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Criminals beware: New DNA lab open for business

Chad Summerfield, a DNA technical leader, preps DNA samples at the Pinellas County forensic laboratory in Largo.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Chad Summerfield, a DNA technical leader, preps DNA samples at the Pinellas County forensic laboratory in Largo.

LARGO — Police had no idea who had broken into the St. Petersburg beauty supply store in September.

All they knew was that somebody got on the roof of Salon Centric and squeezed through the air-conditioning ductwork to swipe nail drills, professional hair driers, makeup, computers and a cash register, all worth at least $5,000.

No fingerprints, no witnesses, no surveillance video.

"We had no evidence," said St. Petersburg burglary Detective Ricardo Lopez.

When store employees re-entered the salon, however, they noticed an energy drink can had been left on an empty shelf.

Turns out, the guy who broke in had been thirsty, Lopez said.

Bingo.

Crime scene technicians shipped the can to Pinellas County's new DNA lab.

For years, county law enforcement agencies have sent their DNA evidence to the regional Florida Department of Law Enforcement lab in Tampa.

But the state lab, which also does testing for several other counties, has serious backlogs. In 2006, when law enforcement and court officials suggested Pinellas County get its own DNA lab, the FDLE lab had a turnaround time of 169 days.

Without much fanfare, the Pinellas lab finally opened about a year ago.

"It was definitely something that the entire judicial community realized was needed," said Janel Borries, the lab's lead DNA analyst.

The 4,500-square-foot lab at the Medical Examiner's Office in Largo is funded almost entirely by $1.5 million in local and federal grants. Its staff has performed nearly 2,500 DNA analyses from about 700 local cases in the past 10 months.

The six analysts work in a chilly, clean space where the whir of giant freezers provides a muted soundtrack. Using state-of-the-art equipment, scientists analyze samples, extract DNA and amplify it to produce a genetic profile.

Analysts have helped identify crash victims and a murder suspect in a 40-year-old cold case. They've linked suspects to sexual assaults, and have been able to pick up DNA profiles on everything from iPod earbuds to socks.

The lab's average turnaround time is about 30 days.

For now, the DNA lab is handling evidence from Pinellas law enforcement agencies. In the future, samples may be accepted from other counties for a fee. Unlike the state FDLE labs, which primarily only work on violent crimes, the Pinellas lab also analyzes evidence from property crimes.

In fact, Borries said, more than half of the 20 to 50 cases sent to the lab each week are related to crimes like robberies, burglaries and auto thefts.

The lab's work has meant police can resolve cases that in the past might never have been solved.

"The main difference to our agency is an increase in identifying suspects in property crimes," said Pinellas County sheriff's Lt. Mike Madden, head of the crimes against persons section. "Rarely did property crimes get worked on at FDLE."

On average, it costs about $350 to run a DNA sample, officials said.

Everyone expects law enforcement to use DNA when it comes to violent crimes such as murder, rape and armed robberies. But using it to solve property crimes also is important, said Lopez, the St. Petersburg burglary detective.

Property crimes are less serious than violent crimes, but they affect more people, he said. And there often is little physical evidence to go on.

"Property crimes can be just as hard to solve," he said. "It has a very big impact on people. It's a very violating feeling."

Plus, people arrested for property crimes often admit to other crimes, he said.

A week ago, Lopez and other officers arrested Phillip Levine, 38, of St. Petersburg after Levine's DNA was found on a beer can left at the scene of an April burglary. During an interview with police, Lopez said, Levine gave officers permission to search his home.

They found a stash of other stolen goods as well as a spare bedroom police said was used to grow marijuana. Meanwhile, Levine's wife was throwing items over a fence and into a shed so officers wouldn't see them, they said.

She also was arrested.

"From the stolen property in his house, we were able to link him to 10 more burglaries," Lopez said. "I was pretty surprised. There were cameras, a bike, laptops, a flat-screen TV, guns, watches … we even found clothes."

In the beauty supply store case last year, Lopez submitted the drink can to the lab and quickly got good news.

Not only had analysts been able to develop a full DNA profile from it, they also got a match when they ran the profile through the national DNA index.

Lopez's suspect, William Breward, 50, of St. Petersburg, has pleaded not guilty to a burglary charge. A pretrial hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.

"He denied everything," Lopez said. "I'm like, dude, I've got your DNA. … There's pretty much no way around it."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

Criminals beware: New DNA lab open for business 07/09/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 9, 2011 10:41pm]
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