Special Reports

SBI's methods stun former FBI official

In his 30-year career, Chris Swecker has pursued crime as a prosecutor, federal agent and, most prominently, a high-ranking FBI official in Charlotte and Washington.

But Swecker was startled with what he discovered when N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper asked him to investigate the state's forensic investigators.

Swecker's report, released Wednesday after a five-month review, revealed that a renegade unit and flawed policies at the State Bureau of Investigation's crime lab led to evidence being withheld and distorted in 230 cases involving 269 defendants.

"What surprised me was the sort of the looseness there, specifically with policy regarding reporting results," said Swecker, now a Charlotte lawyer and consultant in financial crimes security and strategy. "What that created was a very subjective environment withcases."

Swecker was asked by Cooper to audit the SBI in March, after the exoneration of Greg Taylor, a Wake County man imprisoned 17 years for murder. Swecker, who enlisted fellow former agent Mike Wolf for the audit, brought a history of agency work to the task - he joined the FBI as a special agent in 1982, rose to special agent in charge in the FBI's Charlotte office in 1999, then moved to Washington as assistant director for the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division in 2004.

Two years later, after more than two decades with the agency, he moved back to Charlotte to lead Bank of America's corporate security organization. He was laid off in late 2008, along with more than a dozen other Bank of America executives.

Along with his consulting work, he has opened a Charlotte law practice and gone on what he self-effacingly calls "the minor-league speaking tour." On Wednesday, he was in Boone to speak to the Appalachian State football team - "about landmines and pitfalls and life decisions," he said.

Swecker's credentials

Swecker, 54, graduated from Appalachian State with degrees in political science and economics, and he received his law degree from Wake Forest University before beginning his career as an assistant N.C. district attorney. He is married with three daughters and lives in Charlotte.

He said he was gratified that his audit shone a light on troubling SBI practices.

"I'm not happy that some people will suffer for it," he said, "but I think any agency needs this kind of scrutiny in order to get better."

The FBI made significant changes in the mid-1990s after a whistle-blower alleged and an investigation found flawed forensic work by several lab examiners, and the agency faced questions in 2004 about disputed science that matched crime-scene bullets to ones possessed by suspects.

"I think a lot of people think law enforcement is all about getting the bad guy, and it is," Swecker said. "I know it sounds corny, but it really is a search for the truth. You let the facts fall where they fall.

"In those [SBI] cases, that wasn't what happened."