After burglars grab the cash, the electronics and the jewels, they often linger in the victim’s home for a beer or a bite to eat.
Scientists at the Tri County Regional Forensic Laboratory seize the opportunity to help catch them, using the latest technology to find traces of DNA on silverware, rims of bottles and cans, even half-eaten food.
“Burglars like to make themselves at home,” said Anne Ciecko, one of 11 forensic scientists at the lab located at the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office in Andover. “Burglars like to eat and drink. They’ll open a beer. They’ll grab leftovers.”
Scientists are testing thousands of pieces of evidence to help detectives solve rapes and homicides as well as nonviolent crimes. Now authorities are better able to process evidence from lower-level crimes that often failed to get the same level of scrutiny, including car thefts, burglaries, vandalism and drug cases.
“A majority of the cases we do are quality-of-life crimes,” lab director Scott Ford said.
These new crime-fighting skills come a year after the Tri County lab earned its international accreditation in biology, including DNA testing.
The lab, which has a $1.6 million annual budget, is a joint venture of Anoka, Sherburne and Wright counties. It’s the fourth crime lab in the state accredited for DNA testing. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office operate the other three.
The lab has tested 1,896 pieces of evidence so far this year, and Ford expects it will exceed 2014’s total of 2,815. Scientists can test for DNA and fingerprints, which can be crucial pieces of evidence to get prosecutions. They also analyze drugs that were seized by authorities to determine the chemical makeup.
Armed with this new crime-fighting tool, north metro investigators are also looking for DNA on the steering wheels and gearshifts of stolen cars, on doors and windows touched during burglaries and even on illegal drug packaging. Analyzing the packaging can help authorities prove who owned the illegal substances.
Scientists are even swabbing guns used in unsolved crimes to see if they can capture traces of DNA.
Ford said it’s often easier to harvest DNA on a weapon than to collect a fingerprint, which scientists find less than 10 percent of the time.
In fatal overdose cases, investigators are testing drug paraphernalia for DNA. “We check syringes to see if they had assistance,” Ciecko said.
The July 2014 accreditation by the Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board cleared the way for the lab to connect to the FBI’s DNA index, called CODIS, which includes millions of searchable DNA profiles.
So far this year, the lab has matched 109 DNA samples from local crime scenes with either known criminals or biological material found at other crime scenes.
In one instance, investigators linked an Anoka burglary with more than a dozen similar break-ins in Hennepin County, Ford said. In another case, Wright County authorities investigating the theft of school bus radios swabbed the wing nuts the thief touched during the heist and scientists were able to generate a DNA profile that matched a known criminal, Ford said.