09/08/2004

Grant Would Give Old Cases Another Look

Pinellas County, Fla. Sheriff's Office is applying for federal funds to identify bodies using DNA technology.

By Chris Tisch, St. Petersburg Times

Largo, FL - The woman's body bobbed to the top of the waters off Safety Harbor on March 4, 1961. Her killer had tied a 15-pound cinder block to her feet, but it didn't keep her down.

Homicide detectives never identified her. She was buried at a Clearwater cemetery as Jane Doe.

Forty-three years later, Pinellas detectives exhumed the woman from her grave. They took a femur bone from her coffin and shipped it to the FBI, where lab analysts will cull the woman's DNA.

Meanwhile, over in Polk County, investigators pulled a cotton swab over the inner cheek of a 63-year-old woman whose mother, Phoebe Callahan, mysteriously vanished from her Ruskin mobile home park in the summer of 1960. That woman's DNA also was shipped to the FBI.

Is Callahan the Jane Doe found in the waters off Safety Harbor? Investigators should know in a matter of months after the lab compares Jane Doe's DNA with that of Callahan's daughter.

Even if they are not found to be the same person, both sets of DNA will be entered into an FBI database of missing people. Both DNA samples will be compared to that of other Jane Does and family members of missing people from across the country.

Unearthing graves, analyzing DNA and reopening cold cases is time-consuming and sometimes very expensive work.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which has 39 unsolved homicides and 22 missing persons cases still open on its books, is applying for a federal grant that will pay the costs associated with reactivating old unsolved cases.

"That's 61 cases that we would be reviewing in relation to the grant where we could use DNA to develop leads and hopefully solve the case," said Sgt. Mike Madden, supervisor of the Sheriff's Office's homicide unit.

Sheriff's detectives are hoping to get a three-year grant that will allow them to pay for expensive lab tests and investigators' overtime for working on the cold cases. The agency probably will ask for at least $600,000 in federal money over that three-year period.

The grant the Sheriff's Office seeks is offered by the National Institute of Justice, which is part of the U.S. Justice Department. The money is part of President Bush's DNA Initiative, a program started in the spring of 2003 that offers the nation's police agencies more than $1-billion over five years for DNA investigations.

The Sheriff's Office will have to compete with other agencies to get the money.

Madden said the Sheriff's Office hopes to apply new DNA technology to 10 old, unsolved cases per year. While the FBI does the DNA testing for free, a backlog of cases means investigators have to wait up to a year for results, Madden said.

If detectives want to get DNA results more rapidly, they have to hire a private company to do the testing, at a cost that can run more than $10,000 a case. Combined with other investigative costs, travel expenses for detectives and overtime, the investigations can become very costly very quickly.

But there can be rewarding payoffs, such as in a case in the Florida Keys last week.

Using DNA technology, investigators identified skeletal remains found 28 years ago as that of a 15-year-old Boca Raton runaway.

The teen, Stephanie Sempell, was last seen by her mother in March 1976. Though Sempell's family reported her disappearance to authorities, the police never placed a missing person report in their records.

Nine months after Sempell's disappearance, police in the Florida Keys found skeletal remains scattered in a wooded area. The remains were unidentifiable at the time and investigators had no way of knowing about Sempell's disappearance in Boca Raton.

The remains were kept in a cardboard box in the Monroe County Sheriff's Office for more than two decades. In 1997, Sempell's older sister, Kim Quinn, began looking into the case.

Quinn, 50, then discovered that police didn't have a missing person report for Sempell. She filed a report, which was entered into a national database and flagged as a possible match to the remains found in the Keys.

Investigators took DNA from Sempell's mother and matched it to the skeletal remains.

Investigators are now looking into how Sempell died. Her remains were found with a black T-shirt tied around her head, possibly as a blindfold, though the bones showed no signs of a violent death.

The case is similar in many ways to Callahan's disappearance in 1960. The 44-year-old mother of four, a tomato factory worker, lived in a Ruskin mobile home park with her husband, who told her children on June 9, 1960, that their mother had run away with another man.

