Luck of the draw: Tech failed to show up to take blood samples in Menlo Park shooting

San Mateo County works to fix problems with blood evidence collection

After three Menlo Park police officers shot and killed a parolee at large last November, a lot needed to happen, including the collection of blood samples from the officers. But no technician from the county's contracted phlebotomy service ever showed up.

It's not the first time Specimen Specialists of America Inc., which was awarded a $290,000 contract with San Mateo County in August 2012 to collect evidentiary blood samples, failed to follow through.

If the phlebotomy technicians don't show up -- or arrive late, with someone's metabolism continuing to process whatever drugs may be present -- evidence that may bolster the case for either innocence or guilt is lost.

In the case of the Menlo Park shooting, the District Attorney's Office found that the police officers were justified in shooting in self-defense. Blood samples could have supported that conclusion by objectively establishing, for example, that none was under the influence of any substance that interfered with their judgment at the time.

The county contract states that lab technicians are to respond within 40 minutes of a service call to take blood from: those arrested or incarcerated, those involved in a motor vehicle collision who agree to have blood drawn, and public safety personnel involved in critical incidents, such as officer-involved shootings and vehicle accidents.

The phlebotomy service is called out 1,764 times a year on average, according to the county. From mid-2012 through April 2014, the San Mateo County Forensics Laboratory, which has oversight of the contract for phlebotomy services, tracked at least 24 complaints about the service from Peninsula law enforcement agencies.

The complaints included technicians not showing up, arriving without the necessary kits, and failing to appear in court to testify. Explanations given by the contractor ranged from car breakdowns to scheduling conflicts; in other cases, technicians were fired for ignoring calls.

The county forensics lab also noted 76 late responses -- i.e., when the technician exceeded the 40-minute response time set by the contract.

The exact number of complaints to date is unknown. When complaints came in "somewhat regularly" in 2012 and 2013, documentation was kept for quality control and to make sure service improved, according to the forensics laboratory director, Alex Karagianes. The laboratory stopped keeping a "complaint file" in early 2014 because the complaints "were all but non-existent" by that time, he said.

"Now every three to four months, I'll get something from a commander or captain saying, it took them 90 minutes to get here," he said.

The laboratory had no documentation related to complaints made about the response to the November 2014 shooting in Menlo Park.

Mr. Karagianes noted that the service has come a long way, although there's still work to be done -- to improve response times, for one, perhaps by making a technician available in the field during peak call hours.

"We're not complacent as a department," he said. "I'm working with the company, and every time I get a complaint, I engage them."

Specimen Specialists did not respond to interview requests from the Almanac.

Menlo Park case

Mr. Karagianes went to the scene of the Nov. 11 shooting in Menlo Park, as did District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe. According to the lab director, no one told them there was a problem getting a phlebotomy technician.

Menlo Park Police Cmdr. Dave Bertini, who was out of town at the time of the shooting but had oversight of the police department's part in the investigation after returning to work, said no one knew whom to complain to. After learning about the problem, he called the forensics lab to find out who was responsible for the contract.

Jurisdiction over the phlebotomy contact had bounced around between county divisions before settling at the forensics lab, adding to the confusion. Had someone at the scene of the shooting reported the problem to him, Mr. Karagianes said, "there were other options we could have put in place."

Urine testing would have been one option. Another would have been asking the staff at the Keller Center, a facility at the county hospital that handles emergency care and evidence collection in abuse and sexual assault cases, to take the blood samples.

A blood draw is the common procedure, according to Cmdr. Bertini. "In the end, I think the simple answer to this specific incident is (that) no one considered a urine test as an alternative after the lab folks failed to show." Similarly, turning to the Keller Center was not on anyone's radar since the police department doesn't use that facility for blood draws. Taking an officer to another location to give a sample is also not common practice, he said.

Mr. Karagianes said he learned of the problems a day or two later via email, and the issue was resolved -- everyone now knows he's the one to complain to.

"I think sometimes people don't like making phone calls to complain," he said. "I like when they call. Otherwise, it festers. If I don't know about it, I can't fix it."

Contract up in June

The county contract with Specimen Specialists expires on June 30. Mr. Karagianes said he has prepared a request for bid proposals.

"There's not a lot of people doing this work," he said. "Three years ago, we had two bidders, this company and one other. The downside to opening it up is always, what happens if no one applies? Now what do I do? I guess I'd be taking classes on the weekend to learn how to do (blood draws.)"

Should a provider not be chosen by June 30, the current contract allows a temporary extension for up to $25,000 in services.

Why not use the county's healthcare workers? The staff had an ethical conflict about collecting samples that could be used to prosecute a client rather than for medical treatment, according to Mr. Karagianes.

Previous providers ran over budget by $100,000 a year, and also had personnel issues -- at least one suspect avoided prosecution because the technician who took the sample was facing criminal charges. Two employees with criminal backgrounds transferred over to Specimen Specialists, Mr. Karagianes said, but were both fired. He said he was not aware of any cases not being charged by the district attorney due to problems with Specimen Specialists.

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors does not have to approve soliciting bids, although it does have to approve the final contract. Asked for comment on the current phlebotomy service, the supervisors either failed to respond or referred inquiries to the Sheriff's Office, which in turn passed the requests to the forensics lab.

