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Feb. 5, 2023

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‘Murder cases are not solved in 24 hours’: DNA experts discuss Idaho evidence, homicides

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BOISE, Idaho — The public still wants answers in the quadruple homicide that left four University of Idaho students dead — but experts say evidence in a complex homicide case will take time to process.

Authorities in Moscow still haven’t been able to identify a suspect or locate the weapon in the stabbings, though investigators say they have taken 113 pieces of physical evidence to the Idaho State Police crime lab, taken roughly 4,000 crime scene photos and three-dimensional scans of the off-campus home, and received over 1,000 pieces of digital media and 5,000 tips from the public.

Idaho State Police Forensic Services Director Matthew Gamette told the Idaho Statesman by phone that investigations take time.

“I certainly can’t share case-specific information,” Gamette said. “I can tell you that our scientists are working very hard.”

Madison Mogen, Kaylee Goncalves, Xana Kernodle and Ethan Chapin were stabbed to death last month in a King Road home just off campus just behind new Greek row.

Idaho State Police spokesperson Aaron Snell told the Statesman investigators are still receiving analyses and test results from the state lab. But authorities have previously said those results will not be shared with the public.

“These things don’t necessarily come out in the media,” Gamette said. “Investigators are getting information that hopefully is helpful to their investigation, and we’ll continue to work at the state lab as we do 365 days of the year.”

The crime lab can accept evidence from local, state or federal law enforcement agencies.

“If there’s a gun that comes into the laboratory, there might be the possibility of getting fingerprints off of the gun, maybe DNA evidence off of the gun,” Gamette said. The lab’s firearms unit can also test to see if a gun is operable.

The lab can also be involved at the crime scene, Gamette said. In Moscow, the Idaho State Police mobile crime scene team assisted, according to the city.

Gamette said it’s vital that investigators receive a “DNA profile” to help identify a suspect. That can come from “any cell in our body” aside from red blood cells, including saliva, other bodily fluids or tissue, he said. The profile will allow investigators to compare the DNA, which holds a cell’s genetic makeup, to known suspects or, if there isn’t a suspect, to people in databases.

In Idaho, the CODIS database includes DNA from anyone convicted of a felony, plus any evidence from other crime scenes, Gamette said. If nothing turns up in the Idaho database, then he said they would look at the national database, whose entries from some states, like California, include not only people convicted of felonies but also those who have been arrested on suspicion of a felony.

Gamette declined to comment on any specifics related to the homicide investigation.

He said the case is “extremely important” to the lab and the police agencies investigating, but the lab is still handling other cases too. Certain factors, such as a case being a threat to a community and crimes against people, can make cases a higher priority for the lab.

“I don’t want anyone in our state to feel like their justice won’t be served in their cases because we’re diverting off every resource that we have to one specific case,” Gamette said.

Another path investigators can take is molecular forensic genetic genealogy — or using family genealogy databases to compare DNA.

If DNA from an assailant is found at a crime scene, but it’s not showing up in any databases, Gamette said a genetic profile from the DNA sample can be compared to profiles in databases from companies like GEDmatch, which is a lesser-known version of 23andMe. In 2019 a Florida judge allowed law enforcement to search GEDmatch’s database after the company had made it harder for police to search its database.

Gamette said the state crime lab does not have that technology, but it can contract for the work. The lab is now working on 50 cold cases that investigators believe could benefit from the genealogy testing.

This type of technology was used by the Idaho Innocence Project to reduce and later overturn Christopher Tapp’s wrongful conviction. Tapp, of Idaho Falls, was found guilty of the first-degree murder and rape of Angie Dodge in 1998 until his conviction was vacated in 2019.

Idaho Innocence Project Director Greg Hampikian told the Statesman by phone that when his organization worked on the Dodge murder, it was able to take an old DNA sample from the case and run it through the genealogy databases, which eventually led them to Brian Dripps. Dripps, who lived near Dodge, was convicted of her murder last year.

Hampikian said he hopes police are asking anyone they’ve spoken to for a DNA swab.

Pointing toward the Dodge investigation, Hampikian said that while the police did good DNA work and were asking other people for swabs, they didn’t ask Dripps for one.

“Please, anybody you talk to, ask them for a swab,” Hampikian said.

He added that authorities should be using DNA swabs ethically, and if the police are asking people for swabs, they should use them in the homicide case and then destroy the results afterward.

Snell told the Statesman he wasn’t sure whether police were asking individuals cleared by police for DNA swabs, and said that information likely wouldn’t be shared with the public.

Hampikian said it’s “nothing unusual” to have a crime scene with a lot of DNA evidence, which is another reason he recommends police ask people for swabs. The King Road home was frequented by people besides the roommates who lived there.

In the three weeks since the homicides, police have cleared at least seven people, including the two surviving roommates and anyone present at the house when 911 was called.

“For each and every individual, who are cleared or not part of the investigation, each has been thoroughly investigated — to the point where detectives feel safe,” Snell said by phone. “It’s not to say a tip can’t come up, and we can’t go back and check back. But we feel comfortable, to what we believe is vetted information at this point from the department, that they’re not people involved.”

Hampikian said most blood samples, fingerprints, and other samples come from victims, though sometimes DNA from perpetrators can be present too.

The forensic team may also look for a mixture, a sample of DNA from more than one person. A piece of clothing, for example, might have blood from a victim along with DNA evidence via blood if an assailant or assailants hurt themselves. Police have not said whether the attacker or attackers in Moscow were injured.

Hampikian said someone can leave “touch evidence,” a sample of DNA left that could contain cells of the assailant from their hands.

“Murder cases are not solved in 24 hours or a week or two,” Hampikian said. “You got to look at the science first, let the data speak, develop a hypothesis.”

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