The Altoona Mirror
Monday, July 8, 2002

"Expert: DNA test key in Juniata murder"

By William Kibler
Staff Reporter

   

Profiler says victim's lack of clothing could be important factor in the Dana Gates homicide.

While a nationally renowned criminal profiler doesn't think Erika and Benjamin Sifrit are connected to several unsolved Blair County murders, he does have plenty of theories about those killings and what police can do to solve them.

Forensic scientist Brent Turvey of Oregon is vehement that Altoona police should have DNA evidence processed as soon as possible as they probe the brutal beating death of Randy Buchanan in Juniata in June 2001.

Meanwhile, Turvey thinks state police at Bedford should pay special attention to the state the victim was in when found as they continue to investigate the murder of Dana Gates and the beating of her boyfriend, Lorin Burket, in November in Queen. A passerby found Gates "naked and covered with blood and mud."

After reviewing all the available newspaper stories and court documents involved in the cases, Turvey says he doesn't think that Benjamin and Erika Sifrit, the Duncansville couple charged with a grisly double murder in Ocean City, Md., are connected to the local slayings.

But Turvey doesn't fault state police efforts to check out the possibility.

It's heartening to see a police agency do the right thing when it might mean that you're not the one making the pinch, he says.

There's nothing to report yet on a possible connection, says Cpl. Roger Smith of the Bedford barracks. But police still are checking leads, he says.

Turvey -- principal author and editor of "Criminal Profiling: An Introduction to Behavioral Evidence Analysis," published by Academic Press, London -- allows that much of the story around the Ocean City murders still is untold and eventually could yield a connection to the Gates case.

He says police should turn their attention to finding out why Dana Gates was found naked.

Nakedness virtually always means sexual assault or an attempt to get rid of evidence carried by the clothes, he says.

A boyfriend or husband normally would be the first suspect is such a case, Turvey says. A Bedford state police spokesman says Burket was quickly ruled out as a suspect because his severe injuries could not have been self-inflicted.

In the Buchanan case, Turvey believes police should turn their attention away from a superficially intriguing aspect of the investigation: writing on the body.

Please see Murder/Page A10

It's probably a red herring, an attempt to distract attention from what is otherwise a clear case of a vendetta killing, he believes.

Bob Buchanan, the victim's father, says the words on the body were "universal as hell" and didn't point to anyone in particular.

Police instead should turn their attention toward getting DNA from the Buchanan crime scene tested, Turvey says.

The state police crime lab in Greensburg has tested most of the physical evidence already, Altoona Police Chief Janice Freehling says.

But the items not analyzed include DNA, she says.

There are just traces, Bob Buchanan says. But traces are enough, Turvey says.

The crime lab prefers to wait until police have suspects before they analyze DNA, so they can analyze the suspect's DNA at the same time, Freehling says.

"The DNA is beneficial to us only if we have something to compare it with," she says.

Police don't have a strong suspect in the Buchanan case, although Freehling says there are "some individuals we're looking at more strongly than others."

Christine Tomsey, manager of the DNA section of the state police crime lab in Greensburg, had a different version of the DNA holdup, saying that there must be confusion in communications between her staff and Altoona detectives.

The lab tests DNA when it receives crime-scene samples, even if there are no suspects, Tomsey says. Results go onto a national database called CODIS for potential matching with the DNA of past offenders whose numbers are on file or with unidentified DNA from other crime scenes.

There currently is no backlog for crime-scene DNA testing in her lab, she says.

The confusion also could have something to do with two different kinds of testing that can be done.

Bob Buchanan said a few weeks ago that police told him they didn't want to waste their single chance at testing the scant evidence from the murder scene until they were more sure of their suspects.

That explanation makes sense in the context of the question whether to do mitochondrial or Short-Tandem-Repeat analysis, Tomsey says.

Short-Tandem-Repeat testing is preferable because it pinpoints the subject's identity. Mitochondrial analysis is inferior because it can't differentiate between the subject and his or her mother and siblings, she says. Nor is there a national database for it.

But mitochondrial analysis is better for tiny samples, Tomsey says.

So it might make sense to hold off on the Buchanan case until police are sure which method would be better, either because police get a better handle on the suspects or because of a technical advance, Tomsey says.

Turvey disagrees vehemently with that sentiment and guesses that the state police lab may not be capable of doing STR analysis on a small sample.

But that is grounds for city police to pull the evidence for testing by a private lab, he says.

It may cost up to $750, but it's worth it, he says, noting that good labs can do STR testing on samples as small as a single cell.

Mitochondrial analysis is only for dead tissue, including hair, he says.

"There is no decision-making needed," Turvey says of the Buchanan DNA. "If you can do STRs, you do."

If you do an analysis, you move the investigation forward, he says, adding that whether a suspect is weak or strong shouldn't matter.

"There is no legitimate reason for the failure to compare a suspect to DNA found at the crime scene," says Turvey, who's advised on high-profile cases nationwide, including the infamous Sam Sheppard murder case in Ohio. "A suspect is a suspect."

If it's a match, you have your man, he says, if not, you know you can take your focus off him, and put it where it may do some good.

The law calls for getting a probable cause warrant to force a suspect to give a DNA sample, but there are legal alternatives.

One is persuasion.

Innocent suspects are often quite willing if detectives persuade them to join a partnership for the truth, he says.

When a suspect refuses to take the test, a detective can get a sample surreptitiously, picking up a cigarette butt or popsicle stick from the sidewalk or a napkin from a restaurant. Those are public places, he says.

Detectives can go after a surreptitious sample without first making a request if he fears a direct request will inspire the suspect to flee.

Tomsey says she wonders how Turvey could responsibly claim definitive STR results from a sample as small as a single cell. The Greensburg crime lab keeps up with modern techniques, she says. "What we did a year and a half ago is different from today," she says. "We're implementing processes that are more discriminating and sensitive."

Yet many state crime labs don't measure up, for lack of funding that results in short staffing, insufficient expertise and lack of modern equipment, Turvey says.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler can be reached at 949-7038 or bkibler@altoonamirror.com.

Cite: Kibler, W. "Expert: DNA test key in Juniata murder,'" The Altoona Mirror, July 8, 2002