Center helping cops nab bad guys
The thief slipped into the shed behind the Johns Island outreach center while no one was looking. Before anyone realized he was there, the intruder helped himself to $3,500 worth of tools, lawn-care equipment and other goods.
Then he disappeared, leaving police with no witnesses and Our Lady of Mercy Outreach with a sizable loss.
"We had no leads," Charleston Police Lt. Charles Hawkins said. "Burglary cases like this are very hard to solve."
Crime Scene Technician Anita Maestas searched the shed and found a lone spot of blood on a cardboard box. That proved to be key, as investigators used the blood to develop a genetic profile that led police to a suspect.
The case is among more than seven dozen local property crimes solved through a novel DNA analysis program that pairs area police with the Marshall University Forensic Science Center in West Virginia. Investigators from Charleston, North Charleston, Charleston County and Mount Pleasant are participating in the project, which uses genetic evidence to solve burglaries, car break-ins and other property crimes.
The project already has exceeded expectations, said Judy Gordon, director of the Charleston police forensic services division. Of the 207 cases sent to Marshall for evaluation, 92 have resulted in matches with known criminals, a nearly 50 percent success rate. That evidence led to 20 arrests, and more are pending, she said.
"We didn't think we would be this successful, with such a high rate of (DNA database) hits," Gordon said. "It certainly speaks to how powerful the (DNA) database has become."
Police focused on cases in which criminals left behind blood, cigarette butts, clothing or other evidence that could contain their genetic fingerprint. The university's lab tests this evidence for DNA and, if successful, forwards the results to the State Law Enforcement Division for verification. SLED then enters the genetic profile into the national DNA database for convicted offenders.
Locally, Charleston police have been the biggest beneficiaries so far, with 55 hits out of the 114 cases submitted for analysis. The program also produced suspect matches in 18 cases for the Sheriff's Office, 12 for North Charleston police and seven for Mount Pleasant police, Gordon said.
The Our Lady of Mercy Outreach burglary is among the more fruitful cases solved. The suspect in the burglary, 50-year-old Jeffrey McCants of Johns Island, was already in jail on other charges, police said. When investigators searched McCants' home, they found a variety of stolen items linked to other crimes as well, including thefts in Tennessee and Georgia, Hawkins said.
The program also helped the Sheriff's Office nab another suspect accused of breaking into Tasty Wok in West Ashley and Stono Market on Johns Island in 2007, sheriff's Maj. John Clark said. In each case, the thief smashed a window to get in and then broke into the business' cash register. Blood left at the crime scenes produced DNA evidence that led deputies to a 40-year-old suspect with a history of burglary and drug charges, authorities said.
"The program has lived up to everything they said it would be," Clark said. "Anything that helps us put bad guys in jail, we are all for."
In the past, police departments have had few places to turn to analyze DNA evidence from property crimes. Many state crime labs are too overburdened testing evidence from homicides, rapes and other violent offenses to bother with property crimes.
The Marshall program, funded by the National Institute of Justice, aims to assist crime labs in this area. Lowcountry police agencies are in their second year with the program and hope to continue. Police in Miami-Dade, Fla., and Huntington, W.Va., also have worked with the Marshall program, which has sought to assess the effectiveness of using DNA to solve property crimes in large, medium and small metropolitan areas, said Jason Chute, technical leader for the Marshall Forensic Science Center.
"At each level, we are having success," Dr. Terry Fenger, director of the Marshall Forensic Science Center, said. "Overall, I think we are all happy with the results."