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


2 people like this
Posted by janet
a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Weekend Acres
on Jun 10, 2015 at 12:36 pm

Yet another San Mateo County screw up. They need to get a County Manager that can actually manage

4 people like this
Posted by gunste
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Jun 10, 2015 at 1:34 pm

It certainly looks like the County is not getting its money's worth. One option they should look into is whether Theranos, whose system of lab analysis requires very little blood (50 microliters, a drop or two) and they have a very low cost analysis scheme for very many requirements. I wonder whether they would be amenable to set something up. If yes, then there would be no need for phlebotomist to draw blood, since a pin prick is all that is needed for their kit.EMR people could easily do that, since the procedure is very simple.

4 people like this
Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on Jun 10, 2015 at 3:08 pm

June 3, 2014
San Mateo County Sheriff’s Deputy Menh Trieu, who shot and killed 18 year old Yanira Serrano-Garcia at Moonridge Housing Half Moon Bay. He refused to give blood after the DA"s Office asked for it.

2 people like this
Posted by 2nd story
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 10, 2015 at 5:44 pm

hmmm... the lowest bidder doesn't do very good work? Shocking.

11 people like this
Posted by Mysteries
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jun 10, 2015 at 8:44 pm

Oh, yes, the "good kill," where somehow none of the three police officers had working cameras and the weapon that allegedly belonged to the thief/victim somehow didn't have a speck of his DNA on it. And now this. No surprise, since our police officers had already decided that the best evidence was no evidence.

No one is too concerned about this murder since the guy was obviously not a pillar of the community, or the fact that he was killed in a residential neighborhood in the middle of a day on a school holiday. Still, rather harsh punishment for petty theft.

Editor's note: DNA was found on the gun, but in insufficient quantity to reach the legal threshold for stating who deposited it. As with fingerprints, DNA is not automatically deposited on an object, unlike what you see on CSI. The "punishment" was not for petty theft. The DA concluded that the man had a gun and pointed it at officers.

5 people like this
Posted by To mysteries
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on Jun 10, 2015 at 9:57 pm

your post is offensive. He was not a petty thief. He was sex offender who was wanted by parole. He was high on meth,
possession of stolen property, felon I. Possession of a gun. And tried to kill cops. He was a career criminal al who was a menace for his entire life. Editors feel free to delete my post when you delete this garbage from mystery.

2 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 11, 2015 at 6:50 am

Menlo Voter is a registered user.

[Post removed. Please make your point without negatively characterizing other posters. That just leads to posters going after each other instead of after the topic.]

7 people like this
Posted by lessons learned
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Jun 11, 2015 at 8:59 am

lessons learned is a registered user.

When police start meting out justice in the streets instead of following the law, it's bad for all of us, law abiding or otherwise. In this case, there's no evidence that the thief had a gun or was doing anything other than trying to run from the police. Sixth amendment, anyone?

Editor's note: The DA concluded that the man did have a gun and pointed it at officers: Web Link

8 people like this
Posted by Thoughtful
a resident of another community
on Jun 11, 2015 at 9:21 am

Thoughtful is a registered user.

The point being made by Mysteries and Lessons Learned is that although the D.A. did conclude this shooting was justified, there is a subjective history of D.A. Steve Wagstaffe going easy on cops who step over the line. Recent history of this includes bringing very light charges on a sheriff's deputy who apparently pointed a loaded gun at a janitor in court and threatened to mete out some "South Carolina justice."

In this case, the peculiar circumstances under which all three cop cams were off, or not activated, the lack of DNA evidence on the alleged weapon brandished by the deceased, as well as the fiasco documented in this article about the blood sample work, certainly does not serve to provide objective evidence to confirm Wagstaffe's findings. If anything, the opposite.

In other words, there are reasonable bases to be suspicious over how all of this was handled. I don't believe anyone is disputing whether the officers were justified in shooting someone pointing a gun at them. The question is did this happen, and it's going to take more than Wagstaffe just saying so to convince at least me. It's suspicious.

4 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 11, 2015 at 2:18 pm

Menlo Voter is a registered user.


I suspect that even if there was film of the subject pointing a gun at officers, you and others like you would conclude the film was somehow manipulated. I sense an inherent distrust of law enforcement.

8 people like this
Posted by Thoughtful
a resident of another community
on Jun 11, 2015 at 2:21 pm

Thoughtful is a registered user.

Nope, a film would do it for me. Saying one or two of the cameras weren't on, I could maybe understand. Saying all three cameras didn't work/weren't turned on, troubles me, but add to on top of that no DNA to establish he was holding the gun is where I say "wait a minute."

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

After experiencing harassment, owner of Zareen's restaurants speaks out about Islamophobia, racism
By Elena Kadvany | 28 comments | 7,607 views

Don't Miss Your Exit (and other lessons from an EV drive)
By Sherry Listgarten | 14 comments | 2,507 views

Goodbye Food Waste!
By Laura Stec | 8 comments | 2,460 views

Good News: The New Menlo Park Rail Subcommittee Hits A Home Run
By Dana Hendrickson | 12 comments | 1,640 views

Premarital and Couples: Tips for Hearing (Listening) and Being Known
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,039 views


Register today!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More