No one could have foreseen that Irene Kunze, an independent and active 90-year-old who lived in a Hopkins Minn., apartment complex, would become the victim of a violent crime, but she did. Mrs. Kunze’s homicide led to a breakthrough criminal justice application for DNA.
Kunze was found stabbed to death on the floor of her apartment. Investigators responded to the murder scene and the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Crime Lab was called in to process it. Investigators quickly suspected the crime was one of opportunity, with robbery as the motive.
There was little to go on in the initial phase. Kunze had no enemies and was liked by other residents. A canvass of the area yielded no promising leads. For many departments, this would have been a case that dead-ended until new evidence surfaced. The investigators in this one decided not to wait for the evidence to find them: They took a chance on expanding technology and went for broke. It paid off.
Sgt. Steve Labatt of the Crime Lab says evidence at the scene indicated that the victim had been dragged through the house to her final resting point. Evidence also pointed to one perpetrator, not two. Since crime scene processing revealed no useful evidence at the scene itself, investigators decided to try the victim’s body. It should be noted that there were also no signs of any sexual assault.
Theorizing that the perpetrator probably dragged the elderly woman by grabbing her arms, crime lab technicians performed DNA tests. "They collected 'the shed skin cells' from the killer–at just the right location on the victim. They were thinking outside of the box," says Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek.
Technicians obtained foreign DNA from Kunze’s elbow and ran it through the state’s convicted offender database. They got a hit: Corey Posley-Wells, a 27-year-old felon who had recently been released from prison after his conviction for armed robbery.
The DNA results indicated that “Posley-Wells could not be excluded as being a contributor to the sample while 99.2 percent of the general public could be,” according to Stanek.
They had their guy, but one problem still remained: That was all the physical evidence they had. Although they could trace Posley-Wells to the complex, they couldn’t place him at the scene. They needed his help and devised a plan to secure it.
Under careful questioning by investigators, Posley-Wells adamantly denied having had any contact with the victim. He told officers he had never seen the woman before, much less touched her. Obviously, if he had confessed to contact–even casual contact such as brushing past her in the hall–it would have been much more difficult to convict him in court. Labatt agrees.
“Denial that he had contact was key,” Labatt says.
When confronted with the DNA’s findings, Posley-Wells broke down and confessed.
Labatt gives credit where it’s due. He says the first officers on the scene (from Hopkins) reacted perfectly and professionally, protecting it from accidental cross-contamination and keeping all of the looky-lous out. They donned gloves. They touched nothing that was not necessary. And Hopkins investigators conducted a letter-perfect investigation.
Now, Hennepin County uses touch DNA to also resolve property crimes, but the broader applications are breathtaking and the Sheriff’s Office has been spreading the word so that other agencies can also focus on this new technology.
The final thoughts on this development come from the sheriff:
"This case was truly heartbreaking. Irene Kunze was a sweet little lady who was kind to everyone she met. Her brutal murder is an example of why we work so hard to have every investigative tool on hand. When we need to identify a killer, we need to be prepared to have the latest technology at our disposal," Stanek says.