PHOTO COURTESY U.S. CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION
DNA-profiling breaks the case of the skin taker
This article first appeared in Law Officer magazine
Previously I introduced a hypothetical case involving the driver of a semi-trailer truck with a route that takes him through five states. Once or twice a year he picks up a young girl — a prostitute working a rest stop or a runaway hitchhiker — and eventually gets her into the back of his truck.
Once there, he chains her up, and over several days repeatedly rapes her and uses small fish hooks to peel the skin from every inch of her body. He keeps the skins as a trophy.
When the girl finally dies from shock and loss of blood, he picks a secluded wooded area along his route and buries the skinned body in the woods. After a heavy rainstorm, a father and son hunting deer in the deep woods come upon a skeletal hand sticking up from a grave and notify police.
In other earlier articles, I also discussed methods an investigative team of experts uses to identify an outdoor crime scene, conduct a forensic examination of skeletal remains and access DNA indexes in search of both the victim's and murderer's identities. In this column, I introduce fictional detective Anthony Capriati, aka the Cisco Kid, who solves the case.
All good detectives have a moniker given to them by other cops. Detective Capriati picked up his "Cisco Kid" nickname more than 25 years ago, and it stuck. Perhaps it came from his tendency to dress in all black: black suit, black shirt, black tie, black shoes and a black fedora complete with a black feather. Racing news tucked under the left arm. Black, pencil-thin mustache.
Other than his eccentric appearance, two traits distinguished Capriati from his peers: persistence and the ability to change his investigative methodology with the times.
Capriati had been on the skin-taker case since the day hunters found a woman's skeletal remains in the deep woods. He'd worked hard over the years to recruit and retain a variety of scientific experts from diverse fields — a forensic anthropologist, a forensic entomologist, a forensic odontologist and, of course, the medical examiner.
He attended all of the investigative seminars the department allowed and developed personal contacts at both the state and FBI crime laboratories. Capriati frequently contacted his informal "investigative team," and once or twice a year got them all together at a local restaurant for a meal.
The entire investigative team had spent days at the crime scene and attended the forensic autopsy, but even with their combined forensic and scientific skills, Capriati didn't have much to go on. The victim was white, female, about 5'4" tall and between the ages of 18 and 25. She'd been killed approximately a year before (probably in August or September), and a cutting instrument had made hundreds of marks on her bones. Capriati and his team held two other forensic clues: Mitochondrial DNA analysis from bone marrow produced a DNA-typing profile of the victim, and dental radiography provided a dental basis to establish identification if a comparison could be made with dental records.
Capriati was well acquainted with the FBI's DNA database CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), which links DNA typing from unresolved crimes with cases in multiple jurisdictions and also unknown forensic-typing profiles found at crime scenes. CODIS also features a missing-persons index, an unidentified-persons index and DNA profiles from relatives of missing persons that can be matched with found remains. Capriati submitted the DNA-typing profile to the FBI and used his contacts there to speed the process.
The first big break in the case came with a call from his contact at the FBI lab who advised him the DNA-typing profile he'd submitted was an almost certain match to Delores Milia, age 23, of Bridgeport, Conn. She'd been reported missing more than a year ago by her mother, Amanda Milia, and her mother had provided a DNA sample through the state to CODIS. With this information, Capriati kicked into high gear. Over the next few weeks he confirmed, through further DNA testing and with the mother's help in obtaining dental records, the skeletal remains found in the woods were in fact those of Delores Milia.
The Cisco Kid then concentrated on finding out everything he could about the victim.
He learned Milia and her mother lived in a city housing project.
No one knew where the father was; he'd been gone since Milia was 10.
Although neither Milia nor her mother worked, Milia was a full-time college student at a fairly expensive school.
The Cisco Kid dug deeper and learned Milia had been paying her tuition with financial aid and weekend prostitution gigs. Rather than walking the streets ("too dangerous," her friend told Capriati), Milia worked truck stops and rest areas along the major interstates.
Capriati knew he wasn't very good at interviewing hookers, so he turned to Ronnie Simmons, who worked vice and owed Capriati for favors over the years. Simmons said the girls worked the truck stops and rest areas from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m.; Capriati could come along while he investigated this aspect of the case.
Armed with a photograph of Milia, Simmons and Capriati went to every truck stop and rest area in a 200-mile radius. After a week, Capriati had what he wanted.
At two of the truck stops, working women recognized the photograph of Milia. They said she worked under the name of "Bambi" and was an amateur. Many of the truckers favored her because she looked like a "little girl." This caused resentment among the regulars because "Bambi" often went out of turn and cost the other girls money.
Simmons' main informant told him there was one truck driver in particular whom the girls avoided because he was "strange." Further, he drove a big rig with a crude drawing of a dragon on the back doors and Rhode Island plates. The regular girls had set up Milia by steering her to the dragon truck, telling her he paid more than the other truckers.
Armed with this information, the Cisco Kid coordinated a search of all weigh-station records for the previous June–September for semi-trailer trucks with Rhode Island plates, and cross-referenced this with Rhode Island's motor vehicle records.
The final list was shorter than Capriati anticipated. Although some were company names, others owned their own rigs. Capriati checked each name for priors and came up with Frank Shorter of Providence, R.I. Shorter had a long rap sheet for sex offenses.
Capriati decided to pay Shorter a visit.
Along with some Providence detectives, he set up surveillance at Shorter's ramshackle house in a run-down section on the outskirts of Providence. The semi-trailer truck with the red dragon on the back doors was parked in the yard. Capriati obtained search warrants for the truck, the house and Shorter.
When they hit the house, they found Jennifer Shorter and her four young children inside, but no Frank Shorter. Jennifer Shorter laughed when the Cisco Kid asked her where her husband was.
She said, "You're too late! The bastard died two months ago of liver disease, and I hope he rots in hell."
When Capriati opened the back doors of the semi, he immediately knew he had the right man. The inside smelled of death.
Steel eyebolts with fitted chains were fixed to the floor, hundreds of fishhooks of various sizes were scattered throughout and large slabs of dried human skin hung from the ceiling. Evidence technicians called to the scene found traces of human blood and other hideous things.
It was a long ride back home for Capriati. He'd solved the case and that of several other girls Shorter had killed, but he felt no satisfaction. As he fell asleep at night, he kept seeing the skeletal hand sticking out of the grave in the woods, and in his dreams, he heard the girls screaming.
But he kept that to himself.
All of us in law enforcement must develop a high level of expertise in both computer technology and forensics. The forensic science and computerized databases Capriati used to solve this case either didn't exist or weren't available to local law enforcement until relatively recently.
Capriati was able to change with the times and engage in the difficult task of developing new skill sets. In our series, Capriati is a detective, but all police officers are investigators. As science and technology advances, we need to stay ahead of the curve in order to better serve the public.
The next several columns discuss how investigators can use forensics to assist in solving sexual assault crimes.