KC crime lab's long-ago foresight to preserve evidence has helped crack cold cases

The Kansas City Star, A; Pg. 1
BYLINE: CHRISTINE VENDEL; The Kansas City Star

Kansas City, MO

Starting in the 1970s, Kansas City crime lab workers meticulously preserved hairs on glass slides in file cabinets and stored blood and bodily fluid samples in envelopes in freezers.

Many other labs across the country regularly sent such evidence back to police, where it was later lost, destroyed or left to degrade in improper storage facilities.

"Other labs wrinkled their noses at us," said John Wilson, a Kansas City Regional Crime Lab chemist at the time. "Why would you want to save all that stuff? It wasn't seen as valuable."

Now, with advancements in DNA testing, those archived samples have become a virtual gold mine. The lab boasts evidence from more than 4,300 crimes dating to 1972 that can be tested for DNA.

Since the early 2000s, police have reopened hundreds of old investigations using some of that evidence. Jackson County prosecutors, meanwhile, have won convictions in 106 old murder and sexual assault cases -- including putting away at least two serial killers and four serial rapists. "We're the best in the country," said Ted Hunt, Jackson County chief trial assistant. "No one else cranks out cold cases like we do."

The old samples are even proving valuable in new investigations. As police earlier this year closed in on a suspect in a series of Waldo-area sexual assaults, they asked the crime lab to run DNA tests on evidence from a string of similar attacks in the 1980s.

DNA linked convicted rapist Bernard Jackson to the old cases, according to court records. That allowed police to arrest and hold him while continuing to analyze the complex evidence in the current investigation. Police are waiting for complete lab results before seeking charges, which they hope to do later this year.

Hunt credits several factors for helping Kansas City become a cold-case leader: wise decisions by police to collect the evidence and lab officials to store it; a large number of unsolved violent crimes; and having one of the first rape trauma centers in the country.

"A lot of it was foresight, and a lot of it was fortuitous," Hunt said.

The Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida was the first in the nation to form a cold case unit in the 1980s. Most other departments did not start one until 2000 or later.

Labs with reputations for retaining large stashes of old biological evidence include St. Louis County in Missouri and Dallas County in Texas.

Kansas City and Jackson County are considered "excellent performers," said Chuck Heurich, who manages the cold case program at the National Institute of Justice.

"I can confidently say that they are in the upper tier of cold case units that I have encountered," Heurich said.

Despite the scientific advances of recent years, evidence-retention practices still vary widely across the country, said Rebecca Brown, policy advocate for the Innocence Project, a group that seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted people though DNA testing.

"Kansas City absolutely ought to be applauded," she said. "If every jurisdiction were doing that we'd be in much better shape. The fact that the Kansas City crime lab anticipated the value of this evidence -- it's a success story."

Foreseeing the future

In the 1970s, scientists at the Kansas City crime lab analyzed hairs under a microscope and tested evidence for blood type. They were just starting to use a new enzyme test that could narrow down a suspect pool beyond blood type.

They did not know exactly what the future would bring, but they could foresee more enzyme tests with even more discriminatory power.

So Wilson suggested that the lab keep samples from every piece of evidence. That way, workers could retest the evidence later, using newer technology as it became available.

"It seemed like the logical thing to do," said Wilson, who was in charge of biological evidence at the lab from the late 1970s until retiring in 2003.

If the lab received a pair of bloody jeans, for example, workers would cut out the bloody patch and return the rest of the jeans to police.

Police were notorious for throwing property away, Wilson said. Unaware of the future possibilities, they resented "civilian scientists trying to tell them how to do things."

"We had screaming contests with police about saving evidence," Wilson said.

Many other labs did not want to be bothered with storing evidence for police, he said. Some police agencies lacked proper storage facilities.

"If the samples sat in a police property room in an old sub-basement with the moisture and heating and freezing, the sample would degrade," said Gary Howell, a chemist who became the Kansas City lab's director in 1976.

That not only would prevent retesting by lab workers, it could prevent retesting at the request of defense attorneys, Howell said. Defense attorneys could send a degraded sample to another lab to double-check Kansas City's results and not find any DNA.

