By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“My initial reaction was, ‘Why would I want to speak with him?’” he says. But Safir, now CEO of Bode Technology and a lab contractor with the LAPD who analyzes rape kits, invited Scheck to his office. Scheck told him New York had 12,000 frozen rape kits, all involving sexual assaults in which no suspect had yet been found. “I said it was preposterous and he was wrong,” recalls Safir. It turned out to be much worse: They found 17,800. New York didn’t have enough analysts to process the kits, or the lab space to do it. So in 1999, Safir convinced then Mayor Rudy Giuliani to spend $12 million to send the rape evidence to private labs for testing.
The results were remarkable: about 2,000 “hits” — or DNA matches — leading to the solving of 154 cold rape cases, including the heinous attacks on two teenagers by serial rapist Frank Baylor.
Then, in the wake of 9/11, the Office of the Medical Examiner began testing 20,000 human-tissue samples recovered from the rubble of the World Trade Center. By 2006, New York was one of the few cities in the world performing Low Copy Number DNA profiling, which creates genetic profiles of offenders from as little as a few cells of skin — even from the sweat left in a fingerprint.
L.A. has never jumped wholeheartedly into the science of crime. It began falling behind in 1999, when then Chief Bernard Parks questioned the potency of DNA as a crime-fighting tool because the existing state database of offenders against which evidence could be matched was still too small to be useful.
In an interview with City Beat at the time, Parks asked, “Does that overwhelm or cause the system to disintegrate if you don’t have the people to analyze [the DNA evidence]? Then, once you do the analyzing, is the system in default because you don’t have a database to compare it with?”
A former LAPD detective supervisor told the National Commission for the Future of DNA Evidence that same year: “The Los Angeles Police Department, right now, if you didn’t have a suspect in custody and a court date, that thing is not going to get analyzed — whatever it is.’’
In 2002, however, Parks ordered the LAPD property division to preserve all rape-kit evidence after it was discovered that 1,100 kits had been inadvertently destroyed by LAPD — incredibly, to make room for new ones in the city’s overwhelmed freezers by destroying kits the police wrongly believed were past the statute of limitations.
Parks’ own brass did not even realize a new California law had passed on January 1, 2001, bumping the statute of limitations on some sexual-assault cases from six to 10 years. Recalls an appalled Cooley, “They didn’t pick up the phone and call the prosecutors” before the destruction began.
Because of Parks’ huge blunder, Weiss in 2002 called for immediate testing of all rape kits. The Los Angeles Police Commission approved his proposal that November. The freezers contained a growing backlog of all forms of forensic evidence, including 1,800 to 2,500 rape-kit cases.
One LAPD manager quipped at the time that “if this continues we will have freezers lined up to Blythe,” recalls former LAPD property-division manager Steve Johnson. What Parks should have done instead, Johnson says, was “go through and evaluate evidence, [find out] if it is useful or not.”
By 2002, Deputy District Attorney Lisa Khan was openly complaining that L.A. was behind Alabama, Virginia and New York in forensic DNA technology.
Chief Bratton took over in 2003 just in time to get a helping hand from California Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s $50 million “Cold Hit Program,” which was used to test evidence from 1,725 “stranger rapes” in Los Angeles. The special funding not only helped LAPD slog through frozen rape kits that had built up between 1995 and late 2003, but snared a number of extremely violent criminals.
The following year, Proposition 69 was passed by California voters, facilitating a vast expansion in the state database of genetic profiles taken from criminals by requiring cops to take DNA samples from convicted felons.
“Prop. 69 made the backlog rape kits that much more significant because [it created] a database to test it against,” says Cooley. “That is why we are at a critical phase now and everyone and their mother is talking” about it.
L.A. law-enforcement agencies spent the next few years in a big squabble over how to design and run their new $102 million crime lab — the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, next to Cal State L.A. A raging debate over how much space and equipment to provide for the burgeoning science of DNA sleuthing grew so intense that Cooley’s friend, crime writer James Ellroy — whose mother was murdered in a still-unsolved 1958 crime — urged the locals to place a much greater emphasis on DNA space, staff and equipment.
But Cooley says Baca and Bratton “clearly didn’t have their thinking caps on. They made a huge error” by downplaying the need for DNA labs and space. “The day they moved into the lab, they were already outdated.”
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