Cold-case work heats up with new grant funding

San Mateo County’s forensics lab is bringing in some extra help for its DNA-analysis team, hoping to find that speck of blood or drop of saliva that could crack an unsolved cold case.

Authorities say newly received funding from a federal grant will help the county’s crime lab cut down on a backlog of 460 cases awaiting DNA analysis, some of which are crimes committed decades ago.

The county plans to use the bulk of the $217,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice to hire three interns who will sort through cold-case evidence for potential DNA samples in skin cells, hair and blood, lab Director Alex Karagianes said.

That work should free up the lab’s five DNA analysts for creating DNA profiles from samples to be tested against a national FBI database. Also, some money from the grant will be used for overtime pay for analysts.

“This is a way to get some more hands on deck,” Karagianes said.

The county Sheriff’s Office alone has 247 open or unsolved cases dating to 1970, including the murder of Roann Schweitzer, a 43-year-old Modesto woman who was sexually assaulted and shot to death in 1979. Her body was found on San Bruno Mountain.

In 2001, investigators found DNA on Schweitzer’s clothing from a man who was not her husband, but there were no hits in the national database. The case is still open, and a reward was announced last year.

Even if a DNA sample does not match a suspect’s identity in the database, it could still produce hits on other crimes where the same person’s DNA was found, Karagianes said.

He said he plans to meet with law enforcement agencies across 20 cities in the coming months to discuss which cold cases they think should be the focus of the grant money.

While the bulk of the grant will be for extra manpower, the county plans to spend $38,000 on new lab equipment, including a microscope, DNA chemical-analysis kits and computer hardware.

The president of the union that represents forensics workers said he hopes the grant helps free up time for lab employees.

“I know overtime is pretty rare up there, so if they were going to do cold-case stuff it would have to be on overtime,” Deputy Sheriff’s Association President D.J. Wozniak said, “because the straight time is just trying to keep up with current cases.”

Lab workload

A sampling of the items received by the San Mateo County forensics lab in the 2009-10 fiscal year:

3,788 major case items:

  • 826 firearms
  • 1,965 latent prints
  • 997 forensic DNA items
  • 1,655 alcohol case items
  • 3,474 drug case items

 

Source: San Mateo County Manager’s Office

sbishop@sfexaminer.com

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