‘Death on one side and investigations on the other’

Ken Betz retires from Montgomery County Coroner’s Office, regional crime lab.

Ken Betz has retired from the Miami Valley Regional Crime Laboratory where he spent nearly all his 46-year career serving as director.

He began with the lab when it was an obscure office at the Dayton Police Department and saw it grow through his tenure to serve law enforcement investigations across the region while employing the latest in forensic science technologies.

Betz, 69, was also director of the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office, a role he assumed when the office merged with the crime lab in the mid-1980s.

“Every day was absolutely exciting. I don’t regret one day of working in a situation where you have death on one side and investigations on the other,” Betz said. “I had the best of both worlds for my career.”

Betz, who retired July 7, is currently a Butler Twp. trustee seeking re-election in November.

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He said he wound up with the job by fortunate happenstance.

After graduating from the University of Dayton in 1970 he was looking to become a police officer at a time when few went to college. About that time a rudimentary crime lab was budding at the Dayton Police Department to serve authorities in Darke, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Preble counties.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” Betz said.

He was first a firearms investigator and also spent time writing grants. Not long after, he was appointed director in 1974 when his boss retired.

Betz said he witnessed enormous technological advances during his career.

He recalls looking at bullets under microscopes and pulling individual cards from files to visually compare fingerprints lifted from crime scenes.

“Now we have computers that we can search databases literally the world over in a matter of seconds and candidates or potential suspects are provided to the examiner to do the comparison.”

Similarly, when he started at the lab, investigators could only type blood; now DNA “can exclude the population of the world,” Betz said.

“It’s a tribute to the staffing levels and the professionals that made the laboratory as successful as it’s been,” he said.

During his career Betz earned a master’s degree at Xavier University, graduated from a Federal Bureau of Investigations academy program and lectured in both China and the Soviet Union. He has served a number of local organizations and plans to stay active with the Lions Eye Bank of West Central Ohio, where he is chairman of the board.

Betz has twice before retired from the posts to be rehired, the second time in 2013 as state pension benefits rules changed.

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About 70 agencies contract with the crime lab for services. During its peak the lab handled 20,000 criminal cases a year, he said.

As director of the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office, Betz saw one number that has yet to peak: the number of autopsies made greater by Ohio’s opioid crisis.

“The magnitude of the volume of cases right now I would have never dreamed that in the mid-80s when I took over the coroner’s office,” he said.

The office was performing 500-600 autopsies a year in the late 1980s. Now, eight full time pathologists and five working part time are on course to perform 2,000 this year, he said.

Working on children’s death cases, especially those resulting from trauma, took the highest toll, he said.

“Those cases were tough back then and even now for staff,” he said. “When you have little kids it’s a tragedy.”

While Betz said no case is routine, he cited a few as standing out: Five 1985 deaths, including three children, for which Samuel Moreland now sits on death row; the investigation into a 1990 pileup during a whiteout on Interstate 75 that killed nine; and China Arnold, who was sentenced to life in prison for microwaving her baby to death in 2005.

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“There is a new challenge, a new case, every single morning at the coroner’s office and at the crime laboratory where your job is to try and determine cause and manner of death,” he said. “It was a whodunit every single day.”

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