Not long ago I spent the day training a law enforcement agency that had recently purchased an M-Vac System. During the introduction presentation I typically give to familiarize those present with the latest in data, techniques, agencies that have solved cases, and the types of evidence surfaces that the M-Vac has successfully collected DNA material from, a captain in the investigations division mentioned they had already identified a case that had essentially stalled due to the inability to produce a DNA profile, and were hoping the M-Vac could be the key in the case. It was a high profile homicide where they had exhausted every lead, but as all good investigators do, maintained hope that they would catch a break somewhere that could help solve it.
Of course I logged that in my mind and during the training I tried to make sure the investigators in the training would be sufficiently confident and comfortable in collecting from a variety of items, but especially items that were similar to the case evidence the captain had described. The evidence surfaces were cement, like cinderblock, and a strapping-like material, both of which are very difficult to collect forensic DNA material from.
Less than a week later, I received a message from one of the senior investigators saying they were in the process of “M-Vacing” the evidence we had discussed, and they would let me know how it went. Fingers crossed I hoped for the seemingly impossible. Why seemingly impossible? Because they were searching for touch DNA off of evidence that had been submerged in sea water for over 5 days.
For those that are familiar with forensic DNA profiling, DNA would not typically survive long in those conditions, and adding the difficulty of collecting touch DNA to that scenario makes collection of viable DNA even less probable.
Not long after that I received another message that they had several profiles from the evidence! Imagine that scenario. An investigation was stalled, the investigators were frustrated because they had limited options on what else they could do, the family of the victim was facing the very real possibility that their loved one may never get justice, and the community was looking at their law enforcement agency being unable to solve a heinous murder of one of their citizens. Instead, thanks to the M-Vac, persistence and the expertise of the investigators, this seemingly impossible case is moving toward being solved and the perpetrators being brought to justice.
Does every case work out this way? Of course not. But more and more cases that had almost zero chance of obtaining a valid forensic DNA profile, let alone being solved, are now moving forward. The M-Vac System is a tool that every law enforcement agency and crime lab needs access to, and most need their own. Many times the investigation is time sensitive, and the relatively small investment made in purchasing an M-Vac would pale in comparison to that moment. As we have been told time and time again by our friends in law enforcement, if an agency can solve even one case with the M-Vac that otherwise may not have been solved, the system more than pays for itself. Everything after that is bonus. So the question is – is there an M-Vac near you?
Chris Tapp, Krystal Beslanowitch and Uta von Schwedler Are All Reasons Every Crime Lab and Law Enforcement Agency Needs an M-Vac System
Chris Tapp was released from prison on March 22, 2017, after serving 20 years in prison. What was he in for? The murder and rape of Angie Dodge, a vibrant, full of hope, 18-year-old woman that lived in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Angie was brutally stabbed over 16 times. The case against Mr. Tapp was mostly circumstantial and his conviction was largely attributed to a confession. There was little if any hard-physical evidence tying him to the vicious crime. Starting in 2016, with the avid support of the victim’s family and others, investigators began to re-look at the case. They learned about a new wet-vacuum forensic DNA collection system that could more aggressively collect DNA material from the victim’s clothes and a teddy bear that was used to smother her. After an assisting agency sampled Angie’s clothing and the teddy bear, it was concluded that none of the DNA found at the scene matched Chris Tapp. Several months later he walked out of the courtroom a free man, albeit he maintained the murder conviction. Without new forensic methods and technology, including the M-Vac System, Chris Tapp may have been in prison for years or decades longer.
