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How DNA technology is being used to solve property crimes

Closing cases like the mystery of “the Gypsy Hill murders” makes national news, but using DNA technology has the potential to solve even ‘mundane’ crimes like property theft

In early 2015, San Mateo County (Calif.) Sheriff Greg Munks — alongside a cadre of other law enforcement officials — held a press conference to announce that investigators had finally solved two cold-case murders dating all the way back to 1976. During an examination of DNA profiles of cold cases, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office crime lab worked with the Washoe County (Nev.) crime lab and the Oregon State Police to link the teens’ deaths to Rodney Halbower, a 66-year-old man who was serving time in Oregon for a variety of violent offenses.

During the press conference, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe called Halbower a serial killer and said it “is time to bring this man to justice for the murders we can prove right now” — the deaths of 14-year-old Tanya Blackwell and 18-year-old Veronica Cascio. Halbower is also suspected of killing three other young women — Paula Louise Baxter, Carol Lee Booth, and Denise Lampe — and his extradition to California all but closes those cases as well. 

Closing cases like the mystery of “the Gypsy Hill murders” makes national news, but using DNA technology has the potential to solve even ‘mundane’ crimes like property theft. Just last month, Gloucester Township (N.J.) Police Chief Harry Earle — flanked by about 20 other police leaders — held a press conference to announce a new program in which a plant-based DNA product provided by Applied DNA Sciences will help deter theft, as well as identify items recovered from burglaries. 

Putting Plant DNA on Property
Through the so-called DNA Home Asset Marking Program, residents of Camden County can purchase a small vial containing a fluorescing marking liquid that glows bright red under UV light, and has a unique botanical DNA code that is specific to each owner. 

According to the company, the DNA mark is nearly impossible to remove, and participants in the program are given signs and window decals warning would-be thieves that their property is marked with the plant-based DNA. Property owners need only use a very small amount of marking agent, so the little vial of liquid can mark dozens of items.

When marked valuables are lost or stolen and come into the hands of law enforcement, the law enforcement agency removes the sample and sends it to the Applied Sciences DNA laboratory for identification — at no cost to the law enforcement agency or the property owner.

During the June news conference, Chief Earle said that the program is “the modern version of engraving treasured items with the owner’s initials.” 

A Countywide Crime Deterrent
Chief Earle — who serves as president of the Camden County Police Chiefs Association — told PoliceOne that he first learned of the DNA marking and recovery technology at a meeting of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police (NJSACOP) earlier this year, and was immediately intrigued. He quickly moved to enlist the participation of as many agencies in Camden County as he could. 

“I thought that this would be something that not just Gloucester Township police could use. I thought that to make this really effective, we should have as many towns participate as possible, because it’s a real deterrent value when we say ‘we’re doing this as a whole county.’” 

Earle said that people in the community have been enthusiastically talking about the program in the month since its launch, and that his department is actively using their social media presence to encourage people in the community to think about how they would mark specific items which tend to be stolen and sometimes recovered by police.

In a message sent out via the agency’s Nixle page this week, residents were told, “This initiative will serve as a tremendous deterrent to those who commit theft and burglary not only in Gloucester Township, but also across the entire county and local area. The value of marking property will greatly assist officers when they recover property they believe to be stolen, such as jewelry, bicycles, sport equipment or electronics to name just a few of the possibilities.” 

Earle told PoliceOne, “We see a lot of found bicycles. We’re not sure if they’re stolen, but often we’ll have anywhere between 20 to 100 bicycles and we don’t know the owners. If you mark your bike with DNA we might be able to figure out who the owner is.”

Practicing What They Preach
Earle said that his agency is not only encouraging residents and business owners to participate in the program, but he and his officers are actively participating in it. Earle has purchased a marking kit for his own personal possessions, and the department is in the process of buying the product to mark important items in their inventory. 

“We’re going to practice what we’ve preached to the community. We’re going to mark our weapons and some other property that we have. All our valuable equipment — our sensitive equipment — will be marked with DNA as well,” Earle said. 

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