Archive for October, 2015

DNA has undoubtedly been a breakthrough for modern criminal investigation. It has freed the innocent, solved decades-old cold cases, and given detectives a kind of molecular witness in many cases that may have otherwise remained unsolved.

Except better and more-sensitive technology means more potential problems, in some cases. Mixes of DNA, and the “1-in-X” probabilities are currently being evaluated by some crime labs.

But the latest reevaluation involves “touch DNA” – the invisible genetic markers we leave everywhere we go, and on virtually everything we come into contact with.

A two-minute handshake, then handling a knife led to the DNA profile of the person who never touched the weapon being identified on the swab of the weapon handle in 85 percent of the samples, according to a new study by University of Indianapolis researchers, entitled “Could Secondary DNA Transfer Falsely Place Someone at the Scene of a Crime?”

In one-fifth of those experiments, the person who had never directly touched the knife was identified as the main or only contributor of the DNA on the handle, according to the study, in the January issue of the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

“It’s scary,” said Cynthia Cale, a graduate student and author of the paper. “Analysts need to be aware that this can happen, and they need to be able to go into court and effectively present this evidence. They need to school the jury and the judge that there are other explanations for this DNA to be there.”

The concept of “touch DNA” needs to be rethought, in both a legal and scientific context, according to Madison Earll, the other graduate student who authored the study.

“This research highlights the need to eliminate ‘touch DNA’ from our vocabulary,” said Earll, now a microbiologist at Pace Analytical. “It’s clear that this term is misleading and does not adequately explain all of the possible ways that DNA can end up on an object.”

Read more: Widow Sues City after Husband, Linked to Cold-Case Murder, Commits Suicide

“We have found that it is relatively straightforward for an innocent person’s DNA to be inadvertently transferred to surfaces that he or she has never come into contact with,” Cale wrote in a piece for the journal Nature. “This could place people at crime scenes that they had never visited or link them to weapons they had never handled.”

Cale cited an example of a man in California in 2013 who was held for a homicide for four months after his DNA was pulled from underneath the fingernails of the victim. However, it was later proven that the suspect was hospitalized and several intoxicated at the time of the crime – but the paramedics who had responded to him medically responded to the murder shortly thereafter, she wrote.

“It’s a small world,” a deputy district attorney reportedly said upon the innocent man’s release.

Other suspects have claimed their DNA was transported to incriminating places through contamination. A criminalist in a San Diego lab maintained his innocence of the killing of a girl in 1984, saying he had only worked in the lab near where the samples were originally analyzed. The criminalist killed himself before charges were brought.

The scientists said they plan to continue experiments into 2016, systematically reducing the two-minute handshake down to smaller time frames, they said.

“I think this issue has been swept under the rug,” said Krista Latham, the director of the school’s Molecular Anthropology Lab, and who oversaw the study by Cale and others. “It’s going to change the way the medicolegal system looks at DNA evidence.”

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Financial Fraud

Inside the Investigation of a Las Vegas Construction Boss

When a federal judge sentenced former Las Vegas construction boss Leon Benzer to nearly 16 years in prison in August, it marked a final chapter in a $58 million fraud scheme that took investigators nearly a decade to unravel.

Over a period of many years, Benzer brazenly sought to gain control of numerous condominium homeowners associations (HOAs) in the Las Vegas area to secure lucrative construction and other contracts for himself and additional conspirators. To date, 44 individuals, including numerous state officials, have been convicted of crimes in connection with the fraud—which has been described as one of the largest public corruption cases in Nevada history.

“This case represented an incredibly complicated financial fraud with a significant public corruption component,” said Special Agent Michael Elliott, who spent nearly eight years working on the investigation from the FBI’s Las Vegas Division. “It involved so many people over so long a period of time, it was like an intricate spider web of crime that kept expanding.”

The scheme was nothing if not grandiose. In attempting to control dozens of Nevada HOAs between approximately 2002 and 2009, Benzer, an attorney, and other conspirators recruited straw buyers to purchase condominiums and then secure positions on HOA boards of directors. Benzer rigged HOA board elections and paid board members to take actions favorable to his interests—including hiring his co-conspirator’s law firm to handle construction-related litigation and awarding profitable construction contracts to Benzer’s company, Silver Lining Construction.

Benzer manipulated and bribed HOA boards in a variety of ways—he often claimed he had local judges and law enforcement in his pocket; in other cases, he fooled unwitting homeowners into thinking his actions were legitimate and they were simply making wise investment choices.

In September 2008, investigators executed a search warrant—one of nine that would take place during the investigation—and found that Benzer was in the process of targeting well over 20 different HOAs for illegal takeovers. “There were boxes and boxes of folders with information about different HOAs,” Elliott said. “He was deliberately attempting to identify board members along with other information to target what he believed were HOAs vulnerable to takeover through bribery, extortion, or whatever illegal means could be used.”