"What would that look like in court?" asked Howell, now the director of the Johnson County crime lab.

In Kansas City, lab workers put samples into freezers, preserving the samples' integrity.

One year, short on freezer space, Wilson begged police for $600 to buy a second freezer. Police balked, asking: Don't you have enough space for your lunches?

Today, evidence once stored in those small freezers now is stacked neatly inside envelopes set in plastic bins inside a huge walk-in freezer.

The Kansas City lab has samples from as far back as 1972, but old testing procedures often consumed the sample, leaving nothing to store. By 1978, as procedures improved, the lab resolved to retain a "leftover" sample for future tests.

Police also started collecting more evidence from sexual assaults in the mid-1970s, after asking St. Luke's Hospital to be the central coordinating entity and to handle all victims. The hospital became the first private sexual assault center in the country.

"Prior to that, they (victims) didn't have a good place to go," said Michael Weaver, who was director of the emergency room in 1981.

The hospital saw 139 victims the first year. The number tripled the following year.

The lab asked the hospital to swab victims for evidence then wipe smears on glass slides before packaging each swab.

The hospital sent each kit to the lab, where scientists looked at the slides for sperm before testing the cotton swab.

The lab kept all the slides.

Older testing procedures often consumed the swab's cotton tip, leaving just a wooden stick. Wilson kept the sticks.

"He saved every little piece of the sample," said Linda Netzel, the lab's current director. Lab workers have retrieved DNA profiles from some of the sticks, she said.

Lab workers recalled Wilson's mantra: Don't destroy evidence.

"He dictated how we preserved evidence," Netzel said. "John was very particular about what the law defined as evidence."

Along comes DNA

Kansas City police started using DNA as an evidence tool in 1992, first in a rape case and later that year in a "sexual homicide" case in which the suspect left behind a cigarette butt.

As DNA testing advanced into the 1990s, the true value for using it to solve cold cases emerged, Wilson said.

"We said: 'Hey! Let's go back and do DNA testing on some of these notorious cases,' " he recalled.

Police grew excited "once they realized what we had," Wilson said.

Retired detectives called in from across the area to inquire about new testing on old cases.

In 2002, Kansas City police started a homicide cold case squad.

Samples at the lab had been stored under crime report numbers. Police helped the lab identify the homicide cases first.

Over the years, the lab won a series of grants to pay for overtime and equipment.

By 2008, police had started a cold case sex crimes unit, using federal grant money. Soon afterward, Jackson County prosecutors won a grant to start their own cold case unit.

Now, all three work together.

Prosecutors review cases against the statutes of limitations to ensure they could file charges if the case were to be reopened. Hunt said there would be no reason to waste police and lab workers' time if a case could not be prosecuted.

The cold case efforts achieved success quickly.

The most notable suspect caught was Lorenzo Gilyard, believed to be Missouri's most-prolific serial killer. Police arrested him in 2004 after the lab linked his DNA to the bodies of 13 women killed between 1977 and 1993.

DNA also helped police identify suspects in several unsolved serial rape patterns in the Westport area in the mid-1980s.

Shy Bland was convicted in 2008 for 13 attacks, and Gary Jackman was convicted in 2006 after admitting 32 attacks.

Police said they have reviewed all the unsolved homicide cases, so finding another serial killer may be unlikely. But lab workers said they may be able to use new technology to get DNA from fingerprints collected at crime scenes.

The lab kept those, too.

Meantime, police and prosecutors still have a backlog of about 1,400 sex crimes to review for possible testing.

Many cities now routinely save evidence, but questions remain on how, how much and how long evidence should be retained. The National Institute of Justice started a work group earlier this year to answer those questions.

"States are desperate for information on how to best retain evidence," said Brown of the Innocence Project. "They need the nuts and bolts of how to approach it responsibly. We hope the work group will provide the long-sought-after best practices."

The numbers 9,611 KC Regional Crime Lab cold cases 4,326 Crimes that yielded biological evidence with DNA potential 905 Cases worked so far by lab's trace evidence unit 253 DNA hits so far

To reach Christine Vendel, call 816-234-4438 or send e-mail to . Source: Kansas City Regional Crime Lab

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