11/10/2004

Saved By an Eyelash? Cold Case Gets a Hot Tip

A Garden Grove, Calif. inquiry shows that as science advances, items saved years ago by meticulous investigators are helping to nab slaying suspects.

By Claire Luna, The Los Angeles Times

Extracted from a slain prostitute's sock, the eyelash sat frozen for 15 years.

A crime scene investigator scouring the Garden Grove street where Kiva Marie Bible was killed in 1986 saved the eyelash and dozens of other pieces of evidence hoping that someday, science would connect the clues to the killer.

Fifteen years later, a retired police investigator working on cold cases came across the store of evidence and dispatched it to a crime lab for analysis. Nothing clicked until technicians processed the DNA in the eyelash, which police say matched a former Orange County resident named James Suknaich.

Suknaich, a 45-year-old parolee who has served time for assault and rape, is set to stand trial in November in Orange County Superior Court. The case is Garden Grove's first cold-case homicide involving DNA.

"These old cases aren't in the spotlight and no one's breathing down your neck, but it's important to keep going back to them," said Garden Grove Police Sgt. Scott Watson.

"People have moved on, but it doesn't mean you should stop looking," he said.

Although Watson and other police officers declined to speak specifically about the Suknaich case, they said that the recipe of patience and persistence used to solve it followed the pattern of their other cold cases.

Garden Grove provided more manpower to handling cold cases -- assigning four detectives and hiring two retired policemen to work part time -- a few years ago after making past homicides a bigger priority.

After compiling a database that included information on every homicide in the city's history, including more than 50 unsolved homicides, police pored though microfilm and stored evidence to detail everything they had on the crimes. Watson started searching the case files for what could be resurrected to solve them.

The passage of time both helps and hurts cold cases, Watson said. Witnesses are often more willing to talk to police several years later, especially in killings related to gangs and drugs. But when too much time goes by, police sometimes track people down only to find they have died.

Where lapsed time helps most is with DNA matches. Science is advancing so quickly that police send objects back to the county crime lab every three or four years in the hope that something new will click. And the clues aren't always as small as an eyelash.

Garden Grove's evidence inventory includes about 20 vehicles, dozens of items of clothing and a couple of pinball machines. The guiding philosophy: What isn't evidence today could very likely be evidence tomorrow.

"We save everything," Watson said. "They're busier than heck at that crime lab because of all the stuff we send."

Beer bottles fruitlessly dusted for fingerprints 20 years ago can be sent to the crime lab for DNA tests around the mouth. In one case, the crime lab tested a front door stored for more than a decade and for the first time could read the three fingerprints pressed upon it. A car that Garden Grove continued to send back for testing brought a DNA match the third time.

Speaking of criminals, "You never know what's going to come back and haunt you 20 years later," Watson said.

Prosecutors believe Suknaich stabbed Bible to death while she was naked, then redressed her in a purple leotard, green pants and brown socks.

Then, they say, he zipped up her calf-high leather boots, stuffed cotton in her mouth and nostrils and put cotton over the five stab wounds before tossing her body in the middle of Lucille Street, a few houses down from the one where police believe she was killed.

The original crime scene investigator told prosecutor Larry Yellin that he took extra care combing Bible's clothes for clues because she had been reclothed after her death, the prosecutor said.

"He was very meticulous, preserving the evidence in ways I wish I saw in every case," Yellin said. "He had the feeling that someday, it would pay off."

Getting the genetic code match is when the work begins. DNA found on a dead prostitute could belong to a client or a killer. In Suknaich's case, he has said that he was in the house where Bible was killed but knows nothing about who killed her.

"I was in the bedroom smoking crack. I came out, she was dead," Suknaich told police in an interview, according to a transcript from the preliminary hearing in November 2003.

Suknaich's attorney, Deputy Alternate Defender Michael Camber, declined to discuss the case.

After the crime lab showed a match between Suknaich and the DNA in the eyelash, police started researching what Suknaich was doing in 1986. At the time, his sister lived on the street where Bible's body was found. Five months before the slaying, Suknaich had raped a woman in Buena Park at knifepoint after climbing naked through her living room window.

Months after the slaying, he was arrested on the rape charge.

He served four years of a 10-year sentence for the rape after being convicted in 1988. He then moved to Garland, Texas, then years later moved to rural northern Ohio, where he was arrested for the Garden Grove killing in February 2003.

He had originally come to live in Orange County in 1984, when he was paroled from a Texas prison after being convicted of attacking a 22-year-old bartender with a knife.

The prosecutor in the Bible slaying credited law enforcement's work in connecting Suknaich to the Orange County slaying, even after 15 years.

"Without the foresight of the original investigator and the diligence of the current detectives to pursue every lead, however remote, this case might have never been solved," Yellin said.

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