WEST VALLEY CITY — Investigators are hoping fingerprints will help them determine how a nationally renowned forensics expert was accidentally shot and killed in a crime lab.
Scott Spjut, the director of forensics for the West Valley City Police Department and an expert in the field of fingerprints, died Thursday after a semi-automatic rifle he was processing accidentally discharged and struck him in the chest.
Detectives from West Valley and the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office want to examine the gun to determine how Spjut, 38, handled the rifle and how it may have gone off.
Normally, all firearms are required to be unloaded before they are booked into evidence. But this particular investigation apparently required Spjut to process the weapon while it was loaded, said West Valley Assistant Chief Craig Gibson.
For a reason still unexplained, the gun went off. The bullet struck Spjut in the chest and exited through his back.
"We figure he was probably within arm's reach of the gun," Gibson said.
Spjut underwent multiple surgeries at University Hospital, but the injuries were too great. He was pronounced dead at 9:45 p.m.
"They couldn't get the bleeding to stop," West Valley Police Assistant Chief Craig Gibson said.
The accident occurred just before 4 p.m. at the West Valley police crime lab in the basement of the police department, 3600 S. Constitution Blvd. Spjut, who has more than 15 years experience in forensics and has processed possibly thousands of guns, was taking pictures of fingerprints off a loaded rifle.
Spjut was alone in the room when the gun fired. Officers in a nearby room who heard the shot rushed to him and called for medical support. Spjut lost consciousness a few minutes later and was flown by medical helicopter in extremely critical condition to the hospital.
Today, West Valley City employees and officers and forensics experts from across Utah and the nation mourned the loss of their friend and colleague.
Spjut was recognized nationally for his fingerprinting skills. He was chairman or co-chairman in several nationally recognized fingerprinting groups.
Spjut had worked in crime labs for 15 years, including the Utah State Crime Lab. Deputy State Crime Lab Director Jay Henry knew Spjut when he began as an intern at the state crime lab more than 20 years ago. Spjut's hard work and attention to detail helped him advance from intern to supervising criminalist.
"Scott had a passion for latent print analysis," Henry said. "He was one of the best fingerprinters I ever knew.
"He's really going to be missed."
Henry said he can't imagine what happened in the West Valley crime lab Thursday.
"Lab folks deal with dangerous things every day. We're trying to handle those. He was very attentive to detail. It's a shock for us. This whole thing, it's kind of like a nightmare that it happened."
Spjut was with the West Valley Police Department for the past five years. But he was regularly called by police departments across the Wasatch Front and even the FBI to help with other cases, said West Valley police Capt. Craig Black.
"That's really saying something. That's really a compliment to his skills and abilities," Black said.
Numerous agencies called on Spjut for his expertise to help solve cases. Friends said he often worked without compensation.
"It was more important for him to ensure justice of the victim," said friend and co-worker Cal Ostler. "The Salt Lake area has really lost one of its finest."
Some of the high-profile cases Spjut worked on included Bethany Hyde, the 16-year-old who was shot and killed in a case of mistaken identity by a gang member; John Pinder, who killed two workers on his Duchesne Ranch and blew up their bodies; and Michael Decorso, who was convicted of abducting, robbing and sexually assaulting a Payless Shoe store clerk in West Jordan in 1994.
"He was my hero in (the Decorso case)," said West Jordan Police Lt. Bob Shober.
The case had West Jordan police investigators stumped until Spjut introduced what was then an experimental form of collecting fingerprints. He was able to lift a print off the duct tape that bound the legs of the victim.
"It was his expert analysis and testimony that led to a conviction in that case," Shober said. "He was amazing."
Earlier this year, Spjut provided expert testimony in the preliminary hearing of two men accused of killing a Motel 6 clerk in Woods Cross in 1996. He positively identified two blood-covered fingerprints as those of one of the accused.
Despite his imposing 6-foot-11 figure and relentless work ethic, friends said Spjut had a heart of gold and was a true family man.
"Scott was a man who dearly loved his family and put his wife and his children's needs in front of his own," Ostler said.
"He would do anything for anybody who asked him. He'd drop what he was doing for would make time. It wasn't just, 'I will help you,' it was, 'I will help you and show you,' " said former West Valley Police Lt. Charles Illsley, also a nationally recognized fingerprint expert.
"I think we're going to feel this loss for quite some time," Black said.
In addition to working with police departments, Spjut also taught at Salt Lake Community College.
Spjut is survived by his wife and two teenage children. Funeral arrangements had not been set yet this morning. Spjut held a civilian position and was not a sworn officer. But Black said Spjut had so many friends and was so respected in the law enforcement community that he expects his funeral will resemble a law enforcement service.
Contributing: Derek Jensen.