Night Stalker case shows DNA-testing still lags

It took 11 months, but the DNA of infamous “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez has finally been retested, allowing police to close the case of the 1984 murder of a 9-year-old girl in the Tenderloin.

Though the retesting of the serial killer’s DNA was largely a formality — meant simply to confirm the results of an initial test last year — the slow processing of the sample shows that despite efforts by the Police Department to eliminate its DNA-testing backlog, it remains far slower than industry averages.

The Police Department has been dogged by criticism that its lab does not process evidence quickly enough, and that the backlog of work — which at times has reached 500 untested cases — was crippling the department’s ability to solve crimes. Though about 100 firearms cases have been contracted out to other labs, the San Francisco lab’s six technicians still handle all The City’s homicides and sexual assaults. Today, each technician’s caseload is about 10 to 20 cases, about the same as it was last year, and “still considerably above the industry average,” police Lt. Lyn Tomioka said.

Police said the turnaround time of the lab tests will not increase until three extra forensic lab technicians are hired. But now city officials say the hiring process has been stalled and the jobs will not be advertised until at least November.

The DNA lab is tasked with analyzing genetic material from evidence found at crime scenes, which is then run through a statewide database. Last year, an analyst managed to pull a DNA sample off 25-year-old evidence from the unsolved murder of Mei Leung, who was assaulted and killed in the basement of her family’s Tenderloin apartment building in 1984. Unexpectedly, the state database pegged the DNA as Ramirez’s — she was his first victim.

The match was announced in October, at which time cold-case Detective Holly Pera was left with one last task: to collect a current sample of Ramirez’s DNA and have the lab test it to confirm the initial results. At the time, Pera said the confirmation would take just a few weeks, but, in fact, that evidence was only finally tested last month, she told The San Francisco Examiner.

Pera said the turnaround time for DNA tests — crucial work in solving long-cold cases — is still as slow as ever.

“The lab is still very understaffed,” she said. “There’s still only a few people that do the DNA analysis.”


Test holdup slows hiring of new lab technicians

DNA processing will speed up once the Police Department hires the three extra technicians it has pledged to employ.

But Kim Carter, union representative for the criminalists, said the SFPD seems to be dragging its feet on the hiring.

“If the Police Department wanted to get this process done with, they could,” she said. “I don’t know what’s taking so long.”

Department of Human Resources Manager Mary Hao said the process has been slowed because a test must be created to screen candidates. That test should be finalized by November, after which The City can finally announce the open positions and begin the hiring process, Hao said.

Police Sgt. Lyn Tomioka said that solving the backlog is a high priority for the Police Department.

“Unfortunately, the hiring process is a lengthy process,” Tomioka said. “We understand that it must be frustrating for the union representatives and the people working in the lab.”

— Katie Worth


Timeline of terror

Police are investigating whether Richard Ramirez, aka the “Night Stalker,” was committing murders in San Francisco as he was unleashing the horrors he is famous for in Los Angeles.

April 10, 1984: 9-year-old Mei Leung is found hanging over a pipe in the basement of her apartment building at 765 O’Farrell St.
June 1984: Jennie Vincow’s throat is slashed in her Los Angeles apartment.
Nov. 13, 1984: Famed San Francisco chef Masataka Kobayashi is found dead in his Nob Hill apartment at 1111 Pine St.
Feb. 20, 1985: Mary and Christina Caldwell — ages 70 and 58, respectively — are stabbed dozens of times in their Telegraph Hill apartment.
March 17, 1985: Dale Okazaki and Tsai-Lian Yu are shot.
March 28, 1985: Vincent and Maxine Zazzara are shot.
May 14, 1985: William and Lillian Doi are attacked while sleeping; Lillian survives.
May 29, 1985: Mabel Bell, 84, is violently beaten.
June 2, 1985: Edward Wildgans, 29, is shot through the right temple by a late-night intruder; his girlfriend fights off the attacker.
July 2, 1985: Mary Louise Canno is found beaten and with her throat slit.
July 7, 1985: Joyce Nelson is beaten with a blunt object.
July 20, 1985: Lela and Max Kneiding are shot. Chainarong Khovananth is shot minutes later.
Aug. 8, 1985: Elyas Abowath is shot in the head while sleeping.
Aug. 17, 1985: Peter and Barbara Pan are attacked in their Lake Merced home; Peter is killed and his wife is shot but survives.
Aug. 30, 1985: Police release a photo of Ramirez to the media; within 12 hours, he is captured by citizens.

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