Montana State Crime Lab Director Phil Kinsey will leave his post at the often embattled forensic science facility next month for a job in Illinois closer to family.

Kinsey joined the lab in 2005 as the DNA supervisor and was appointed to the facility’s top position in January 2013 as Attorney General Tim Fox took office. He has played a critical role in several reforms at the lab, which conducts evidence analysis and autopsies for law enforcement and coroners statewide.

“There have been challenges both dramatic and mundane,” Kinsey said. “But lots of them.”

Within six months of joining the lab, three of four people on his team left. The one who remained had just come out of training and only had three months of experience. Kinsey rebuilt the DNA analysis staff and soon grew it to six then seven technicians. He also helped with a five-year effort to secure the lab international accreditation in 2011, a significant step above basic standards and a designation earned by fewer than 200 labs worldwide.

In the last few years, Kinsey had become the de facto backbone of the lab amid significant turnover, a restructuring of leadership and a new fee system as the state pushed county coroners to conduct all autopsies at the state lab.

In 2015, the state’s two longtime medical examiners left amid internal debate with the attorney general’s office and coroners over the use of a private pathologist, specifically for child autopsies he had been directed to avoid because flawed examinations had caused the doctor to lose his last job in another state and led to a wrongful conviction.

A third chief medical examiner was demoted just a year after taking the post. 

Fox highlighted several accomplishments by Kinsey since he appointed him to lead the lab: He reduced turnaround times in the lab’s toxicology section from an average wait of 8 months to less than a month today; helped set up the Sexual Assault Kit Task Force and the process to test unsubmitted rape kits; established the Eastern Montana Satellite Crime Lab to better serve the whole state and end the use of private contractors for autopsies; designed a restructuring of the Medical Examiner’s office approved by the 2017 Legislature, and has recently worked to obtain funding for a morgue facility in eastern Montana.

“He has a lot to be proud of, and I’m sad to see him go,” Fox said in a statement. “While Phil will be missed by the Department of Justice family and Montana’s criminal justice community, I’m excited for him, as he now gets to spend more time with his family. I wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”

Fox Spokesman Eric Sell said the attorney general’s office is interviewing finalists and expects to announce Kinsey’s replacement soon.

Kinsey’s last day will be Aug. 11. On Sept. 1, he will take over as director of the Northeastern Illinois Regional Crime Lab. He said the new job fell into place while visiting his first newborn grandchild at Christmas.

“There are two local laboratories within a half hour of (my daughter’s) neighborhood. I met with both of the lab directors to talk geeky lab stuff and just to see how they run their operations. One said, ‘I’m retiring at the end of the year. You might want to apply for the job,’ ” Kinsey said, noting he and his wife had already bought a house near his family so they could retire there in a few years. “Everything fell into place like it was meant to be. We get to live around the corner from our daughter.”

He announced his departure to criminal justice colleagues with an email Thursday.

"I am happy with the great strides the lab has taken to improve operations and more importantly our interactions with you," he wrote. "I am indebted to you all for the incredible support you’ve provided me and the lab."

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