As far as crime laboratories go, it is not very impressive-looking. And it is not very big, with a permanent staff of just three forensic scientists and a few interns. But the work product that comes out of the Veterinarian Forensic Lab at UC Davis is important, and it has changed the way crimes are investigated and prosecuted worldwide.
The lab has been called the “CSI of the four-legged world,” and it is the nation’s first laboratory dedicated to animal DNA profiling. It’s accredited by the prestigious American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors because the VFL conducts animal-related forensic tests as rigorously as any lab dealing with human DNA.
Simply put, the VFL uses DNA from animals to help solve a variety of crimes — from burglary and animal abuse to sexual assault and murder. They analyze crime scene evidence that, decades ago, might have been overlooked by detectives. Today, investigators automatically collect any animal fur or hairs, feces, urine stains and tissue samples found at a crime scene. They also take mouth swabs from pets after they defend their owners against attackers.
The case that helped establish the lab came from New Hampton, Iowa, in 1999. A sexual assault victim was not able to pick her attacker out of a police lineup. But she remembered that, as she stood near the man’s truck to answer his request for directions, her dog had lifted his leg and urinated on one of the tires. Two days later, police found the truck, swabbed the tire and the lab (then the foremost test center for bloodtyping cattle) was able to place the suspect where he insisted he had never been — alongside the victim. That conviction convinced everyone of the need for a full-time animal DNA testing lab.
The VFL’s director, Beth Wictum, told me the lab handles about 100 cases every year. She’s particularly proud of their work on a grisly triple homicide case out of Indiana. The suspect insisted he had not stood at the spot where three workmen had been shot execution style. But police found a shoe print left behind in a poop patty and scooped up the evidence for evaluation. The lab was able to genetically match the droppings to the property owner's dog and to a pencil eraser-sized specimen taken from the suspect’s shoe. Bingo! The suspect was convicted and is serving life in prison.
On Christmas Eve 2002, Kevin Butler became the victim of a deadly home invasion. When two men stormed in to Butler’s Dallas apartment and began to beat him, his prized cockatoo — named Bird for basketball great Larry Bird — tried to come to Butler’s rescue. He repeatedly dove down on the attackers, clawing at their skin and pecking at their heads. Sadly, police found Bird dead on the kitchen floor, stabbed to death with a fork. But in the blood trails Bird created and in the valiant pet’s beak they found human DNA. The lab matched the specimens to the prime suspect and helped put Butler’s murderer behind bars for life.
Wictum says her forensic team is “often asked to test cat and dog hairs from blankets, rugs and sheets that are wrapped around homicide victims.” Just such a cold case out of Florida is her current favorite.
The body of Shantay Huntington was found in a wooded area of Loxahatchee, Fla., wrapped in a shower curtain. CSI agents found dog hairs on the curtain and sent them to the VFL for testing. The lab identified the hairs as matching a family of dogs that were raised by Liliana Toledo. When questioned, she pointed the finger at Guillermo Romero, her former brother-in-law, who she described as terrifying and violent. He was raising two of the Akita puppies. When police got a DNA sample from Romero, it also matched DNA on the curtain. Case solved.
Besides its work in the United States, the VFL has worked criminal investigations in several countries including Japan, Ireland, Canada, Australia and Argentina. Scotland Yard approached the lab to help solve the stabbing death of a bouncer outside a pub. Drops of nonhuman blood had flummoxed the Brits.
“We did the testing,” Wictum said during a radio interview, “and we were able to match the blood on the sidewalk to the suspect’s dog, which had apparently had his ear nicked during the altercation.” It was the first time dog DNA was used in a U.K. trial.
Many times bereft pet owners contact the lab to find out how their beloved Fluffy or Fido died. Wictum remembers one particular case in which a woman felt sure that a certain neighbor’s dog had killed her cat. DNA tests of the cat’s wounds proved the culprit had been a bobcat.
The lab works lots of dog-on-human attack cases, many of them involving children. In fact, one such case was upgraded to homicide after the female victim was taken off life support and died. But the staff at VFL know firsthand that what humans do to animals can be just as vicious.
Law enforcement in Florida had their eye on a suspected serial animal abuser and sent items to the lab for testing. Police believed this man had started out torturing hamsters, graduated to shooting razor arrows at livestock and then began killing goats and llamas in hideous ways. The lab was able to link the suspect to the grisly crimes when they identified the blood on his shirt as being from a llama. After the arrest, the lead detective breathed a sigh of relief.
“He told me that they were going to keep an eye on him once he got out of prison because he was looked to be at high risk for eventually killing people,” Wictum said.
All of us with pets have a special bond — a special way of communicating with our beloved animals. Now, thanks to the Veterinarian Forensic Lab, whether the animal is the victim, the perpetrator or simply a witness to a crime, they can communicate to the courts as well.
— Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.