GLENDALE, AZ — Three Valley families waited months for an arrest after their teenagers were killed in a car crash that detectives say was caused by an impaired driver.
ABC15 set out to determine why it took the Glendale Police Department more than four months to arrest the driver who was identified on the scene.
In the process, we discovered a significant backlog of toxicology cases at the state crime lab, a lack of communication, and an investigator's failure to prioritize the case.
"We just want our kids back."
The deadly crash happened in Glendale on Aug. 25, 2021.
Ariyanna Parsad, 18, was driving northbound on 83rd Avenue with her boyfriend, Kiyvon Martin, 18, and their friend, Jazmine Marquez, 19, when the driver of a Tesla allegedly ran a red light at Bethany Home Road. Court documents say the suspect's car was traveling more than 40 mph over the speed limit.
The driver, later identified as Carlos Daniel Gonzalez, was unconscious at the scene and had to be taken to the hospital for injuries.
Due to the nature of the crash, a warrant was obtained, and a blood draw was done to check for impairment.
The 22-year-old was not arrested until more than four months later, on Dec. 29. Glendale detectives acknowledge they could have arrested Gonzalez sooner for charges like reckless driving or manslaughter, but the department told ABC15 they wanted to wait for a drug toxicology analysis that, if positive, would enhance the charges.
"What took so long?"
The families of Parsad, Martin, and Marquez all buried their loved ones before the holidays.
Thanksgiving and Christmas were far from the typical celebrations. Instead of smiles and gifts, there were empty chairs and tears.
"Thanksgiving this year was hard. On that day we were mourning their death and he was celebrating with his family -- when ours didn't get the chance," said Jasmine Parsad, the sister of Parsad.
"All we have ever wanted is justice," said Jessica, Marquez's mother.
Passing the blame
In October, nearly two months after the crash, the families told ABC15 they felt in the dark on the investigation.
“We have not had any communication, the victim's advocate... they actually have never contacted us,” said Jasmine. “We’re just kind of at a loss, we don’t know what’s going on. What’s the next move?”
Glendale police said the delay was due to the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) Crime Lab backlog.
At the time the blood sample was submitted to the DPS Scientific Analysis Bureau, on Sept. 9, the crime lab had a backlog of 1,323 Drug Toxicology cases, with an average turnaround time of 65 days. Those numbers would continue to balloon.
Clearing up the confusion
The DPS Crime Lab has the ability to prioritize more serious cases and expedite the results.
A potential DUI crash where three teenagers were killed certainly meets that criteria, especially when you consider the fact that "the overwhelming majority of [Toxicology] cases are not violent crimes," according to a DPS spokesperson.
A Glendale spokesperson told ABC15 in an emailed statement, "The detective commented on the [submittal] form the charges that were pending, in hopes of expediting the results."
However, ABC15 obtained that form and it shows the detective only wrote 'DUI (drugs)' under the charges section. He failed to mention that three teens had died in the incident — and nowhere did he ask the crime lab to expedite the case.
It was only after repeated questioning by the family and 12 weeks of waiting for an arrest, that the Glendale detective "stated outright" his request for the case to be prioritized.
Five days after that prioritization request was sent to DPS, the toxicology results were completed.
"The final piece is really getting that lab result, which did show that there was marijuana in his system," said Glendale Sgt. Randy Stewart in late December.
A DPS spokesperson made it clear though, the "final piece" could have been delivered quicker if Glendale investigators communicated the seriousness of the case.
"A breakdown in communication"
"It appears to me that there was a breakdown in communication," said Retired Col. Frank Milstead.
Milstead was the DPS Director for five years before retiring in 2020.
"Tox cases have always been a challenge, just because there are a lot of DUI arrests," said Milstead.
While DUI arrests have always been prevalent, the state crime lab's 'Drug Toxicology' backlog and turnaround times have gotten significantly worse in recent years.
In January 2018 there were 818 backlogged cases, as well as a 66-day average turnaround time.
This month, in January 2022, DPS hit a four-year high, with 2,094 drug cases waiting to be tested and the average turnaround for analysis taking 95 days.
"I would say it's extremely common for most crime laboratories to have a backlog," said Christian Wilson, a former criminalist with Tucson Police Department who now teaches forensics course at the University of Arizona and Pima Community College.
Backlogs, especially in drug toxicology, are not unique to the DPS Crime Lab.
Mesa's crime lab, which only serves its police department and not the whole state, told ABC15 they have an 86-day average turnaround for drug toxicology results, in addition to 726 backlogged cases.
"Unfortunately, living with backlogs might be just something we have to do, but there's no reason that a homicide should be lumped in with a misdemeanor," said Wilson. "So I think the way to approach it is to minimize human suffering by doing the most important cases first."
Outside of drug toxicology though, the DPS crime lab has become more efficient in almost every other type of analysis, like blood alcohol testing as well as fingerprint testing.
Why it matters
The toxicology backlog matters because as Milstead told ABC15, "recidivism exists."
"The longer [an offender is] out and they should be in [jail], obviously the greater the risk," said Milstead. "And if you look at the statistics that surround impaired drivers you have to drive impaired a lot, to get caught."
Cooper Lamb's case is a prime example. The Pinal County Sheriff's son nearly killed a bicyclist in July 2020 while impaired by illegal drugs.
He was arrested again in Tempe, less than two months later, for DUI. When he was pulled over, with Xanax and Fentanyl reportedly in his pocket and system, his blood sample was still in the DPS crime lab waiting to be tested. It took more than six months for investigators to get the analysis and book Lamb into jail.
What is being done?
DPS declined to do an interview, but in an emailed response said, the main reason for the backlog is "the [recent] loss of three senior forensic scientists...three grant-funded positions, and employee sick leave."
"They have openings right now that they can't fill," said Milstead. "Phoenix PD, Mesa, they all pay much better in their Laboratory Services Bureau for scientists."
Currently, 13% of the department's forensic scientist positions are vacant, according to a DPS spokesperson.
The agency is hoping that will change with Governor Ducey's promise to make DPS employees the highest paid in the state.
In the meantime, DPS told ABC15 their main crime lab has started "outsourcing Toxicology cases" to "mitigate the backlog," as well as streamlining operations to turn around cases quicker.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified a relative of one of the victims. It has since been updated.