KPD’s Rachel Warren: A real forensics sleuth

Tom KingOur Town Heroes

If you ever think about doing what Rachel Warren does daily at work, she has a slew of real-life experiences for your consideration. She pulls no punches.

“My job is not for the faint hearted … you have to be able to see the worst of humanity, to handle seeing dead people, including children and babies. I have seen bodies burned up in car wrecks and house fires and elderly people who get tired of dealing with illnesses commit suicide. I see homicide victims. You have to be able to handle blood, guts and gore. I was in the process of training a girl years ago and she couldn’t handle a suicide and quit. This job is hands-on in the real world. We see things that other people couldn’t fathom.”
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Warren works in the basement of the new Knoxville Police Department (KPD) headquarters in the old St. Mary’s hospital complex. Her title is “crime scene technician III” and she has 12 years under her belt as a forensics specialist. Warren is the most experienced technician and the de facto leader of the unit. Her work is invaluable in helping solve a variety of crimes – from murders to car theft and everything in between.

Forensic scientists are often the “secret weapon” law enforcement needs and uses to fight crime. They are the heroes we never see or know. We see forensic “pros” on TV in shows like CSI, Bones, Dexter and NCIS. What you see on those shows is not the real world, Warren said. “The things they do in such short timeframes on TV are not realistic.”

Warren was reared in Corryton but family later moved to the Karns community. She graduated from Karns High School in 1997.

Professionally, she has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Columbia Southern University and is one of only seven senior crime scene analysts in Tennessee, certified by the International Association for Identification. She also is a graduate of the National Forensics Academy hosted by the University of Tennessee in Oak Ridge.

She is one of nine crime scene technicians in the KPD unit. They investigate an array of crime scenes: homicides, suicides, stabbings, assaults, persons killed in fires, home and business break-ins, stolen cars, rapes, car-vehicle and motorcycle accidents with a fatality or fatalities, accidental fatalities like a baby left in a hot car all day, among others.

There are four sections inside the main unit that fall under forensics – crime scene, fingerprint unit, firearm examination and photography.

Warren and the unit work 365 days a year, including holidays if needed, and she has missed a number of Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. She often is called out in the middle of the night.

Her crime-scene toolbox makes for an interesting collection … a Nikon camera, a DNA kit, placards to mark evidence and bodies, boxes to hold guns, a ladder, tiny stickers for marking evidence and a ruler for measuring, packaging materials, biohazard bags plus typical tools like hammers and screwdrivers.

The No. 1 crime scenes in cases worked are car and business break-ins, then home break-ins, stolen vehicles and then fatalities and suicides. Warren says their least common calls are for murder, which she says average about 30 a year. However, those murder scene investigations require the most investigative time.

“Depending on circumstances and evidence we may be at the scene for up to five hours or even more. I recently had a homicide where I got to work at 8 a.m. and didn’t get home until after midnight,” she said. “They had to get a search warrant and we weren’t able to start processing it until around 4 p.m. I was there for about 5-1/2 hours and then came back to the office to work on my evidence. Around midnight I was tanking so I had to go home.”

Death investigations, she says, are “fascinating” for her. And she’s worked a few major cases of late. She recently testified in the trial for two teens convicted of murdering Stanley Freeman Jr. as he was leaving Austin-East High School in 2021. The testimony of the forensics unit was essential in obtaining that conviction. Freeman’s murder turned out to be a case of mistaken identity.

Rachel Warren’s family is a big part of her stress relief – daughter Ava and husband Brian

At murder scenes she’s searching for DNA, fingerprints, shell casings and even left-behind clothing that often help solve the case. After 12 years she stills loves the work. “There is nothing close to this job that makes mundane the routine things I do. No day is the same. I still get thrills when I find a good fingerprint.”

Of all the cases she has investigated, one four years ago at a Clinton Highway grocery remains front and center. On August 9, 2019, KPD investigators received a call just after 3 p.m. about a deceased child in the 5000 block of Clinton Highway near Merchant Drive. A little 6-month-old boy was found dead in the backseat.

Warren worked the scene. “I will never ever forget this. The infant had been in the car since the early morning hours. It was above 100 degrees in that car. When I got there the little boy was on the backseat and they had tried to revive him. This was soon after I had our daughter (now 5) and any case with a child has personal meaning for me. This one really shocked me. He was so hot the little guy’s skin was peeling off. It’s the only one like this I’ve ever worked and I can do without another one.” The mother was charged and indicted for first-degree and aggravated child neglect.

Ask her why she loves the work. She answers with these words: rewarding, enjoyable, different, vitally important, necessary, interesting and satisfying. “At times though it is demanding, stressful and overwhelming. Most of the time I am relaxed, but on a really busy day or on a homicide you can definitely feel the last three I listed.”

Daughter Ava and husband Brian are her stress relievers at home, along with watching light TV shows (no cop shows) and playing Tetris and Candy Crush. She works out three days a week, too.

“I just feel like my job is putting puzzles together, looking for the clues to help the investigators make their cases. I’m helping the process along to make sure the victims and their families get the justice they deserve,” Warren said.

Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked in Tennessee and Georgia. If you have someone you think we should consider featuring, please email him at the link with his name.


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