The children never saw her again. Callahan's husband died four years later and, over the years, the family began to suspect he had something to do with Callahan's disappearance.

A few years ago, Callahan's granddaughter, Susan Sprayberry, began to look into the case.

"I could never understand how that could happen," said Sprayberry, 41, an account executive for a marketing company from West Palm Beach. "How can she just disappear and nobody knows what happened to her?"

Sprayberry began researching missing person information over the Internet and found information on the Sheriff's Office's Web site about the Safety Harbor Jane Doe. Though that woman was found in the water nine months after Callahan went missing, and investigators believe she had been dead only a matter of days when she was found, Sprayberry thought it was worth a shot.

She contacted sheriff's detectives, who she said were eager to see if Callahan was their Jane Doe.

"It's a possibility it's her, though a little bit remote," Madden said. "This is somewhat viable to follow up on."

The woman found in the water wore a one-piece bathing suit but carried no identification. Newspapers wrote articles about the discovery of the body, but no one came forward to claim her as a family member or friend.

Jane Doe's body was in rough shape when it was found, so Callahan's family members would not be able to make a match through photos of the body. Besides the rope tied to the block, another was tied around her neck. She also suffered head injuries, Madden said.

Investigators exhumed Jane Doe in January and sent the femur to the FBI. They also took DNA from two of Callahan's children. Now the family is just waiting.

"I know that it's a possibility that it's not her," Sprayberry said. "But if it's her, then my search is over with. I just want to put her to rest. It would bring my mother peace."

The Sheriff's Office is investigating the Callahan case on regular time and is waiting out the FBI's long turnaround.

But for the homicide unit to really rev up cold case investigations, Madden said, the detectives need money for more rapid testing and overtime. The unit, which also investigates rapes, suicides and other violent crimes, has seven detectives, a corporal and a sergeant.

Since 1990, the Sheriff's Office has investigated 199 homicides, and only about a dozen of those remain unsolved. That's a very good solve rate, which Madden partially credits to emerging DNA technology over that time.

However, detectives from previous decades who didn't have DNA technology did not fare so well. In fact, 17 of the agencies' 39 unsolved homicides are from the 1980s - the decade before DNA testing.

If the agency gets the grant, there are plans to start exhuming the bodies of two more unidentified homicide victims, one who died in 1981, the other in 1988. Though years have passed since their deaths, investigators hope identifying the victims could jump-start a successful murder investigation.

"If you can't identify your victim, you have a hard time finding a starting point on your homicide investigation," Madden said.

Detectives also will pore over old cases to see if tiny fragments of blood or hair that were too small for DNA testing years ago could now prove valuable.

The money would also pay for taking DNA samples from family members of people reported missing in Pinellas County, including the high-profile cases of Rosemary Christensen and Brenda Starr, Madden said.

Though DNA is most often thought of as being unique to one person, DNA also can be compared to family members to make a match, as long as the family members are from the mother's side.

The FBI has nearly 2-million DNA samples in its databases, which are growing by thousands of samples per day. But the agency's National Missing Persons DNA Database, which is in its earlier stages, has only a few hundred samples, said Special Agent Ann Todd, the FBI laboratories spokeswoman.

DNA from the remains of 175 John and Jane Does were in the system, as were DNA samples from the maternal relatives of 349 missing people, Todd said.

Despite its youth, that database was used last week to uncover the identity of the bones found in the Florida Keys 28 years ago.

Todd said as long as police departments and sheriff's offices from around the country keep submitting DNA samples, the database will keep growing, and more cases will be solved.

"We certainly applaud the efforts of the sheriff's department and we would encourage other departments to follow suit," Todd said. "You just can't put a price tag on the value of the database and the service that it provides and the peace of mind, providing closure to families by identifying remains."

Madden said the deadline for the grant application is next month, though detectives won't know until next year if they will get any money to investigate the cold cases.

"Receiving the grant would help tremendously with the costs associated with expedient DNA testing, which could enable us to develop leads in these cold cases," Madden said.

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