

"He was applying what he knew about chemistry to the crime scenes, and that's how he was able to determine what was happening," St. Raymond said.

In the textbook he uses for his class, titled "Forensic Science from the Crime Scene to the Crime Lab," there is a section all about gunpowder residue. It states, "When a firearm is discharged, unburned and partially burned particles of gunpowder in addition to smoke are propelled out of the barrel, along with the bullet, toward the target. If the muzzle of the weapon is sufficiently close, these products are deposited onto the target."

The distribution of gunpowder particles and other discharge residues around the bullet hole also can show the distance from which the firearm was shot. This could be key in determining what happened.

The book explains that in suicides, gunshot wounds tend to show "characteristics associated with a very close-range shot."

The powder residue pattern of a gunshot is key in determining the distance from which the gun was fired because the difference between a contact shot compared with a shot only 18 inches away could be significant.

"If the gun is right up next to the victim, it's going to leave a large amount of residue," St. Raymond said.

Knowing the kind of weapon used is vital because the spread and density of the residue pattern vary widely among different weapons and ammunition.

Firing a weapon also blows gunpowder residue back toward the shooter, often onto his or her gun hand. St. Raymond said this evidence has to be collected quickly because it could dissipate in the hours after a shooting.

According to laboratory reports from the Illinois State Police obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, both Harer and Flores were tested for gunshot residue on their faces and hands. The documents describing Harer's face and hands say they were "fairly clean" of residue.

The ISP report concludes that the samples from Harer's hands "indicate that Harer may not have discharged a firearm. If she did discharge a firearm, then the particles were removed by activity, were not deposited or were not detected by the procedure." It said the samples from her face also indicate she "may not have been in the environment of a discharged firearm."

St. Raymond said he would have expected, even in a similar situation in which the body of the suicide victim is touched or moved after death, that a test likely would find some residue on the body, especially with a contact wound. The Will County coroner's report on Harer lists her death as a "gunshot wound of the head" and explains there was a "large, gaping, contact gunshot wound entrance" on the right side of her head.

Although he did not want to make any determination of what happened with limited evidence, St. Raymond said the gunshot residue test results were "inconsistent" with what is taught in forensic science.

Although Flores' face and hands were tested and also "fairly clean" of residue, according to the report, there was residue found on the cuffs and exterior chest area of a sweatshirt recovered from him at the scene. The results "indicate that the sampled areas contacted a PGSR (gunshot residue particles)-related item or were in the environment of a discharged firearm."

These facts are part of the argument made in a lawsuit by Harer's parents in federal court in which they claim Flores was responsible for their daughter's death. Jennifer Bonjean, the lawyer representing Harer's parents, claimed in court documents that investigators on the case "flat-out lied" to the Harers about the test results when they met, indicating residue had been found on their daughter.

Both Channahon Police Chief Shane Casey and Deputy Chief Adam Bogart said in affidavits that the topic of gunshot residue was not discussed at a meeting with the Harers on Dec. 27.

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