Bay Area crime lab on 'Speed Freak' killers case

February 17, 2012 4:54:44 PM PST
Thousands of bones fragments collected from a well in the Central Valley need to be analyzed to determine if they are human remains linked to the so-called "Speed Freak" killers." They will be brought to one of the best labs in the world, right in the Bay Area.

As of this month, there have been 20,000 DNA hits at the Justice Department Lab in Richmond. The oldest cold case they solved was from the 1930s. They verified the DNA of Jaycee Dugard and her children. And now, they have been handed perhaps one of their most challenging cases ever.

Bone fragments from the well will end up at the Justice Department lab in Richmond. "That's our specialty, typing DNA from skeletal remains. We're the only lab in the state that does this kind of work," said criminalist supervisor John Tonkyn. It looks like any other laboratory, but it is not. The lab has the fourth largest DNA database in the world including millions of profiles of felons arrested in the state. "We have identified over approximately 400 individuals and in our database, we have about 1,200 profiles from unidentified human remains," Tonkyn said.

Add to that more than 1,000 pieces of bone believed to be the remains of those killed by "Speed Freak" killers Wesley Shermantine and Loren Herzog. Each bone fragment will be sanded into even smaller pieces, mixed into liquid nitrogen and pulverized into power. The DNA will be separated and extracted. A genetic analyzer then determines the profile of the DNA. "Then, we put those into a computer database and compare these profiles to profiles from missing persons," Tonkyn said.

Chances are the profiles of high-risk missing persons are already in the database. Authorities would have collected their DNA from family members or off the personal effects of the missing, like toothbrushes or combs or nail clippings. However, this case will be difficult. "The number of years it's been exposed to the elements, whether that's the heat, humidity, bacteria, sunlight, all those things are detrimental to DNA," Tonkyn explained.

The two killers were on their murder spree more than a decade ago. If the bones are human remains, they have been in the well for a long time. And, even under the best conditions, the odds are still against the criminalists. "There's not a lot of DNA present in bone to begin with and then over time, there's even less DNA present," Tonkyn said.

The lab could not comment directly on the "Speed Freak" killer case, but they said they have not begun work yet on the bones collected from the well. They also said they have never handled a case with so many bones from one collection point. So, it will undoubtedly take some time before they can process all of the samples to determine if they match anyone in the lab's database.


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