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Officers at a crime scene now collect DNA evidence

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SAN DIEGO - Saylor Wright's house was cleaned out and trashed.

Burglars ripped her television off a wall, stole clothing, lamps, bedding and silverware. Then they downed a cocktail in her kitchen before hauling their loot out the front door.

Two years have passed, and police are no closer to solving the daytime break-in or recovering Wright's belongings. It's an all-too-familiar experience for frustrated and traumatized burglary victims.

"Very personal items, like my jewelry, are what I miss the most," said Wright, 53, a hair stylist. "They took what amounted to the journal of my life."



There may be hope for crime victims such as Wright with more arrests and more cherished possessions returned.

San Diego police have added DNA evidence collection to their protocol for burglary investigations, just as they do for homicides and sexual assaults, and it's paying off.

"We are getting some startling results," said police Chief William Lansdowne, whose officers are gathering biological evidence such as blood, saliva and hairs. The department's forensic specialists from the crime lab take over from there.

About 7,000 burglaries are reported each year in San Diego. That includes businesses, homes and cars. The most recent statistics for 2007 show an 11% increase over last year.

Police have been slowly incorporating DNA gathering in commercial and residential burglary investigations for several years.

According to a study by Patrick O'Donnell, supervisor of the crime lab's DNA unit, about 75% of burglary cases where biological evidence exists are producing so-called cold hits - and arrests - from a DNA database.

In 2005, San Diego's crime lab used DNA to get suspect information in 21 burglaries, O'Donnell said. In 2006, the number climbed to 98.

This year, projections are that 200 burglaries will net hits from the DNA database. A federal grant to hire more crime lab personnel and to train officers in evidence collection will make the increase possible, O'Donnell said.

The hits from CODIS - Combined DNA Index System - occur by two means.

"Most hits result from a match between the DNA profile of evidence in the database," O'Donnell said. "This type of hit identifies the perpetrator of the crime."

A second hit results when the DNA profile of biological evidence - blood, semen, saliva - at an unsolved crime scene matches evidence from a second unsolved crime, O'Donnell said.

In this case, the identity of the perpetrator is not known, but the crimes are now linked to one person.

Association of multiple crimes might provide important investigative information to help solve the cases, O'Donnell said.

With an increase in lab technicians and lab space, more burglars could be caught using DNA, said Mike Grubb, crime laboratory manager.

"Added resources - people and space - could help us solve a lot more of these cases," Grubb said.

That's important, considering burglary leads the list of crimes on the increase.

Why?

"It may be that we feel safe in our homes because overall crime continues down in the city," police Sgt. Robert Carroll said. "So we leave our doors and windows open, especially in the summer when it's hot, and we become more vulnerable."

In the field, the trail that leads to DNA starts with the 911 call to report a burglary.

Officers are dispatched after a break-in is discovered. Such was the case last month when burglars entered a house in San Diego through an open door. They took $100,000 in furnishings and jewelry, all while a resident was asleep in an upstairs bedroom.

"I guess I'm lucky I didn't get hurt - or worse," the shocked resident told police. "But they took everything of value."

Officers Chuck De La Cruz and Shannah Kanooa were the first officers to arrive at the noontime crime scene.

The officers, who are trained as field evidence technicians, scanned for DNA.

"We may find it at the point the burglars entered, maybe blood on broken glass, cups or cans for saliva, cigarette butts, hairs," De La Cruz said.

In addition, Kanooa checks for more traditional evidence, such as fingerprints.

A favorite collection spot for DNA comes in the bathroom, where burglars often use the toilet and don't flush.

"Fingerprints, shoe prints and tool marks have long been the bread and butter of burglary crimes - that's what everyone looks for," said Dean Gialamas, director of forensic sciences for the Orange County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department and a member of the National Institute of Justice working group on DNA forensics.

"We now are extending investigations one more notch to include DNA," Gialamas said. "This is another piece of forensic science that could answer a lot of questions in lesser crimes."

Gialamas said there is a cost-benefit component to using DNA to solve crimes such as burglaries.

Does it make sense to spend $2,000 to solve a $400 burglary?

The answer may be yes, Gialamas said, if it results in catching a crook who is responsible for other crimes or stopping a crook from moving to more serious crimes.

Gialamas has no doubt that DNA can lead to more arrests, especially in San Diego.

"The San Diego police crime lab long has been recognized as a leader in DNA," he said.

All this is little comfort to Saylor Wright, whose burglary occurred before police began a major push to collect DNA from break-ins.

"I know DNA was left behind by the burglars," Wright said. "They had a drink in my kitchen."
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