Agents' Secrets

Odd journey for a crime lab chief

More than two decades ago, Jerry Richardson was considering a job earning $9,000 a year working at a public television station.

Richardson, who had earned a communications degree, said he wanted nothing more than a steady government job. He filled out applications for several available posts across state government.

A supervisor at the State Bureau of Investigation called to ask if he'd be interested in working at the crime lab.

Now, 23 years later, he's in charge of the lab, two rungs beneath the state attorney general. He earns $98,481 and manages a staff of 181.

"I knew TV was no way to make a living, and I wanted to make a living. A good one, a stable one," Richardson, 50, said this summer.

It was an interesting climb for Richardson, though not uncommon. Like many analysts who joined the lab in the 1980s and much of the 1990s, Richardson is a homegrown scientist. The bureau hired men and women they liked and taught them the science they thought they needed to know. For decades, SBI lab analysts have trained one another, building a set of specific practices sometimes out of step with counterparts at other crime labs.

Such practices are out of date. The National Academies recommend that analysts at crime labs have a minimum of a bachelor's in a science field, such as biology or chemistry. The academies urge a master's degree.

Robin Pendergraft, former SBI director and Richardson's boss, promoted him in 2002. She said she was pleased with Richardson's performance.

"I think Jerry has done a very good job," she said.

She said she had been impressed with his long service in the lab and his integrity.

Richardson is the son of Rocky Mount farmers. He came to Raleigh in 1978 to study communications at N.C. State University. Fresh out of college, he patched together jobs he had hoped would make a career. He wanted to work for a television station in Chapel Hill. He was a disc jockey at parties and clubs on weekends. He worked in retail and waited tables at a restaurant.

In those years, Richardson would hone a skill that has helped him manage the crime lab: He studies people.

Richardson memorizes employees' names, their children's names, where they went to college and what they like to do on the weekends. He floats through the lab, shaking hands as if he's running for political office. He's quick with a laugh and a joke.

One day in June, he quizzed an employee of the DNA section about the mascot of a Southern university. He promised her lunch if she got the right answer.

She nailed it, and Richardson agreed to make good on the bet.

"See how I treat my employees?" Richardson turned to tell a reporter. "Who wouldn't want a boss like me?"

As the lab has become more and more embattled, Richardson wears the stress of the job. He sank into a conference room chair one day in June and sighed, saying the morning brought a barrage of tough phone calls and demands that he would have to figure out how to answer.

Richardson is little more than five years from retirement. He says he'll take it as soon as it's available.

"I'm going to apply to be a Walmart greeter the same day I walk out of here," Richardson said with a laugh. "I want absolutely no stress in my retirement."