Tim Kupferschmid leads a team of scientists renown for cracking cold cases.
Leonard, who police soon learned had walked off the work release program, became the prime suspect when a detective found his prison ID bracelet at the crime scene. Then, just before daylight on Friday, not quite 36 hours after the attack, police found the shop clerk’s stolen car and rousted Leonard out of a tent near Mona in Juab County. He was camping out, using equipment he had bought with the stolen credit card. A few days later Leonard appeared at a preliminary hearing on charges of aggravated kidnapping with serious bodily injury, aggravated sexual assault, aggravated robbery and attempted aggravated murder. “The court bound him over on every charge we brought,” Kelly says.
Almost as important, the arrest and swiftly moving justice quelled the community’s fear.
Making the case
The eyewitness identifications and ID bracelet were strong evidence, Kelly says, but the slam dunk in her case against Leonard was the tiny fragments of flesh trapped in the strands of the bootlace. “The bootlace had the DNA of three people. The rape victim, the store clerk and Leonard’s DNA. It tied him to both crimes.”
“The criminal was on something of a crime spree, and it was apparently his favorite shoestring,” says Tim Kupferschmid, executive director at Sorenson Forensics. Then, he pauses to apologize. “That sounds terrible. But if you couldn’t joke about these things, you’d go home and cry every night.”
As the only private DNA laboratory in Utah, Sorenson Forensics can claim a slew of cold case triumphs, including a one-week triple play in 2010 that resolved a murder unsolved for 26 years.
“Law enforcement agencies know about our short turnaround time and our reputation for solving cold cases,” Kupferschmid says. “It makes economic sense to pay for a private lab when you consider the hundreds of hours of overtime that can go into investigating a case with conventional methods.”
CSI: Real World
After a steady diet of television crime scene dramas—with projected computer images, telltale clues that glow in exotic light wavelengths and vast, instantly searchable databases—a visitor is set up for disappointment on a visit to Sorenson Forensics. The drab building in an industrial neighborhood in Salt Lake City is the epitome of nondescript—it lacks even a sign to hint at the crime-busting work that goes on inside.
Kupferschmid says the anonymity is the legacy of the company’s founder James Sorenson. “He didn’t like a high profile,” Kupferschmid says. The anonymity also provides a degree of security for a lab that has assisted in investigating thousands of criminals, many of whom are behind bars.
Evidence from the crime scene—some as small as the head of a pin—first goes to the serology lab where it is examined for biological evidence—blood, fluids, tissue—which glow under the blue wavelengths of light used in the lab.
Then, using surprisingly prosaic laboratory processes that include applying soap solutions, the lab techs “bust open” the cells, Kupferschmid says, and remove any cell material besides the naked DNA.
At this point, using a laser beam and dyes to highlight the microscopic samples of DNA, the scientists produce what they call a “DNA fingerprint” that can be matched against a suspect’s DNA or criminal database. The final evidence on which a person’s life may depend boils down to a series of numbers about as exciting to look at as a Social Security number.
One of Sorenson Forensic’s techniques that has cracked several cold cases recently is Y chromosome screening. Y-screening quickly detects the presence of male DNA, allowing further testing to focus on only male DNA samples.
In the Provo case, Sorenson Forensics had too little DNA to link Leonard to the crime as an individual. But an expert witness could confidently testify that the Y chromosome on the bootlace could only be matched to Leonard, a brother or his father, and that the female DNA belonged to the rape victim and the store clerk.
“The DNA evidence was vital,” says Kelly. “It definitively connected Leonard with both attacks.”
DNA evidence, with its scientific precision (probabilities of an error in a match can be has low as one in sextillion—that’s 21 zeros), intimidates even the most hardened criminals into guilty pleas, Kupferschmid says. “Less than two percent of DNA cases go to trial.”
Says Taylor, “With the DNA, we held all the high cards. Leonard knew it was time to fold.”
When confronted with the DNA evidence on the bootlace, Leonard confessed to the crime in exchange for only one consideration. “He agreed to plea guilty to four of the five charges, but not the rape,” Kelly says. “He wanted the sex assault charge dismissed.”
Leonard’s request struck the prosecutors as odd, considering it would have no effect whatsoever on his sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
“He apparently preferred not to hang out with sex offenders for the rest of his life. That was basically why he took the deal,” Kelly says.
As to why Leonard, an inmate with no violent record, would rape and attempt to murder a woman a few hours after walking away from a work release program, Kelly only shrugs. “He had a bizarre explanation. He claimed she wanted to have sex with him. As for the attack, he said he couldn’t remember anything.”
The growing use of genetic evidence to solve cases, including non-violent crimes such as burglaries, increases public safety because criminals can be successfully prosecuted before they go on to commit even more violent crimes. “Studies show that burglars grow up to be murderers,” Kupferschmid says.
Kelly says she hopes that criminal science like DNA analysis will reduce violent crime, but it’s obvious she remains skeptical.
As for Leonard’s victim, she’s getting along with her life, Taylor says. “We’ve taken a decision not follow up with her constantly. She doesn’t need the police department to regularly remind her of that day.”