By Carrie Antlfinger
MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee cold case detectives Gilbert Hernandez and Katherine Hein knew the slayings of seven women over a 21-year period were connected by DNA, they just didn't know whose.
So their cold case unit cast a wide net, sifting through thousands of cases and testing the genetic fingerprints of more than 100 people before they finally made an arrest.
Walter Ellis, 49, was charged this month with killing seven women between 1986 and 2007 after investigators determined his DNA matched DNA left on the victims. But Hernandez wasn't optimistic about Ellis - having been burned with other leads- until he called the unemployed laborer to see if he'd submit to genetic testing.
"He wasn't making himself available, which is making me a little excited now," Hernandez told The Associated Press.
When Ellis did agree to meet, he didn't show, so detectives got a search warrant for his apartment and seized his toothbrush. A few days later, the crime lab called - Ellis' DNA matched the DNA found on the women.
"I literally danced across the fourth floor screaming," Hernandez said. "I was excited, it did hit home with me. ... I've never, never felt so proud of this unit and this department what we just accomplished. It was like winning the lottery."
Ellis' Sept. 5 arrest at a suburban Milwaukee motel marked the culmination of an intense four-month-long investigation that started with Hernandez and Hein pushing for more help.
Milwaukee police Chief Ed Flynn agreed and set up a task force that added Lt. Keith Balash, who investigated Milwaukee's last serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer; two Marquette University interns and three of the department's most talented detectives.
They were trying to locate a needle in a dusty, old haystack. Was the guy still in Milwaukee? Was he still alive? How many more was he connected to?
They had no solid suspects in any of the deaths - a rarity even in cold cases. They also were tracking down witnesses who moved away or had to remember details from decades ago.
They each concentrated on certain suspects - sometimes even engaging in friendly competition on whose suspect did it - and felt numerous times they were on the right track. Other times, Hernandez, a 33-year veteran, worried he would retire before the case was solved.
They sifted through 500 names in case files, 15,000 sexual assault cases spanning 23 years, 6,000 prostitute-related investigations, and 2,000 arrests in the geographic areas where bodies were discovered over a 15-year period.
They narrowed the lists and determined who had DNA in the state database that the unknown profile would have already been compared against. They collected DNA from suspects suggested by tipsters, witnesses and neighbors, and from people who committed crimes in the area of the deaths. Some were eliminated because they were in jail or even dead when some of the murders occurred. They submitted and resubmitted 200 samples of DNA and old evidence to the lab, Balash said.
Days and nights were spent examining cases in an office where walls are covered in case charts, crime scene images and photos of the victims from when they were alive. There's a vase of red roses from a citizen and on the door, a quote from 18th century French philosopher Voltaire: "To the living, we owe respect. To the dead, we owe the truth."
Ellis' name started appearing on lists the task force generated of potential suspects and a list by the FBI's Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, a national repository in which violent crimes are compared and analyzed by experts.
In late August, DNA found on seven slain women showed up on an eighth victim and Ellis' name was in her file. That's when Hernandez called Ellis.
Ellis, also known as "Wadell," is charged with killing seven women. His semen was found on six women and blood on another, according to court documents.
His DNA also was found on two others. Investigators believe eight victims were prostitutes who were strangled, although one was stabbed in the neck as well and one was a runaway whose throat was cut.
Ellis hasn't been charged in the deaths of the runaway and one of the suspected prostitutes. Balash wouldn't comment whether they thought Ellis' was responsible for those.
About 10 more cases are awaiting analysis at the crime lab.
"I don't think there's anyone here who thinks Walter Ellis only killed these women," Hein said. "None of us believe that. Our job is then to find out who else could he possibly have hurt and who else has gotten away from him."
Ellis' attorney Russell Jones said his client maintains his innocence. Jones said he wants to verify that it is Ellis' DNA on the victims, but if it is, it doesn't mean Ellis killed them.
A preliminary hearing is Sept. 23.
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"It wasn't just luck, there was obviously a lot of hard work," Balash said. "Some of the most experienced investigators managed to pull this off in less than four months."