Six months after a judge ordered the destruction of more than 1,300 DNA samples taken to eliminate possible suspects in the BTK serial murder investigation, none have been destroyed, police say. That situation will change soon, they say. Deputy Police Chief Robert Lee told The Eagle on Monday that the department expects to have all the samples destroyed — in a careful, deliberate process — by mid-June.
The task has not been completed partly because a key police official – Lt. Ken Landwehr – didn’t receive the paperwork on the court order until March, Landwehr said. “It’s probably as much my fault as anybody because I didn’t ask for it,” Landwehr said. He said he promptly took the order to the police property and evidence staff once he received it.
Still, the disposal process is more time-consuming than people probably realize, said Landwehr, the homicide unit supervisor who has been widely praised for his work in the BTK investigation. Only two people in the property and evidence unit have clearance to handle and dispose of such evidence, Landwehr said. And they also have to handle evidence streaming in from ongoing cases.
“It’s not like I can take 20 people over there and do it one day,” said Landwehr.
He headed the investigation that led to the arrest of Dennis Rader last year for 10 murders committed by BTK since 1974. Rader pleaded guilty last summer. During the investigation leading to Rader’s capture, Bernie Mermis voluntarily gave a DNA sample to police. He figured he was on a list of potential suspects because he taught at Wichita State University in the 1970s. Authorities concluded that BTK had ties to the campus.
Beginning in December, Mermis said, he began writing officials to find out if his DNA was being destroyed as ordered. Although Mermis appreciates the work of police to catch Rader, he said he would be reluctant to give his DNA again, partly because of privacy concerns and partly because of the time it’s taken to dispose of the samples.
“Nobody followed through on what (District Attorney) Nola Foulston promised and what the judge had ordered” regarding DNA disposal, said Mermis, a Wichita psychologist.
Before investigators arrested Rader near his Park City home, they received thousands of tips about possible suspects, and they used DNA samples to eliminate the innocent. Each sample, taken by a swab of the inside of each person’s cheek, went into a package that has been stored in a secure location, police said.
On Oct. 12, with the case solved and Rader starting to spend the rest of his life in prison, District Judge Greg Waller, who presided over the BTK court proceedings, ordered the destruction of the DNA samples.
Kevin O’Connor, a deputy district attorney, said prosecutors asked that the DNA samples be disposed of to protect the privacy of those who gave samples. Both O’Connor and Lee, the deputy chief, said Monday that they want to again thank those people who aided the investigation by giving samples. “Unfortunately,” O’Connor said, “it’s taking more time than we expected it would” to dispose of the samples.
Each person’s DNA has been kept in a separate sealed package. The two property and evidence personnel have to locate each package, verify the name and check it off. “We want to make sure it is indeed the correct one,” Lee said. Because the samples are considered biohazards, Landwehr said, they likely will be incinerated. “Disposing of those swabs is a priority to us,” Lee said. “We are glad to get rid of these 1,300-plus swabs.”All but a handful of those people whose DNA was taken gave samples willingly, police and prosecutors have said.
Among the few people whose samples were taken against their will was Roger Valadez, a Wichita man who said police wrongly targeted him as a suspect. BTK task force investigators and KBI agents came to his home one night in December of 2004 and seized items. His DNA was taken, and he was arrested on unrelated, minor charges and then released.
Asked about the time it has taken to destroy the samples, Valadez’s lawyer, Dan Monnat, said: “That’s one of the problems with sensitive, personal information in the hands of the government. “There may be a court order to destroy it, but you discover a long time hence that the personal information is still in the hands of the government, undestroyed and with the government still having the opportunity to put it to use.”
Waller, the judge, said people have a right to ask about the disposition of their DNA samples. But Waller said he wasn’t troubled by the time it has taken to follow his order. “I don’t really see it as a problem,” he said, “because court orders don’t necessarily happen right now.”
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The Wichita Eagle – By Tim Potter