Santa Ana Police Forensics Unit leaves no evidence unturned


CSI: Santa Ana is the real deal. Long before Gil Grisson and Catherine Willows began chasing bad guys and proclaiming, “The evidence never lies,” Mike Maiocco was re-enacting crime scenes, complete with ketchup blood spatters, in the driveway of a friend’s home.

“I was in the traffic division,” says Maiocco, who joined the Santa Ana Police Department in the Traffic Division while attending college and was an Explorer before that. “This was before all the TV shows. I didn’t even know what it was.”

Now, 28 years later, Maiocco is the Field Supervisor of Santa Ana’s acclaimed Forensics Services Section. A 33-year veteran of law enforcement, Maiocco oversees the unit’s services and deployment and works alongside Jessica Durham, who supervises the science side of things.

SAPD Forensics Supervisor Mike Maiocco applies distilled water onto a sterile swab as he demonstrates how he tries to collect DNA off an object in the field.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Like the fictional Grissom, Maiocco and his team follow the evidence, no matter where it takes them, even if it is counter to an early theory of the crime.

“Yes, we’re police and we want to catch the bad guy,” Maiocco says. “We also want to make sure that the innocent don’t go to jail.”

Maiocco leads a veteran team of investigators that tackles a wide swath of crime scenes and gathers evidence for everything from simple burglaries to domestic assaults to homicides. They are one of few departments in Orange County (Anaheim and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department are the others) staffed 24 hours, 365 days a year.

They’re kept plenty busy, responding to between 2,500 and 3,000 calls for service each year.

“The fluidity of the calls is always changing,” says Maiocco. “There’s a new challenge every day.”

Currently the team is interviewing for specialists to add. Maiocco said he hopes to boost the existing team of nine to bring back to the 14 members the unit had before staffing cuts.

The Santa Ana unit has received national recognition over the years. In particular, the Forensic Services Firearms Unit has coordinated and worked with national agencies such as Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Santa Ana unit was a trailblazer in the field of ballistic “cold hits,” or matches, to evidence recovered at other crime scenes, which was a breakthrough in information sharing and crime solving.

And Santa Ana has one of only a few IBIS (Integrated Ballistics Identification System) stations within the county.

According to the SAPD, “The reputation of the Forensic Services Section extends far beyond the borders of Santa Ana.”

Going where the evidence take you

CSI is exacting work where the smallest piece of evidence can be crucial in guiding an investigation.

Maiocco describes the case of a woman who was found stabbed to death in an alleyway. Although there was a theory the woman had been killed elsewhere and dumped, Maiocco said by examining blood spatter and other evidence he was able to speculate the woman was killed in the alley. That led to the apprehension and successful capital prosecution of a man who lived nearby.

While DNA remains the number one thing most think of when it comes to crime scene work, there is much more to it.

Santa Ana PD’s new Forensic Services Supervisor Mike Maiocco.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Specialists comb through a site, photographing, gathering and processing latent fingerprints, examining injuries, conducting trajectory and blood spatter interpretation, and casting shoe and tire impressions. The specialists also collect and preserve trace evidence, such as soil, fibers, paint, and biological evidence often used for DNA testing.

A well-written CSI report and expert testimony is often the most compelling evidence in a court case.

Maiocco loves the mental rigor to “being able to use evidence to figure out what occurred, using knowledge and experience” and ultimately bring a sense of resolution, if not closure, to the families of victims.

Terri Parent has been an investigator for 23 years. She loves being able to put people in jail without being the one slapping on the cuffs.

“We can do it through science,” she says.

Close to heart

Some cases strike harder than others.

Maiocco still vividly remembers the kidnap, rape, and murder of nine-year-old Nadia Puente in 1989 by a Texas drifter. Maiocco was a Santa Ana Explorer at the time. He was able to observe as detectives and specialists used evidence to reconstruct what happened and build a case against a vicious, remorseless killer.

“Being a part of that had a profound effect on me,” Maiocco said. “I still remember the mother’s screams.”

Another case that still haunts Maiocco is the death of Veronica Barrios, gunned down in Santa Ana in 2019 when she was just 18. Recalling the death still visibly affects the supervisor. Over the years, the Barrios family has kept the girl’s name alive in the unsolved case through billboards, a website, and a mural all designed to urge witnesses to come forward. Santa Ana investigators continue to work the case regularly.

Maiocco says his team and the department will continue to turn over every piece of evidence until the killers are caught and prosecuted.

“It’s a matter of when, not if,” Maioccco said.

Forensic Services Supervisor Mike Maiocco in his office.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Modest leader

When not working on cases, Maiocco teaches students and fellow professionals as a Peace Officers Standards and Training certified instructor.

By his estimate, he has logged 40,000 hours at crime scenes. He has won more than 25 certificates and commendations for his work, including a Police Service Medal of Valor in 2000 and a Chief’s Award in 2005.

He is also a published writer. “CSI: Beyond the Yellow Tape: Workbook,” for college students has been updated twice and is used in Maiocco’s class and in other classes. He also has a true crime book released in 2022 culled from his time on the job titled, “Bloodshed Chronicles.” And he hosts the podcast “Voices of Darkness.”

However, he prefers to highlight others and gives credit to his team, calling Parent and Martin Briano, a 15-year veteran, into his office.

“These guys make my job easy,” Maiocco said. “They are the consummate professionals. I have been on homicide investigations with both and I know I don’t have to second-guess anything. They’re the best in the county. I feel I can say that for the record.”