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 the University of California, 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 Lab 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.
Director 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 Wictum’s 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.