Better science helps crack cold cases

  • Article by: MATT MCKINNEY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 25, 2012 - 11:34 PM

State lab retested evidence from 32-year-old murder with new tools, leading to an arrest.

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Bureau of Criminal Apprehension forensic scientist Beth Wolf with some if the equipment used to test 10,000 samples each year at the BCA DNA lab in St. Paul, Thursday, September 20, 2012

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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The day Minneapolis detectives plucked Robert William Skogstad out of a small town in Kansas and arrested him for the 1980 murder of a woman in Minneapolis was something of a "CSI" moment, the arrest taking place after DNA science unveiled clues from evidence three decades old.

The oldest cold case in Minneapolis ever revived with an arrest, the charge against Skogstad this month stands as yet another reminder that the technology behind DNA, while common, has continued to improve in accuracy and speed.

A relatively new "Minifiler" system at the state crime lab has allowed scientists there to use smaller amounts of DNA than previously, and even damaged pieces of DNA, to work up profiles of potential suspects, Bureau of Criminal Apprehension senior special agent Drew Evans said.

"It's much more sensitive, our testing technology, than it was even two years ago," Evans said.

The promise behind that ever-more sophisticated science taking place at the lab is that suspects who have long eluded the law may yet face prosecution.

Under an agreement with the Minneapolis Police Department, four BCA scientists are dedicated to working on Minneapolis cases. The city pays $85,000 per scientist.

Two years ago, the Minneapolis police submitted 524 cases for review. Last year, they offered 544. The cases range from homicides to sexual assaults to robbery to recovered firearms.

Among the more promising areas for new DNA testing is property crime, said Capt. Amelia Huffman, commander of the department's criminal investigations division. It's been one of the fastest-growing areas for the use of DNA, she said.

The department also has about 100 unsolved homicides that may benefit from new testing. Investigators have been methodically looking through the old files after the cases were identified in 2008.

The 1980 murder of Mary Cathryn Steinhart, who was raped, stabbed and strangled in her basement Uptown apartment, was one such case.

Nice to his neighbors

Two of Skogstad's neighbors in Edgerton, Kan., where he has lived for the past decade, said he was a low-key neighbor, sometimes holding parties at the house, helping one neighbor jump her car battery when she needed it and waving to his neighbors when they saw him.

"I had a favorable impression of them," said one neighbor, speaking of Skogstad and his wife, Geri. "When the news came out I was very surprised."

The news didn't surprise Skogstad's sister, Anna, who pointed to her brother's record of sexual assault and burglary convictions.

"My main concern is that I just want to reach out to the [Steinhart] family and let them know that I want justice for their daughter," she said, asking that her last name not be shared because she lives in Minnesota and doesn't want people to know she's related to him.

"We don't want people thinking we knew, because we didn't know anything about this."

He's been married twice, has two daughters and was living with his second wife when he was arrested. His wife could not be reached for comment this week.

His sister said Skogstad grew up in Minneapolis and was in trouble from the time he was young. He served in the Army in the 1970s, she said.

Another of Skogstad's sisters is standing by him, according to Anna.

"I think he's probably shocked that he got caught after all these years. I don't think he ever thought it would catch up with him, but thank God for DNA technology and that they decided to reopen the case," Anna said.

DNA progress

The state crime lab has tested DNA for 20 years or more, but the process has become more exact. The state's database of known offenders has also grown, with new convicts logged into the system at a rate of 10,000 a year. The state DNA profile database of known offenders now tops 120,000. That database has had increasing success, from helping about 100 investigations in 2005 to more than 700 in 2010.

None of this was possible in 1980, but investigators working the Steinhart murder scene gathered evidence, including semen from the victim's clothing and bedsheets and fingernail scrapings from the victim's left hand. Some of the evidence was retested in 2001, but the DNA profile that was developed didn't match any known offenders when run through local and statewide databases, according to the criminal complaint.

The evidence was retested in 2010, and this time, it registered a hit when run through a national database.

Skogstad had once lived in California, where he was convicted of sexual assault in 1988 and had his DNA sample taken. It was his profile that matched the evidence in the Steinhart murder, and soon Minneapolis investigators were on their way to a small town near Kansas City to interview him.

To make sure they had the right DNA, the officers took a swab from Skogstad's cheek. Nineteen months later, he was charged with murder.

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747

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