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Genealogy, DNA helped identify Utahn suspected in multiple sex assaults

He is charged with eight counts of aggravated sexual assault, six counts of aggravated kidnapping, two counts of aggravated burglary, and one count of aggravated robbery, all first-degree felonies.

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CLEARFIELD — Ogden Police Capt. Timothy Scott knew that someday the case of two brutal rapes in Clearfield from the mid 1990s would be solved.

"I assumed I'd be retired by the time it happened. But I was confident they'd break the case," he said Thursday.

That's why Scott has kept the case file within arm's reach throughout his 25-year career.

That intuition paid off recently when Clearfield police — in conjunction with several law enforcement agencies in both Utah and Wyoming, and an expert in DNA analysis using genealogy who helped police in San Francisco identify the "Golden State Killer" — were able to identify a suspected serial rapist.

Since 2003, the suspect was only known as John Doe in criminal charges that were filed against his DNA. On Wednesday, the charges were amended so that John Doe is now listed as Mark Douglas Burns, 69, of Ogden.

He is charged with eight counts of aggravated sexual assault, six counts of aggravated kidnapping, two counts of aggravated burglary, and one count of aggravated robbery, all first-degree felonies.

"His DNA profile has been linked ... in 10 unsolved sexual assault cases in multiple states," according to charging documents.

On Thursday, Clearfield Police Chief Kelly Bennett, flanked by representatives from other law enforcement agencies from Utah, Wyoming, the Utah State Crime Lab and the Davis County Attorney's Office, held a press conference to reveal more details about Burns' arrest.

Burns, a long-haul truck driver who frequently traveled around the West, was convicted of rape in North Carolina in 1974 and served a "lengthy prison sentence," according to charging documents. But at the time, the national DNA database used by law enforcers today, CODIS, did not exist.

When Burns was released from prison, he eventually made his way to Utah, Bennett said, where he allegedly resumed his attacks on women.

Bennett said detectives suspected early on that the person they were looking for might be a truck driver because the assaults that could be linked were typically along routes with industrial centers.

"The majority of these cases do involve victims living in apartment communities where the individuals had glass doors. That was an angle that really stood out to us. The violent attack and how he bound each victim and used a weapon throughout the entire sexual assault, as well as he has been methodical," the chief said.

I've had the case for 25 years and I keep it with me.–Ogden Police Capt. Timothy Scott

In many cases, Burns would enter through a sliding glass door into an apartment and his assaults would last for hours, according to Bennett.

Investigators were able to link assaults in Clearfield in 1994, 1995, 2000 and 2001, Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1991, Riverdale in 1992, Ogden in 1993, Laramie, Wyoming in 1996 and Layton in 1997 to the same person. That happened in 2010 when the cases were all linked through the CODIS database.

But because Burns did not have his DNA entered into a national database in the 1970s, and somehow managed to avoid being arrested since then, detectives were unable to identify those DNA strands with a known person.

Then in 2017, investigators turned to genetic genealogy consultant Dr. Barbara Rae-Venter for help.

Rae-Venter also assisted authorities in California in identifying the so-called Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, 73, who is accused of killing more than a dozen people and committing more than 50 rapes throughout California in the 1970s and '80s, according to Bennett. He was arrested in 2018.

It's also the same technology that was used by Centerville police earlier this year to arrest a teenager accused of assaulting a 71-year-old woman while she was practicing the organ alone in a locked church meetinghouse, and helped St. George police identify a man accused of raping an elderly woman in her home.

The process involves, in simple terms, taking a person's DNA and comparing it to DNA that has been submitted to genomics and genealogy databases and websites. Using that technique, police were able to identify a person identified as a half-brother of Burns who had submitted his DNA to a genealogy website.

Bennett said detectives interviewed that half-brother, who lives in Utah, and without giving away many details about the case, explained to him what they were after. The half-brother consented to a "buccal swab," which collects cells from the inside of a person's cheek. It was analyzed and both excluded him as a suspect, and gave investigators a strong lead into Burns, the chief said.

Detectives then began holding surveillance on Burns. During that time, they collected items discarded in his trash can, including a water bottle, a beer bottle, four soda cans and a paper towel with a red stain on it, according to charging documents.

On Sept. 19 and 20, the Wyoming State Crime Lab confirmed that the DNA matched the unknown rapist wanted for assaulting women over the past two decades, according to police.

When officers showed up at his house on Wednesday, Bennett said Burns asked why he was being detained. He described Burns as being "calm" while he was interviewed by investigators, but did not offer any details about what Burns said. Police then served a warrant on Burns' home. The chief confirmed items of evidence were seized, but he declined to say what those items are.

Scott called it "surreal" to sit across from Burns while he was being interviewed. For years he has looked at a police composite sketch of the unknown suspect from victim accounts.

"His similarity to that composite sketch was uncanny," he said.

Scott started his career as a patrol officer in Clearfield and was among the first responders to the rape case in 1994. He was later hired by the Ogden Police Department. But those Clearfield cases were always on his mind, he said, because of the "exceptional brutality," of the attacks.

"It was shocking to me, the level of brutality in the sexual assaults. That stuck with me over the years. You don't often see that, this level that the suspect acted on these victims.

"This file has been within arm's reach of me every office I've moved to, which has been dozens of offices. When I got the call from Clearfield Police Department asking to join this recent investigation, they asked me if I remembered the case or if I had a file. And it was just a matter of me reaching into my desk and pulling the file out. So I've had the case for 25 years and I keep it with me," he said.

Scott credits fresh detectives putting a new set of eyes on the case and the advancement in DNA technology in bringing it to a resolution.

"In the early 90s, sexual assault was a different process for law enforcement agencies. The DNA process was long and arduous," he said. "The whole process has changed."

Scott called the advent of victim advocates and the Utah State Crime Lab resolving its backlog of rape kits as a "huge breakthrough" in resolving these types of cases.

He also credits DNA technology in eliminating people as suspects. Over the years, Scott said there have been persons of interest who had similar crime methods or who were truck drivers or who looked similar to the police sketch. Many of those people voluntarily contacted investigators on their own, he said, and submitted DNA samples to clear their names.

Until recently, Scott said Burns was never on the radar of police.

Charges against Burns are now also pending in Wyoming. And Bennett believes there are other cases out there that Burns has yet to be linked to.

"We do believe Mr. Burns did not stop (assaulting women) in 2001. We are asking all the law enforcement agencies surrounding our community as well as the western United States to check their cold cases," he said.

Bennett said Burns is known to have connections to Arizona, Idaho and parts of Canada. He encouraged anyone who may have been a victim to contact their local law enforcement agency.

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