MADISON, Wis. — During what police say was a 20-year string of killings in Milwaukee, Walter Ellis left his DNA behind all along the way — everywhere but the one place where it might have saved a life.
Ellis should have given a DNA sample to the state crime databank during a prison stint in the early part of this decade, but he had another inmate pose as him, authorities say. As a result, when analysts tried to identify DNA in bodily fluids from one of the slayings in 2003, no matches turned up.
Investigators didn't connect Ellis to the crimes until this fall, when they seized genetic material from his toothbrush. By then, it was too late for the woman police say was Ellis' seventh and final victim.
"If they would have got his DNA when they were supposed to get it, maybe my cousin would still be here," said Sarah Stokes, whose cousin, 28-year-old prostitute Ouithreaun Stokes, was found beaten and strangled in an abandoned rooming house in 2007.
An Associated Press review found tens of thousands of DNA samples are missing from state databanks across the country because they were never taken or were lost. The missing evidence — combined with big backlogs at the nation's crime labs that result in samples sitting on shelves for years without being analyzed and entered into the databanks — is preventing investigators from cracking untold numbers of cases. And some of those gaps have had tragic consequences.
"If you got missing samples, some of those people are out there raping your wives and abducting and murdering your children this week," said former Charlottesville, Va., police Capt. J.E. Harding, who helped uncover missing samples in that state during a search for a serial rapist.
Crime lab supervisors, state police and prison officials blame the failure to collect samples on new and confusing laws and a lack of coordination among the many different law enforcement agencies and institutions responsible for taking DNA.
"I would just about guarantee you every state has an issue with this," said Lisa Hurst, who tracks DNA convictions for Gordon Thomas Honeywell, an organization that lobbies on public safety and biotechnology issues.
The AP review found 27 states either failed to collect some DNA samples or are unable to say whether they took one from every offender who owes one.
The case against Ellis, who is set to go trial this spring, prompted an audit in Wisconsin that found 12,000 convict samples are missing. The AP review further found that Illinois failed to get DNA from about 50,000 offenders, Colorado from 2,000, and Virginia from about 8,400.
Exactly how many samples are missing across the country is unknown. The National Institute of Justice estimated in 2003 that offenders owed up to 1 million uncollected samples and as many as 300,000 samples may be waiting for processing. The backlog grew to about 450,000 by 2008. The institute had no updated estimate of uncollected samples.
At least 13 states are dealing with more samples than they can handle.