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The Suburbanite
  • What I Do: Spencer does real CSI work

  • Jay Spencer is a criminalist or a forensic scientist — “the terms are interchangeable,” he says. But what you really need to know is that he does that cool CSI stuff that you see on TV, as an employee of the Canton-Stark County Crime Lab. Toxicology and drug chemistry are his specialties.

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  • Editor’s Note: This is the second of an occasional Sunday series spotlighting Stark County residents and how they make a living.
    Jay Spencer is a criminalist or a forensic scientist — “the terms are interchangeable,” he says. But what you really need to know is that he does that cool CSI stuff that you see on TV, as an employee of the Canton-Stark County Crime Lab. Toxicology and drug chemistry are his specialties.
    When not at the lab, Spencer is a busy actor in community theater, an organist at the Palace Theatre and a contestant in the upcoming Dancing With the Canton Stars at the Palace. An upbeat and funny guy, he shares anecdotes about work and play.
    Q. What made you choose forensic chemistry as a career?
    A. “I remember in fourth grade I wrote a little paper about being a police scientist ... not sure if that was a premonition. When I started working 26 years ago, I was just a science nerd. Now I’m a really cool science nerd.”
    Q. Do shows like “CSI” and crime-investigation movies have much resemblance to your job?
    A. “Of course, it’s obvious, we’re all pretty, amazingly brilliant, and lead glamorous, exciting lives outside of the lab. We work in the dark, and do everything in an hour. We stop for commercials, too, during the day. But in reality, some things done on TV are similar to what we do, just enhanced. Some of our testing is as exciting as watching paint dry — imagine that in the movies.”
    Q. Tell me something really exciting that happened at your job.
    A. “A few years ago, my work partner, Brad, and I had to go out on a raid of a homicide suspect. We met at 11 p.m., and followed the detectives and patrolman into this scene out in the county. Searching the suspect’s house, collecting evidence, then proceeded to an area in the woods to look for the body. Found it... all in a day’s work.”
    Q. What are things like day-to-day at the crime lab?
    A. “Our day-to-day can be very routine. Lots of similar testing on material brought in by police and fire. But, occasionally, something will stand out, like someone bringing doughnuts in.”
    Q. You’re an actor at local theaters and you play organ at the Palace. Are people surprised to find what you do for a living?
    A. “Yes, always! Most people think I work full-time at the Palace. But I have been volunteering there for 25 years. So I practically do. It’s the best place in Canton — and that Kilgen organ. I always tell people, when little kids gather around the orchestra pit to watch, I know in 20 years they’ll be saying, “I remember watching the organ guy at the Palace. What a wonderful experience.”
    Page 2 of 2 - Q. Do you ever have to testify at trials? And does it feel anything like being onstage?
    A. “I testify regularly. Our prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges are quite good in Stark County. Trials are handled efficiently and very professionally. Testimony is similar to being onstage, except that you don’t get handed a script. It has some similarity to improvisation: thinking on your feet. Although, sometimes, the audience in a courtroom is less menacing than those in a theater.”