By Maki Becker
BUFFALO, N.Y. — It was a grueling and tedious task: combing over every inch of murder victim Joan Diver's Ford Explorer in search of some clue, however small, as to who killed the mother of four.
Erie County Sheriff's Deputy James A. Mirusso was among a team of law enforcement officers who pored over the sport utility vehicle that had been found a couple of miles from where police believe Diver parked it before going on her fateful run on the Clarence/Newstead bike path.
Mirusso's meticulous forensic work turned up a tiny splotch of sweat left on the ignition switch.
That droplet, rich with DNA, turned out to be the smoking gun that law enforcement authorities needed to prove that the Bike Path Killer and rapist, who seemed to have disappeared 12 years ago, was back.
Tonight, Mirusso, 44, is being honored by the Hamburg American Legion Post for his role in identifying Altemio C. Sanchez, the Cheektowaga factory worker whom police suspect of killing three women, including Diver, and raping at least eight other women over the last 26 years.
"It's probably the single most important thing I've ever done in my career," he said.
Last week, the 20-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office spoke with The Buffalo News, talking for the first time publicly about how he discovered the crucial piece of evidence that led to Sanchez's arrest.
Mirusso, a Hamburg resident, recounted how he was called in to work over Columbus Day weekend to examine Diver's car. At the time, Mirusso was assigned to road patrol but had previously worked for three years as a crime scene investigator — a position that no longer exists because of budget constraints.
"They insisted I come in and help them," he recalled.
Sheriff's investigators were eager to search the vehicle because forensic pathologists could not find any DNA on the victim's body. They also said they believed that the vehicle had been moved by her killer.
On Sept. 29, Diver's husband had told authorities that he thought he noticed his wife's SUV — as he was racing home — parked in a lot off Salt Road adjacent to the bike path where Joan Diver often ran. He had become worried after his youngest son's day care center called him to say his wife had not picked the boy up.
But when police checked the parking lot, the vehicle had vanished. Within a couple of hours, authorities found the SUV parked on the side of Shisler Road, about a mile west from Salt along the bike path. The body was found Oct. 1, a couple of miles east along the bike path from where the car was found.
For the crucial job of searching Diver's car, Mirusso was joined by two Sheriff's Office arson detectives: Kevin Mahoney and Steven Meerboth.
Mirusso explained how a vehicle is examined for evidence.
First, it is carefully inspected and photographed, with anything out of the ordinary, even the tiniest of scratches, noted as possible evidence, Mirusso said.
Investigators then work inside the vehicle. They unroll masking tape across the upholstery to pick up tiny bits of hair, fibers, dirt and other particles.
The vehicle also is carefully swabbed for traces of bodily fluid that could hold DNA.
"When you do DNA swabbing, you don't know what you'll find; you just hope you're right," he explained.
The three investigators spent a whole day processing the SUV, he recalled. The swabs and other possible crime scene evidence were taken to the Central Police Services forensic lab for analysis.
Then the team members began a long, anxious wait to hear the results.
It took a month before lab workers processed the swab from the ignition, found some DNA and got a match with the Bike Path Killer.
A lab worker telephoned Mirusso with the shocking news.
"You're not going to believe it," the worker told Mirusso.
"Really? Who was it?" the deputy asked. "They told me, and I was like, 'Wow. That's interesting.' "
Sheriff Timothy B. Howard announced the formation of a task force — made up of investigators from his department, along with some from Amherst, Buffalo and the State Police — to search for the Bike Path Killer and rapist. Two months later, Sanchez was arrested.
"It makes me very proud to say I work for the Erie County Sheriff's Department," he said.
Mirusso said his skills have come from the training and advice he receives from area crime scene investigators: retired Sheriff's Detective Tom Rich, Amherst Capt. Michael Melton, Depew Detective Steve Lehman and Hamburg Capt. A. Daniel Shea.
"I went to school with some of them, but if we have a problem [on a case], we'll call each other. . . . We set each other on the right direction."
This is not the first time Mirusso has been involved in a high-profile case. On Dec. 31, Mirusso narrowly escaped being stabbed while responding to a call about a mentally ill man making threats. Investigators said the man lunged at Mirusso with an 8-inch knife, causing him to fall down. His partner mistakenly believed Mirusso had been stabbed and opened fire, killing the man with the knife, authorities said.
"I've had a heck of a year," Mirusso said.
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N.Y. deputy honored for finding DNA leading to alleged Bike Path Killer