Without leads in a violent attack that shook a West Ashley neighborhood last month, Charleston police turned to their newest tool for gathering evidence: a vacuum.
Coupled with detective work, the forensic clues gleaned with the high-tech device led the authorities to a man they said broke into a woman's home and sexually assaulted her.
Filiciano Jermaine Smith, 28, a Charleston resident convicted last year in another break-in, now faces charges of criminal sexual conduct, burglary, kidnapping and unlawful possession of a firearm.
Chief Greg Mullen of the Charleston Police Department said the victim could tell only that her assailant was a black man. Detectives had no other clues at the investigation's start.
But the special wet vacuum, which the city recently received through a $50,000 federal grant under the Violence Against Women Act, changed that, he said. The M-Vac system collects trace amounts of DNA and other evidence when traditional methods might fail.
It was the first time Charleston police used the tool.
After getting the test results from a lab on Thursday, officers arrested Smith.
"This was a true whodunit investigation," Mullen said Friday. "This was a random act. ... It created quite a bit of fear."
The victim told officers she was awakened between 2:30 and 4 a.m. May 22 to the sight of an intruder inside her Chadwick Drive house in the Old Windermere neighborhood. She was attacked.
Mullen called the case of "stranger rape" a rare occurrence that demanded his agency's resources to set residents' minds at ease.
Investigators fanned out in the community to talk with people and search for evidence. They set up surveillance cameras.
They theorized that a rash of car burglaries in the community lately was somehow linked to the assault. Several had happened within a half-mile of the woman's home.
Unlocked cars, homes and guns likely made the neighborhood enticing to miscreants, the police chief said.
"Criminals are coming into communities they know are easy targets," he said. "They are … not only breaking into cars but committing violent, horrific crimes that are impacting lives."
Evidence from the break-ins led police to a suspect a day after the home invasion, Mullen said, but the man was eliminated from playing a role in the attack.
Meanwhile, experts collected evidence with the vacuum and sent the samples to Richland County's forensics laboratory. Most South Carolina police departments use the State Law Enforcement Division for such testing, but that lab is prone to backlogs.
Analysts worked over the Memorial Day week and returned the results Tuesday, Mullen said. They were confirmed Thursday. Within two hours, patrol officers arrested Smith on America Street on the peninsula. He had a gun, the chief said.
The felon was first arrested in Charleston in July 2015, when the police said he broke into a Cannon Street home and lived there for a few days, a report stated. A resident returned to find the home in disarray, a missing TV and Smith's wallet lying on the couch. Cars parked outside also had been pilfered of valuables.
Smith pleaded guilty May 13, 2016, to third-degree burglary and was sentenced to a year of probation. It was not immediately clear when that period ended. Smith was not listed as a current probationer in a state database.
He also has convictions for receiving stolen goods, tampering with a vehicle and resisting arrest.
Authorities think Smith was involved in more crimes in the city, though Mullen said he hasn't been charged in others.
The chief encouraged residents to lock their cars, close their garage doors and stash their weapons in safe places. So far this year, he said, 26 guns have been stolen from unlocked cars and likely used in later crimes.
"We've seen kidnappings, robberies, carjackings and now criminal sexual conduct," he said. "Harden your neighborhoods."