Krystal Beslanowitch was a wayward teen living in Salt Lake City in 1996. She was a drug user and worked as a prostitute, but didn’t deserve to die the way she did. Krystal’s body was found the morning of December 16th, 1996, next to the Provo River in Midway, Utah. She was naked and had been bludgeoned to death by several river rocks, obviously dying a lonely, bitterly cold, terrifying death. Despite the best efforts of the investigating agencies, the leads were few and far between and the case went cold. Fast forward a little over a decade. More sensitive lab processing was coming online and investigators learned that it was possible to process the minute amounts of DNA that would likely be deposited on a rough granite rock from a person’s hand. But the ability to effectively collect that touch DNA was outside the capabilities of the lab and investigators. Within a few more years, however, wet-vacuum DNA collection was invented and a private lab in Salt Lake acquired it. Investigators jumped on the chance to try it and 42 times more DNA material than what is required to produce a full DNA profile was collected. The suspect, Joseph Michael Simpson was identified and within 3 more years he was convicted of murder and is serving life without the possibility of parole. The investigators have all said that without the M-Vac that case may never have been solved.
Uta von Schwedler was a retrovirology researcher at the University of Utah. Originally hailing from Germany, she was a spirited woman who had a zest for life. Her and her ex-husband, Dr. John Wall, had 4 children and after more than four years of being divorced were still in a bitter custody battle. One night, when the four kids and the boyfriend were all away from the home, a perpetrator entered her home, attacked her on her bed, fought with her on the bed in which time she was slashed by a knife several times. Ultimately, she was smothered by her own pillow, injected with a high dose of Xanax, stripped down and put into the bathtub where she drowned. In the tub with her was the knife and one of her favorite scrapbooks, obviously staged as a suicide. Investigators had a significant amount of circumstantial evidence that pointed to her ex-husband, but the physical evidence was weak and the prosecuting attorney would not pursue the case without stronger evidence. Even the DNA that was found on the pillowcase and her bedding, where she fought with her attacker, could be explained away by the defense. The reason being the swabbing method could only collect enough DNA material to produce a 5-loci Y-STR profile, but that could have been deposited by either of Uta’s two male children. The case languished for over a year and a half and it looked as if Dr. Wall may have gotten away with it. Upon learning of the M-Vac System, however, investigators used it on the pillowcase and John Wall’s full profile was obtained. As Dr. Wall had previously told investigators that he had never been in Uta’s house that was now a problem for him. Investigators also had Uta’s bedding sampled with the M-Vac and again his profile was obtained. Using this strong physical evidence combined with all the circumstantial evidence John Wall was convicted of his ex-wife’s murder.
Does every case end like these? No, of course not. But there are many, many cases out there that will go unsolved until investigators can fully utilize the latest and most powerful tools. Every day investigators, whether a CSI, homicide detective or forensic lab serologist, are making decisions about how best to collect DNA evidence and thousands of times every day, they are forced to go with whatever method is available to them rather than what has the best chance to succeed. I’ve heard many times that the investigators move forward knowing it will likely fail but they need to try anyway. What else can they do?
Having worked in the law enforcement environment for a number of years now, I’ve heard multiple times that there is no piece of equipment that investigators know of that can provide the return on investment that the M-Vac System can bring. The Broward County Sheriff’s Office, for example, has used the M-Vac on over 30 cases in the past couple of years and had an impressive success rate, all on cases where more traditional DNA collection methods have been tried first. In several of those cases the DNA profile that the M-Vac produced was the evidence that turned the case around and without it, very dangerous suspects would have been back on the streets to commit more crime. Based on just those few cases their M-Vac system has paid for itself multiple times.
Several years ago when the M-Vac was first introduced to the forensics and criminal investigative communities it was understandable why professionals in those areas would hesitate to use a new and seemingly untried piece of equipment or method. In many cases there is only one chance to get it right so most investigators understandably frown on experimenting with their evidence. That is no longer the case. There are very few scenarios that investigators can come up with where the M-Vac has not had success in that exact or a similar scenario and there are more coming in every day. Numerous labs have easily processed the M-Vac sample so that’s no longer a concern. The cost of the sample is relatively low considering the potential results. The bottom line? The M-Vac system is an effective and worthwhile tool that every lab and law enforcement agency needs to have or at least have quick access to.
If you want more information on how the M-Vac System can help you develop better DNA profiles and solve more crime contact us at www.m-vac.com.