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The front line in the fight against domestic abuse could be hair stylists.

At a City Council committee hearing today, prosecutors and domestic violence experts campaigned for hair stylists, cosmetologists, and nail technicians to go through mandatory training to spot signs of abuse, and help victims.

When women sit in that hair chair, a unique bond is created between them and their stylist. The City Council heard from sponsors of a resolution today that aims to capitalize on that bond for the safety of women in abusive relationships.

“There’s a confessional door that closes when you sit in the chair,” said Marek Hartwig, owner of Marek Bridal Styling.

Hartwig, a 25-year veteran of the industry, said his clients feel like they can tell him anything, and now he’s one of thousands of hair stylists in Illinois who could use their stylist/client bond to become an integral part in the war to stop domestic violence.

“There’s a trust, and they tell things more to a stylist than they tell probably anybody else, because it’s a no judge zone,” Hartwig said.

He and his peers could soon be required to take a one-hour training class before the next time their licenses come up for renewal.

“I completely agree with it,” Hartwig said.

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Shooting plot thwarted at Virginia school

WASHINGTON – Two teens were arrested after police thwarted a plot “to commit acts of violence against the students and staff” at Riverbend High School near Fredericksburg, Virginia, according to the Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s department.

A 15-year-old and a 17-year-old boy, whom police did not name, were arrested after a school resource officer learned of the plot. The teens were charged with conspiracy to commit murder and are being held at Rappahannock Regional Juvenile Detention Center.

According to police, one of the teens was arrested Oct. 12 on a charge of threatening violence by means of Internet. “[The school resource officer] felt that there was something that didn’t quite fit in what he was looking at the time, so he began to dig a little deeper — and thus uncovered this situation,” Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Capt. Jeffery Pearce said.

Police said that’s what led investigators to the second teen, who was arrested on Friday.

“It became apparent that these two were serious and in their planning stages to carry out acts of violence with firearms and with knives … and that they planned to do this in the school,” Pearce said.

No additional suspects are believed to be involved in this conspiracy.

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A UPS employee has been charged in connection with the theft of handguns from a UPS facility in Sparks.

At 8:47 a.m. on October 20, Baltimore County Police responded to the UPS facility in the 14400 block of York Road 21152 for a theft report. Officers learned that a security guard at the facility had been told about something suspicious involving an employee. That security guard stopped the employee and found that he had a handgun taped to each leg. Those guns had been taken from a package at the facility.

Detectives also discovered that the employee had been in possession of two handguns stolen from the same facility on June 9.

The employee has been identified as 27-year-old Eric Michael Bruneau of the 10000 block of Magledt Road 21234. He is has been charged with four counts of possession of a stolen regulated firearm and has been released on $25,000 bail.

This incident remains under investigation by the Baltimore County Police Gun Squad.

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As recently as two years ago, Princeton University officials said its Ivy League campus was no place for guns, not even for security personnel.

“We have in place a number of measures that will ensure that if there is a risk … police can rapidly have the appropriate response without having our own police officers armed,” President Shirley Tilghman told The Daily Princetonian at the time.

But that was 2013, before Umpqua Community College, Texas Southern University, Northern Arizona University, Delta State University and dozens of other American colleges and universities where people have been shot and sometimes killed.

And so within the past week, Princeton joined a growing number of institutions of higher learning that are arming their school security squads.

The decision to arm college and university security personnel is complex, with administrators having to balance the deterrent effect that armed police may have against the cost of arming and training security team members, law enforcement and researchers say. Liability also is a concern, they said.

Colleges and universities across New Jersey take a range of approaches toward giving security forces firearms. A majority of four-year public schools have armed security, but most community colleges do not. A survey of seven private, four-year universities found similarly mixed results.

In Princeton’s case, the university considered the question several times in recent years, but it was beat back by student and administration opposition. The decision to arm campus police officers this time came after the university’s Department of Public Safety consulted with local police, before the recent rash of campus shootings.

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WASHINGTON — Fairfax County police say confusion surrounding an active shooter drill at a Bailey’s Crossroads office building Thursday led to alarm as businesses unaware of the drill locked down and people in the area scrambled for information.

At about 1:15 p.m., Fairfax County police said officers were investigating a report of shots heard at 5109 Leesburg Pike. Police tweeted that nothing was confirmed and they had not located any suspects or victims.

At about 2 p.m., police tweeted that they confirmed the incident was the scene of an active shooter drill.

Fairfax County police says they were not aware of the drill initially. A federal agency in the building was holding the drill, says police spokeswoman Officer Shelley Broderick, but she says it is still not clear which agency it is.

Neither Arlington County police nor the FBI Washington Field Office were aware of the drill either, both agencies told WTOP.

