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Investigator didn't plan career as cop

Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014 5:55 PM
Last updated Friday, Jan. 17, 2014 1:58 AM
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Investigator Tom Johnson knows the value of a fingerprint.

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Richmond County Sheriff's Office crime scene Investigator Tom Johnson said it's not just closing big cases that make him feel like he's making a difference. Closing cases like a string of burglaries can have the same effect.  MICHAEL HOLAHAN/STAFF
Richmond County Sheriff's Office crime scene Investigator Tom Johnson said it's not just closing big cases that make him feel like he's making a difference. Closing cases like a string of burglaries can have the same effect.

As one of three crime scene investigators for the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, Johnson spends his days analyzing fingerprints, collecting evidence and taking investigators the gold that can tie their cases together.

In 2012, the investigator was asked to analyze evidence from a 1986 homicide cold case. Neither Johnson nor the violent-crimes investigator expected much, but new technology helped Johnson identify Jimmy Lee Riley, 53, as a suspect in the death of 87-year-old Pauline McCoy with an old fingerprint.

“That was a good feeling,” Johnson said.

But Johnson, 45, said it’s not just the big cases that give him the sense of making a difference. Closing a case on a string of burglaries plaguing a neighborhood has the same effect.

Although Johnson has been in law enforcement for 14 years, he said he didn’t plan it as a career.

“I was the type of person who tended to notice things,” Johnson said. “People said ‘You should be a cop,’ but I didn’t want to be a cop.”

His grandfather, after whom he is named, was a police officer in Massachusetts, but Johnson said he had hoped to follow his father’s footsteps in military Special Forces.

Life, however, led him down a different path and into the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, where he found his application lost in a stack of other hopefuls’. To stand out among the competition, Johnson enrolled in the police academy and was hired as a deputy in 1999. He was promoted to the violent crimes division in 2004 and did a brief stint in homicide before moving to an open position in the crime scene unit in 2008.

The three-man group processes evidence for Richmond County but also smaller agencies in the surrounding area.

Like many police jobs, Johnson’s isn’t 9 to 5.

“It doesn’t matter what you’re doing when the call comes in. You have to go,” Johnson said. “I have been in the grocery store with a full cart and had to leave and say, ‘Sorry, can you put this back?’ It’s inconvenient, but it’s what you have to do.”

On the job, crime scene investigators collect fingerprints, cartridge casings and other evidence, which can be one of the most time-consuming aspects of the job. Anything DNA-related or ballistics-connected is sent to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

“That can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours,” Johnson said.

Back at the office, Johnson sometimes can get a positive match with a good print in under 15 minutes.

He said today’s technology is impressive but that not everything is as easy as it appears. One common misconception generated from Hollywood is that they can zoom in on a still image enough to clearly read a tag number or see other details.

“A lot of the things they show on TV are based on fact but they ‘Hollywood it up,’ ” Johnson said. “A lot of times we go to a scene and people expect us to do something we can’t do. That flows into court when we have to explain to a jury what we cannot do.”

Case File

Investigator Tom Johnson

Age: 45

Family: Single

Work background: Hired in 1999 as deputy; 2004 promotion to Criminal Investigation Division; 2008 transfer to Crime Scene Unit

EDITOR’S NOTE: This profile is part of an ongoing series on area law enforcement officers.

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AutumnLeaves 01/16/14 - 09:19 pm
I am looking forward to the

I am looking forward to the Augusta Chronicle's ongoing series on area law enforcement officers, especially starting off with such a positive article such as this. Crime scene investigators like Tom Johnson give me hope for better things for Augusta-Richmond County. It takes a self-motivated, self-disciplined and dedicated person to do this kind of work and to do it so well. I recall he received a commendation not too long ago for creating some forensic equipment out of no longer used equipment, when the need arose, saving the department the expense of buying ready-made, so he is also resourceful. Thank you to officers like him that go above and beyond the call of duty. Anytime cold cases are solved; it also gives so many people hope that theirs might someday be solved, too. How encouraging!

Riverman1 01/16/14 - 09:39 pm
Great post, AL.

Great post, AL.

PUPPYMOMMA 01/16/14 - 11:11 pm
AL must be related or be a

AL must be related or be a friend of this investigator. It sounds like he is a great guy and an asset to Richmond County but she laid it on thick. I mean, who else would remember a commendation from awhile back?

younameit 01/17/14 - 08:14 am
I didn't know; I'm not

I didn't know we couldn't say nice things about our relatives. I hereby withdraw everything I've said about Adam and Eve and their descendants. This article is just a snapshot of the professionalism that increasingly distinguishes this Sheriff's Department over almost all other agencies, and Tom Johnson and his crime scene colleagues are a special group of leaders in the organization. Under penalty of purgatory, I declare that I'm not related to him, and my fingerprints aren't on his doorknob, glassware or dishes.

AutumnLeaves 01/18/14 - 01:07 am
Thank you, Riverman1 and

Thank you, Riverman1 and younameit.

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