Cutting-edge vacuum technology locates hard-to-find DNA
The technology has obtained admissible results in cases where traditional methods have come up empty
By Becky Lewis
Tech Beat Magazine
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, DNA evidence is not like on television. You just don’t find it lying around on a rock.
Well, with a new DNA collection method based on wet-vacuum technology, sometimes you can.
This cutting-edge technology uses a hand-held device that sprays a solution on a surface to detach and suspend target DNA material, and vacuums the fluid into a removable bottle. Using a concentrating filter apparatus or the spin method, the technology has obtained admissible results in cases where traditional methods have come up empty, including a cold case investigation conducted by the Wasatch County (Utah) Sheriff’s Office.
On Dec. 6, 1995, a local rancher and his son found the body of Krystal Lynn Beslanowitch, 17, along the Provo River near Midway. During the initial investigation, forensics examinations requested by the sheriff’s office on rocks found near the body were suggestive, but not conclusive, for DNA evidence; the sheriff’s office kept them, along with other evidence, in storage.
Some 18 years later, a private lab that had worked with the sheriff’s office on other difficult cases suggested using this new vacuum-collection technology. Wasatch County sent the rocks in for processing, and the report helped lead to an arrest the following month, in September 2013. According to Chief Deputy Jared Rigby, Wasatch County uses the Utah State Crime Laboratory for most cases, but, “When things get a little bit trickier and we need cutting-edge technology, we go to the private lab.”
Another Utah agency that also takes its tricky cases to the same private lab is the West Jordan Police Department. Senior Crime Scene Investigator Francine Bardole had researched the new technology, and when she discovered it was produced in Utah, she requested a demonstration for West Jordan administrators and herself.
“The demonstration was interesting and it made sense,” she says. “It can be used not just to prove someone’s guilt, but also to prove someone’s innocence. We used it in one case where we had primary and secondary profiles, and neither of them matched the suspect.”
Bardole has put the technology into limited use for over a year, but she tends to be selective about employing it because of the cost involved in sending the filters to the private lab.
“I would use it so much more, but our state lab in Utah has not validated its use as other states have. When it is validated, I have no doubt, just from my own experience, that it will help solve many cases,” she says.
One case Bardole selected for its use involved an incident of child sexual assault.
“I had a small pair of underwear that I sent to the state lab. I used a laser light to look for biological fluids,” Bardole says. “The presumptive test for semen was positive. I sent the item to the lab. The lab did traditional swabbing and cutting, and after several months said they found nothing of value.
“I kept thinking there had to be something. I had hardly anything left from the small pair of underwear after the lab had done several cuttings, but I used the vacuum technology on the remnants and sent the filter in for processing to a private laboratory. This lab found six male contributors on the underwear, however, only one primary DNA profile.”
She explains that doesn’t mean the crime had six perpetrators; for example, there is the possibility that the DNA could have come in contact with garments being placed together in a laundry basket or laundered together. It was later found that the primary profile from the underwear did not match the suspect’s DNA.
“I told the laboratory we were looking for a male perpetrator, so they took out all the X chromosomes and developed only the Y chromosomes [which are unique to male DNA]. In all, it took about six weeks to get the results, and to get results from a state lab usually takes six to eight months,” Bardole says. “I think this is a cleaner way of getting DNA. It’s self-contained and I am able to submit a filter to the lab instead of bags of evidence. I believe this saves time for the laboratory, as they are overwhelmed with DNA cases.”
The vacuum technology does carry a higher price tag than conventional technology, but Bardole says it needs to be weighed against the labor hours saved and the additional time in which the perpetrator remains at large, possibly even offending again.
For more information on these agencies’ use of the forensic vacuum technology, contact Francine Bardole at email@example.com or Jared Rigby at firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on the projects and programs of the National Institute of Justice forensics technology portfolio, contact Gerald LaPorte, Director, Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences, at Gerald.LaPorte@usdoj.gov