Fairfax County police say one of the building’s tenants received an email that there would be an active shooter drill, and the tenant forwarded the email to another person who worked in the building. The other person, not realizing it was a drill, called 911 presuming there was an active shooter.

Fairfax County police had a large presence and the incident caused alarm to people in the area who seemed to be unaware of a drill.

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Oregon community college administrators are striving to tighten security after the mass shootings at one of the two-year schools. But they can’t arm their own guards or remove someone who appears on campus with a gun.

Umpqua Community College, the Roseburg school where nine people and the gunman died and nine more were wounded Oct. 1, posts only one security guard armed with pepper spray on its 100-acre campus.

That’s typical of community colleges with similar enrollments across the state, said Abby Lee, a public information officer at Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, near Oregon’s border with Idaho.

Lee said Treasure Valley has a full-time security director and six part-time campus officers, none of whom carries a gun.

Administrators have directed officers to patrol buildings and become more visible since the shootings at Umpqua. But Lee said her school has received conflicting legal advice on its weapons-free policy, which bans firearms including guns carried by students, faculty members and employees who have concealed-weapons permits.

“There’s not a community college that isn’t reviewing its policies and procedures,” she said. “We’re still very much reeling. We’re all looking for answers, trying to find that one answer that would have prevented this.”

State law does not allow the two-year colleges to form police departments staffed with armed, state-certified law enforcement officers. Weapons-free zones declared by many school administrators are riddled with exceptions that immobilize officers confronted by gun-toting strangers.

Legislators in key positions to change the law to permit two-year colleges to shift from stationing security guards to deploying certified police officers carrying firearms show no intention of forcing the issue. Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, who chairs the interim Judiciary Committee, said he plans to bring community college leaders together to hear their opinions and discuss whether their schools should gain that authority, which public four-year universities already have.

“We have legislative days set for November and January, and this is one of those issues that we definitely want to look at in great detail,” said Prozanski, who survived a recall campaign this year after the Legislature expanded background checks on gun sales. “But we will not want to rush this process.”

Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, also doesn’t want to hurry through changes, but may favor a minor budget increase to boost community-college security staffing. Legislators raised Oregon community-college funding in their last session, but money remains tight. The $550 million appropriated for 2015-2017 remains about $20 million short of pre-recession support when adjusted for inflation.

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A special plain-clothed overtime police detail was able to catch numerous shoplifters this summer at Aurora Farms Premium Outlets, Police Chief Brian Byard said Oct. 1.

Overall, officers worked 176 overtime hours and recovered more than $10,000 in stolen merchandise, starting June 5 after the city received a $12,000 grant from Ohio Criminal Justice Services.

“Our goal was to combat organized retail theft rings by arresting shoplifters, reduce the number of shoplifting incidents and educate retail associates,” Byard said. “Over the course of the three months, the enforcement action resulted in numerous arrests for theft and receiving stolen property, and the seizure of thousands of dollars in counterfeit currency.”

In June, officers worked 62 overtime hours, resulting in 14 arrests, five of which were repeat offenders involved in organized retail theft.

In July, officers worked 29 overtime hours, which resulted in four arrests. In August, officers compiled 85 overtime hours with two arrests.

Byard said those targeted were “professional shoplifters” carrying booster bags and the tools necessary to remove security sensors.

“They’re often the repeat offenders well known to mall security,” he said, adding within the first hour of the detail, Aurora police arrested two people for shoplifting after they attempted to flee on foot.

“The increase in hours and the decrease in arrests are a good indicator that word had spread among those who target shopping malls around Northeast Ohio” because the suspects had less of a presence over the summer, he said.

“We are happy to see that some of the habitual offenders have been caught and prosecuted accordingly,” Byard said. “We hope to receive additional grant funding in the future for other details around the city.”

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Imagine the emotional difficulty of arranging in-home hospice care for a terminally ill family member. Now imagine learning after the fact that your loved one had been cared for not by a nurse but by a medical imposter.

That is exactly what happened in more than 200 cases in the Dallas/Fort Worth area over nearly a three-year period when a woman who had stolen the identity of a registered nurse used those credentials to gain employment with multiple hospice companies.

“Jada Necole Antoine had absolutely no nursing experience or medical training,” said Special Agent Brian Marlow, who investigated the case out of the FBI’s Dallas Division. “The thought of having someone who is not a nurse taking care of your parent or loved one is not only criminal, it is morally outrageous.”

The Bureau’s investigation began in 2013 as a result of a local traffic stop in Texas. When the patrol officer asked for identification, Antoine produced her own driver’s license, and it turned out there was a warrant for her arrest on another matter. She also had other identification in the car—including documents belonging to the victim nurse—along with a number of medical records.

That information was forwarded to the Medicare Fraud Strike Force team in Texas, which consists of the FBI, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Texas State Attorney General’s office, and local law enforcement.

The strike force is part of a larger, nationwide effort aimed at combating health care fraud and abuse.

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