Cold Case DNA

One of the year's greatest mysteries has finally been solved. It's now official. Larry Birkhead is baby Dannielynn's father. Okay, great. Maybe now I can get back to watching real news again instead of being bombarded by pictures and stories of drug, sex and alcohol abuse that surrounded this buxom, blond, overweight and under-talented wacko.

This is not to say that there is no place in the civil law for DNA, one of mankind's greatest scientific breakthroughs. It sure beats the way things were done 100 years ago. "Oh look, the baby has his eyes."

Since this miraculous DNA Genie came out of the box, it has been used not only to establish paternity, but also to diagnose inherited disorders in both prenatal and newborn babies, to develop cures for inherited disorders, and to establish a means of personal identification, such as the program now being used by our military for casualty identification. But, from a criminal investigator's point of view, the most amazing thing about the advances in DNA is the ability to link suspects to biological evidence--blood or semen stains, hair, or items of clothing--found at the scene of a crime, even dozens of years after the crime.

Law enforcement is not always the first to recognize, or take advantage of investigative innovations. Sometimes the private sector leads the way. Take, for example The Innocence Project, founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School. Most cops remember Barry Scheck from the O.J. trial, but The Innocence Project was established to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. According to The Innocence Project's web site, "194 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 14 who served time on death row. These people served an average of 12 years in prison before exoneration and release."

Meanwhile, police departments have not been sitting by idly. Cold case squads have popped up around the country, reviewing old cases and submitting old evidence samples for analysis with modern DNA techniques, and with great success.

The Ouachita Parish (LA) Sheriff's Department carried out a very recent successful cold case DNA investigation with the arrest of 48-year old Anthony Wilson. Wilson was arrested for the brutal rape and murder of 19 year old Kathy Whorton on April 4, 1981, .

I spoke with Major Royce Toney, a 32-year veteran of the Ouachita Parish Sheriff's Department, to get the inside scoop on this case. Maj. Toney told me that he was thrilled at the results of this cold case investigation, even though he was in the middle of the "two worst days in my life, trying to put together the evidence and facts from 26 years ago."

According to Maj. Toney, there had been a series of three similar incidents that occurred within an 18-month period covering 1980-1981, in and around the area of what is now the University of Louisiana at Monroe (ULM). The victims were all young white females who were driving alone in their cars when they were bumped from behind by another car. Two of the victims got out of their cars, apparently thinking that they had been involved in an automobile accident, only to be kidnapped, raped, shot in the head with a .22 caliber pistol, and dumped, one within Monroe city limits, and the other in Ouachita Parish. The third victim did not get out of her car, but instead tried to drive away, only to be found shot in the head near her car as she was apparently trying to flee on foot.

Kathy Whorton was the victim who was found dumped in Ouachita Parish. According to Maj. Toney, a male pubic hair and semen were recovered from the victim's panties and clothing, but at the time the only scientific method of identification was blood typing. The examination of this evidence led investigators to believe that they were looking for a black male suspect.

Shortly after Whorton's murder, infamous serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Elwood Toole confessed to hundreds of similar rapes and murders across the United States. The only problem, according to Maj. Toney, then a narcotics detective, was the fact that both Lucas and Toole were white. When he learned that the detectives handling the Whorton case were entertaining the idea that Lucas and Toole were the perps, Toney reminded them that they should be looking for a black male. The detectives basically told Maj. Toney to stick with narcotics investigations, and leave homicides to them. The Whorton case was cleared based upon the confessions of Lucas and Toole.

Interestingly, Maj. Toney was not the only person that believed that there was still a killer on the loose. Kathy Whorton's sister, Debbie Whorton Wilson, had been trying to get the case re-opened for years, always believing that her sister's murderer was still on the loose. Her requests fell on deaf ears until October of 2003, when she connected with Maj. Toney who was then in charge of the sheriff's detectives.

The Whorton case was re-opened. There had been five or six original suspects at the time, and an anonymous 911 caller who originally reported finding the body. Over 20 years later, investigators identified and located the anonymous caller, as well as the other suspects. DNA was obtained from all of them and compared to the now-valuable crime scene evidence. No hits. No more suspects. But there was one last hope, the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). The DNA evidence from the Whorton case was submitted to CODIS, and the result was a positive match to career criminal Anthony Wilson.

There was one more interesting twist to this case. On March 31, 2007, U.S. Marshal Bill Parker arrested Wilson for this rape/murder of Kathy Whorton. As it turns out, in 1981 Marshal Parker was a rookie deputy with the Ouachita Parish Sheriff's Department, and one of the deputies who originally located Whorton's body. Now, 26 years later, he is part of a combined state/federal warrant task force, and according to Maj. Toney "he was the right guy to put the cuffs on him."

A sad yet amazing story, but one that will continue to be repeated elsewhere as time goes on. Now, the National Institute of Justice is accepting grant applications from departments that wish to pursue the use of DNA evidence in solving violent cold cases.

This solicitation for grant money must be used "to identify, review, and investigate violent crime 'cold cases' that have the potential to be solved using DNA analysis, and to locate and analyze biological evidence associated with these cases."

Permissible uses include:

  1. Salary and Benefits of Additional Employees
  2. Overtime
  3. Travel
  4. Laboratory Equipment
  5. Computer Equipment
  6. Laboratory Supplies
  7. Consultant and Contractor Services
  8. Training
  9. Administrative Expenses

The information for applying for the grant and the application itself can be downloaded at the link below. The money's there. Go get it.