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Baylor police solve crime through DNA

Oct. 27, 2005

by EMILY INGRAM, reporter

Forensic evidence appears not only in television shows like CSI or in big cities with high-profile cases. It also happens in smaller towns and smaller places like Baylor, where for the first time, the Baylor Department of Public Safety solved a crime with DNA evidence.

Investigators for the Baylor police were able to use a blood sample found at the scene of a car theft a year ago to charge a man of the burglary.

"Typically, we think of solving large crimes like murder and rape with DNA evidence, and it's nice to know they work on smaller thefts," said Dr. Lori Baker, assistant professor of anthropology, forensic science and archaeology.

She said the "well-trained" DPS officers at Baylor made it possible to solve the crime using forensics.

"It's a pretty rare event for a department of our size to have a DNA hit. So, we were very delighted to find out about this," Baylor Department of Public Safety Chief Jim Doak said.

The discovery is a result of a car theft in June 2004. Officer Brent Howell found a Ford F-150 pickup truck by the Arbors apartment complex with the driver's side window broken. Howell noted the truck's stereo was missing and secured the site for investigators.

Investigator David Smith studied the crime scene and found blood droplets on the steering wheel. Smith scraped up samples of the blood and sent the specimens to the Texas Department of Public Safety for processing, Doak said.

"Texas DPS called and said we had a match," Doak said.

The "match" is Willie Thomas Davis. He is currently serving time at the Gurney Transfer Facility, a maximum security men's unit in Palestine, for an unrelated offense.

"Investigator Smith was able to get a warrant and charge Davis with burglary of a motor vehicle,"Doak said. "Once he fulfills his sentence, they will apply the warrant. The guy is going to be held accountable."

University police finding DNA and serving warrants off the evidence is not a common occurrence. Baker said the extraction process for DNA is very detailed and complicated.

"You need someone well-trained in knowing how to look for evidence at the crime scene and how to collect evidence in order to protect and preserve that evidence so that it is a viable sample," Baker said. "If the investigator does not do a good job, it's hard to ever go back and reconstruct the crime scene."

Identifying a crime suspect from a drop of blood involves a long process. Depending on how much blood is left at the scene, investigators use sterile swabs or sterile papers to extract the samples, Baker said. Investigators then send the samples to a lab where the blood is analyzed by different tests depending on sample size.

"Usually it takes a very small amount of blood for DNA identification," Baker said. "If you only have a small drop of blood, you can still get information."

In the Davis case, Baker said one problem with the blood retrieved from the steering wheel is that it "may pick up DNA from people who used the truck before it was broken into."

Once the DNA information is retrieved, lab workers look to the Combined DNA Indexing System to check for a DNA match.

"CODIS used to be called Convicted Offender DNA Indexing System and was used for convicted offenders," Baker said. "Now, any (DNA) information retrieved is put into the system. This database is great. It has information on thousands of people. I'm very excited that it worked for us."