Northern Calif. police use DNA database to solve cold cases

By Marisa Lagos
The San Francisco Chronicle

SAN JOSE, Calif. Years ago, Bettina Self stopped hoping that her big sister's rape and slaying would ever be solved.

Her sister, Ines Sailer, was a 23-year-old German citizen traveling and working in the United States in 1980 when she was attacked and killed after leaving a New Year's Eve party on Pierce Street in San Francisco.

Sailer's friends assumed she had walked the 21/2 miles home. But the next day, her body was found in a carport in an east San Jose cul-de-sac. Sailer had been raped and shot several times with a small-caliber handgun.

It was two weeks before the German Consulate in San Francisco called Sailer's family with news of her death, and in the ensuing days they received little information about the crime or the investigation.

Months passed, then years. Sailer's younger sister married, raised two boys and became a grandmother.

Her family kept a box with the little they knew about the stalled investigation, including letters from the German Consulate and Sailer's autopsy report. But eventually, they became resigned to the idea that Sailer's murderer would never be found.

Then, last December, Sailer's parents, who live in Karben, Germany, received another letter from the German Consulate in San Francisco. The letter asked the family to call the San Jose Police Department or check its homicide unit's Web site.

Self, now 42, went online that evening and couldn't believe what she saw.

Over a picture of her sister, next to a short synopsis of her horrible death, the word "solved" flashed, over and over again.

"I was breathless, seeing the picture, with the flashing, 'solved,' " Self said by phone from Germany. "I was crying - it's something that takes you back in a flash; time seems to disappear, and from one second to the next, you are in exactly the same (place) you were when you heard it."

Sailer had been dead 24 years when San Jose police Detectives Tommy Morales and Pete Ramirez reopened the case in 2005, the year the department created its cold case unit.

Working with the agency's crime scene investigators, the pair dug through boxes of evidence kept for years in a police warehouse.

They discovered that physical evidence, including semen, had been found on Sailer's body and clothes and preserved in the case files for nearly a quarter-century. When the Santa Clara County crime lab ran the evidence through the state DNA database, it came up with a hit: convicted killer Martin Forte, who had lived in the Bay Area around the time of Sailer's murder.

But Morales and Ramirez, seasoned homicide investigators, knew that would not be enough to convict Forte of the decades-old crime.

So they dug further, through their evidence and court files, looking for something that could tie Forte, now 61, to Sailer's death.

They found that just three months after Sailer's death, Forte had been arrested for and later convicted of a series of unrelated crimes, including the murder of a Bay Area couple and several armed robberies in the region.

Ballistics tests matched the gun used in those crimes to the firearm used to kill Sailer.

The detectives researched Forte's habits at the time and found that he frequented the area where Sailer's body had been found. Detectives believe he killed Sailer elsewhere, then dumped her body in San Jose. It was enough for prosecutors to file charges.

Forte has pleaded not guilty and is expected to appear at a preliminary hearing next month. It is a scene that could play out more often, law enforcement experts say, if police would dedicate more manpower and money to following up on DNA hits.

State and federal agencies have poured millions of dollars into updating DNA databases and crime lab equipment in recent years. But without a follow-up investigation, a lead stops at a DNA hit.

Compounding the problem, the experts say, is that there is no agency tasked with tracking the hits once they are made and therefore no way of knowing the true success rate for these costly databases, which mainly serve as a repository for the DNA of prisoners and parolees.

"For years we've kept pretending that if we just dump money into the crime labs, all the problems will be solved," said Roc Harmon, an Alameda County prosecutor and DNA expert who estimates that less than half of DNA hits ever make it to prosecutors' desks. "What's happening right now isn't that surprising. The labs are producing an untold number of DNA hits, and they are piling up behind everyone."

In California, city and county crime labs have been assisted by the voter-approved Proposition 69, which greatly expanded whose DNA was eligible for government databases and set aside some money for developing that system. The database - and with it, investigators' workloads - is only going to increase: By 2009, any adult arrested for a felony offense regardless of whether there is a conviction will be eligible to have his or her DNA entered into a database.

But, save for some short-term federal and state grants, most police departments and prosecutors have been given no extra money to investigate these leads. Meanwhile, some jurisdictions, including Santa Clara County, are cutting their resources.

"I think it was the greatest thing going that voters agreed to pay all this money for DNA tracking," said Oakland police Lt. Ersie Joyner, who oversees that agency's homicide unit. "Unfortunately, the way the legislation is written, it doesn't look at the trickle-down effect. We have people ... analyzing the data, but we don't have anybody to do the legwork, which is very time-consuming. That's a big hurdle."

San Jose, which in addition to its two full-time detectives has set up a Web site to solicit the public's help, is unique.

Most law enforcement agencies, in the Bay Area and beyond, require their detectives to juggle new and old cases at the same time, Harmon said.

San Jose's homicide chief, Lt. JR Gamez, said he was motivated to create the unit because he knew how easy it was for older cases to be lost in the shuffle when newer crimes crossed investigators' desks. Gamez, like other cold-case investigators and prosecutors, argues that it's just as important to solve a 20-year-old homicide as one that happened yesterday. Even with investigators dedicated to cold cases, however, the workload can be overwhelming.

The two San Jose detectives have about 130 cold cases on their plate; they have made arrests or secured convictions in 10 cases since the detail was formed 21/2 years ago.

All told, about 200 unsolved killings sit in the department's files, and about 26 additional homicides occur annually - far fewer than in other large Bay Area cities.

Other jurisdictions many of which offered only partial statistics when asked about their success in investigating cold cases appear to have mixed results.

Two investigators and a technician at the Alameda County Sheriff's Office are dedicated to working cold cases, as long as they don't have a hot case, said Sgt. Scott Dudek.

