SALT LAKE CITY — After a crime is committed, the search for justice can be frustrating and often devastating for victims. Now, a new forensics tool developed and produced in Utah is helping investigators crack cases that might have gone unsolved and unpunished.
West Jordan Police Department senior crime scene investigator Francine Bardole describes the M-Vac system this way, "It saturates into the pores, into the material so that any skin cells that have been embedded into this porous surface will be able to be extracted."
Like a mini carpet cleaner, the M-Vac system sucks up DNA evidence from a variety of broad porous surfaces like a cotton shirt.
"We're a small business, but we're making a big splash in a pretty good sized industry," said Jared Bradley, president of M-Vac Systems Inc.
The growing industry is forensic science where one piece of touch DNA evidence can mean the difference between an arrest or a cold case. Bardole said, "A lot of agencies have cases where they've reached a dead end."
The murder of 17-year-old Krystal Beslanowitch back in 1995 was one of those cold cases. The teen was bludgeoned to death with a rock from the Provo River. Detectives struggled to identify a suspect. Back in 2013, Wasatch County Sheriff Todd Bonner described his investigation of Beslanowitch's murder.
"It's a case that has haunted me for almost my whole career."
Then in 2013, investigators used the vacuum and the spray from the M-Vac to get touch DNA off the rock used to kill the teenager, and they had a match. The touch DNA pointed to Joseph Michael Simpson, an ex-con from Utah living in Florida. An arrest was made 18 years after the crime.
"To be able to say, yes, we identified the person, is of huge, huge importance to us and the victims," said West Jordan Police Sgt. Dan Roberts.
It was so important to Bardole that she got permission from her bosses to buy the $20,000 M-Vac when it first came on the market three years ago.
"The whole idea behind it was jut fantastic as far as touch DNA. I thought this is great," Bardole said.
The invention hatched in 2002 by Jared Bradley's father, a microbiologist who was looking for a way to pull bacteria out of food. Ten years later, an FBI friend convinced Bradley to market the M-Vac as a crime scene investigation tool: "The key to the M-Vac is it sprays in the middle and vacuums along the outside," said Bradley.
Engineer Wayne Carlsen is COO of M-Vac Systems Inc., and he describes the process of collecting the DNA evidence with the M-Vac.
It's phenomenal. You know you can get hundreds, thousands of times more skin cells when in other cases using previous technology, just swabbing alone, you couldn't get any.
–Sgt. Dan Roberts, West Jordan Police
"Anything that you knock free on the surface is being pulled right up into the system. So, all of the cells, debris, anything that's down there comes into the bottle." Once the evidence is inside the bottle, the operator swirls it around to suspend the DNA and then pours it over a collection filter.
Producing and marketing the M-Vac around the world has been exhausting but fulfilling for Bradley and Carlsen. They know the evidence it collects is helping to solve important cases.
"It's phenomenal. You know you can get hundreds, thousands of times more skin cells when in other cases using previous technology, just swabbing alone, you couldn't get any," said Roberts.
Swabbing alone did not initially pick up enough DNA evidence to us against Dr. John Wall accused in the 2011 murder of his ex-wife Uta von Schwedler. Then, at his trial this March, testimony that the M-Vac pulled DNA matching Wall's out of the cotton fibers of a pillowcase. It was critical evidence that helped to convict the former pediatrician of murder.
"They had a kind of a weak profile, but it wasn't enough to move the case (Wall's case) forward," Bradley said. "They used the M-Vac, and that's what made the difference."
Roberts believes the M-Vac will help to convict and clear suspects in a variety of crimes: "This helps us to clarify and catch the right person and eliminate the wrong ones," he said.
Right now, the Utah State Crime Lab is considering but has not yet approved testing of the M-Vac DNA collection filters. If the Lab approves of their use, costs will drop dramatically since filters are now tested by private labs.
If costs come down, it is likely that more Utah law enforcement agencies will make use of the M-Vac as an important evidence gathering tool.