Scene of the Crime
Forensic science alumnus’ work helps Oregon police catch the bad guys
Corbett “Cory” Winar, ’97 | Forensic Lab Manager, Oregon State Police
By Angie Lewis, ’03
Shows like “CSI,” “Bones” and “NCIS” make the field of forensic science look exciting, and full of drama and intrigue. However, to the disappointment of crime show lovers everywhere, things don’t quite happen like they do on the small screen. Just ask Cory Winar, ’97, forensic lab manager for the Oregon State Police.
“We wear a lot more clothes, we work with the lights on, we don’t have people working in the lab 24 hours a day — and we stop to go to the bathroom,” Winar explains. “Also, there isn’t one person who stays in the basement with an 80-ounce Slurpee who knows how to do everything.”
But, there is some reality in the fictional plotlines. Forensic scientists can help to solve crimes by analyzing even the smallest pieces of evidence. And, those scenes that show a ballistic expert firing a gun into an object to see how the bullet expands actually happens in real life, too.
For the most part, though, Winar says the cases aren’t all that exciting. As a manager who has to supervise others, he often finds himself caught up in paperwork and politics. However, he does occasionally get to respond to crime scenes and perform tests in the lab, which are the parts he really enjoys.
It was a conversation with his mom that first piqued his interest in forensic science. During his third year at a college in Northern Virginia, Winar decided he wanted a change. Since he had a friend who was going to UCF at the time, he checked out the school and discovered its forensic science program.
“I looked at the curriculum, and I was thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this,’” he says. “It was all this chemistry — physical chemistry, organic chemistry I and II, and calculus. But, I had some good instructors who got me interested in the material, and I was able to do well.”
About six months after graduating, Winar was offered a job in Norfolk, Va. Two years later, he had an opportunity to work in Richmond, Va., where he stayed for nearly three years before a position opened up in Eugene, Ore., and he decided to move west.
“The first time I saw Eugene was in a moving truck,” he says. He worked his way up from a forensic scientist, performing drug analysis, processing trace evidence and working crime scenes, to managing the city’s lab, where he’s been for more than 10 years.
Eugene’s forensic lab is one of five in the state and covers nine counties, for which Winar and his team processed more than 5,500 cases last year.
The most challenging case he’s had to process? A hit and run, where he had to try to match paint found on the victim to the suspect’s car. Although the arresting officers were sure they had the right guy, the evidence showed otherwise.
While Winar’s cases are always mentally challenging, some are also emotionally difficult to process — like one crime scene in which a young mother had been stabbed and her 5 ½-month-old baby had also been stabbed and had its throat slit.
“Having to try to focus on the scene and having two kids, it’s even more difficult to see that,” he explains. “That was probably the hardest one I’ll ever have to do, because I still remember faces with it.”
He does his best to keep his work life separate from his home life with his wife and two kids. Since moving to Oregon, he’s taken up running, which he says is a good release because it gives him a chance to process things in his mind. He enjoys running so much that he’s even run several marathons and ultramarathons [a longer distance than a traditional marathon’s 26.2 miles].
Although he lives more than 3,000 miles from his alma mater, Winar hasn’t forgotten the school that helped him get where he is today. He says UCF’s forensic science program really prepared him for the field, and that most of the people who call him for career advice are going to schools that have a forensic science program in criminal justice, which, he says, won’t teach them what a forensic scientist actually does.
“UCF and the program Dr. [William] McGee put together really prepares you to go into a forensic lab, because it has classes in the disciplines in which you can work, as opposed to a theory-based criminalistics class where you just sit and talk about theories,” he explains. “You actually get your hands in there.”
He advises current forensic science students to appreciate the amount of information and knowledge they’re going to get at UCF, because he says the other programs out there are not as good. Confidence is also very important, he adds.
“In this field, we’re looking for someone who has a knowledge base, but also good personal skills, because you’re going to have to communicate on the stand, in front of a jury, as well as with other scientists. Work on those interpersonal skills and how you want to present yourself, and don’t be afraid to be yourself.”
Under the Microscope Q&A
Q. Favorite UCF memory?
A. Graduating — the feeling of remembering back to that first semester, going there with the pessimism of “we’ll see what happens,” and graduating. Along the way, the biggest challenge that came was my second semester on spring break, when my dad died. Finishing up that semester and getting back on track was difficult. Getting through it at that point and finishing was a big thing. So, I remember standing outside of the old arena and thinking, “Wow, I’m done! I did it!”
Q. Favorite UCF professor?
A. Dr. Barry Fookes [who taught microscopy and trace evidence classes]. I thought he was a wealth of knowledge, and he shared it in a way that I was able to understand.
Q. Were you involved in any extracurricular activities at UCF?
A. I coached co-ed soccer, and refereed for co-ed volleyball and soccer.
Q. Favorite TV show based on forensic science?
Q. Favorite piece of lab equipment to work with?
A. I’m kind of old school. I like the good old microscope. It’s amazing how much information you can get from one.
Q. Have you made any mistakes on the job that you can now look back at and laugh?
A. I went to a crime scene where the room smelled like decomposition because the deceased had been there for over a week. I got home about 3 or 4 a.m. and was so tired that I just changed my clothes and crashed on the bed. I woke up to an upset wife because I still stunk like a dead body. I did not make that mistake again.
Q. What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever had to process in the lab?
A. Bloody clothing with maggots and other bugs still moving around. I felt like bugs were on me for the next few days.
Q. Any hidden talents?
A. I’m a pretty good cook.
Q. Best thing about living in Eugene, Ore.?
A. The slower pace of life and being able to spend time with my family instead of commuting to and from work. Everything is outdoorsy, even in the rainy and gray winter. There are several great wineries and microbreweries here in the Eugene area, not to mention across the rest of the state.
Q. Tell us about your family.
A. I’ve been married for four years to Tina Tague, who is an editor for scientific papers and journals. I met her when she was in graduate school and I was one of the instructors (dating started after she was in my class, of course). We have two rockin’ kids, a 2-year-old son, Brooks, and an 8-month-old daughter, Cullen. My mom is a Realtor, and my father passed away during my second semester at UCF. I have a brother, Curtis, and a sister, Dina. I’m the only UCF alumnus in the Winar clan. We have two dogs, Sasha and Daisy, and two cats, Casper and Maggie.
Q. A giant meteor is hurling through the atmosphere toward Earth, and life as we know it will cease to exist by this time tomorrow. How will you spend your last 24 hours?
A. Building my spaceship to get my family and friends to space for a galactic party.
Q. If someone made a movie about you, what would the title be?
A. “Why Not?”
Q. Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
A. Don’t underestimate yourself. You can do anything you want.
Q. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Q. What profession would you not like to do?
A. Middle school teacher