The department is investigating 18 cold cases out of 53 that are unsolved; eight cold cases have been solved in the past five years.

Crime labs for the San Francisco and Oakland police departments have dozens of promising DNA hits - more than 200 in Oakland - which could lead to arrests if they are pursued, officials say. Neither department would disclose how those cases are assigned.

But Joyner of Oakland acknowledged that it's difficult for the already overworked department to dedicate many resources to old cases when so many new ones pour in every week. Oakland had 148 killings in 2006, the highest total in more than a decade.

Down the Peninsula, Santa Clara County officials in June cut funding for the District Attorney's Office's cold case unit, which has helped solved 14 stale homicides since its inception in 2004. The cuts are not expected to affect San Jose police investigations.

San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, however, recently decided to increase her office's commitment to cold cases by creating a special unit led by prosecutor Braden Woods.

It's the first in the office's history. Spokeswoman Deb Mesloh said the cause was deemed important because the Police Department lab is generating one or two DNA hits per week. San Francisco police officials, who did not answer questions about how the cases are assigned, said the department believes there are 130 cases with promising DNA hits.

Whatever their funding, Harmon said, individual police agencies are responsible for making these cases a priority.

"It has to be a local commitment," he said. "Where there's a will, there's a way."

There are many reasons to probe beyond a DNA hit, experts say.

For one, the lack of investigative resources has led to false convictions in other places, said San Francisco Public Defender Bicka Barlow, a DNA expert. "(A DNA match) is just the start," agreed San Jose's Sgt. Ramirez. "You can liken it to finding a fingerprint at a crime scene - all that tells you is the person was there at the time."

Even if the lead is solid, experts say, it's only that: a lead. Gamez, the head of San Jose's homicide unit, says investigators then have to "work backward."

Depending on the case, they begin with very different pieces of evidence.

Generally, experts agree, sexual assault cases are the easiest to pursue because there often is biological evidence left on the victim, as in the case of Sailer.

"Sometimes, even with an attempted sexual assault, the gals will struggle, and they get skin under their fingernails," Gamez said. "Anything we can resubmit for evidence, we do."

Cigarette butts can also be the linchpin in old cases, said San Jose crime scene Officer Mike Hoopes.

Evidence is saved in a variety of ways and forms, depending on the case, Morales said. It ranges from old sheets and carpets to clothes and fingernail clippings, and is often frozen to preserve biological evidence.

Morales said most evidence in older cases was frozen years ago to preserve blood types; now investigators can defrost it and remove DNA.

The investigations follow a similar trajectory after the samples are identified.

Police hand the samples to a crime lab, which analyzes the evidence and generates a DNA profile. The lab then runs the profile through as many as three databases, depending on the jurisdiction local, state and national and comes back to police with the hits.

That's when the detectives' work really begins.

They revisit hundreds of pages of notes, interviews and evidence from the initial investigation - all maintained in old case files - and attempt to push past the things that stumped their colleagues years ago.

"It's a very different type of investigation," said Ramirez. "When you first start a case, you come in and get firsthand information there at the scene, you talk with witnesses. With cold cases, you review someone else's work."

Experts and victims' advocates say it's also important to pursue old cases so authorities can prevent future crimes.

While many of the suspects identified by DNA are already behind bars - the reason their DNA was in the system in the first place - others are free. In 2004 in Oakland, for example, a paroled rapist was identified by DNA evidence after sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl in January.

But police didn't follow up on the match until December, by which time a second victim had been assaulted. The suspect, Kalonji Lee, pleaded guilty to both crimes this year.

Another incentive is that the cases keep piling up, Harmon added.

"The longer it takes to commit to this, the longer the list will be," he said.

For Bettina Self, Sailer's sister, the argument for pursuing these cases is simple: The flashing "solved" meant the end of a nightmare that has spanned two countries and more than a quarter-century.

"All of us are extremely grateful that they are not giving up on the people who died," she said. "You don't realize that you kept carrying it around with you. It is worth bringing back the pain, the memories. It's important to know that the person who did something wrong will actually have to pay for it. No matter how long it takes, you do have a feeling that justice will prevail."

Other cold-case hits for San Jose police

Sandra Howard, a 23-year-old newlywed, was found raped and stabbed to death in her San Jose home on April 21, 1975. In January, Edward George Dee, 58, who is serving a life sentence for an unrelated sexual assault, was charged with her murder after DNA evidence and a follow-up investigation indicated that Dee, a stranger, had been at the scene. A plea hearing is scheduled for Aug. 28.

In 2005, San Jose police used DNA evidence to link Luis Perez, 42, to the 1989 sexual assault and killing of 61-year-old San Jose resident Nestora McCune. An investigation turned up evidence connecting Perez to two other unsolved cases in which Bay Area women were sexually assaulted and killed. Perez, in prison for other crimes, was charged with McCune's killing, as well as the 1984 murder of Florence Berrospe, 50, of San Jose. He pleaded guilty to the murders and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In January, San Francisco prosecutors also charged him with the Oct. 23, 1996, murder of 36-year-old Maryann Tolosa. He pleaded guilty to that crime as well and was sentenced in February to life with parole.

San Jose resident Lavona McLaughlin, 35, was found dead on a supermarket loading dock on South First Street in San Jose on April 28, 1994. Over more than a decade, investigators conducted more than 50 interviews, with many people pointing toward one person as a possible suspect. DNA evidence, however, indicated otherwise. In September 2006, that evidence was matched to Darryl Glen Shearer, now 45, who was serving time for an Oakland shooting. He is scheduled to enter a plea in the McLaughlin case in September.

To see San Jose Police Department's cold cases, go to www.sjpd.org/homicide/cold case02.htm.

Copyright 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.

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