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LOGAN — Five-year-old Elizabeth Shelley was reported missing Saturday morning when her mother awoke and found the front door of her Logan home wide open and her daughter and the girl’s uncle gone.
Elizabeth’s uncle, 21-year-old Alex Whipple, had been sleeping on the couch the night of the girl’s disappearance and was found wandering a nearby neighborhood later that day. He was taken into custody and questioned by police.
Other officers, meanwhile, continued searching for evidence in the area. They found a broken knife with blood on the hilt, a concrete block spattered with blood, a PVC pipe with a partial blood palm print, an empty beer can and the skirt Elizabeth wore to bed the night before.
Then, just two days after Elizabeth went missing, police announced that “strong” forensic evidence linked Whipple to the girl’s disappearance. Later, police announced that Whipple was charged with capital murder, just hours before the young man would lead them to Elizabeth’s body.
Matching DNA to a suspect usually takes weeks, sometimes even months. Yet, Logan police were able to test evidence and receive conclusive answers within hours — thanks to relatively new tech.
According to court records, officers requested a Rapid DNA test which, unlike traditional DNA analysis, can produce results in about 90 to 115 minutes. Touted as the “future of DNA,” Rapid DNA can help law enforcement identify a suspect soon after finding evidence.
"For the first time ever, really, it allows the DNA analysis to be used as part of the investigation," West Jordan Police Sgt. Dan Roberts told KSL when the West Jordan Police Department initially tested the tech back in 2013.
The Utah Attorney General’s Office now owns two Rapid DNA testing machines, the office's special agent Nate Mutter said during an appearance on KSL Newsradio’s "Dave and Dujanovic" show Thursday morning.
After using those machines to test the evidence, Logan police were able to quickly match the recovered DNA to Whipple, who was subsequently charged with capital murder, and then convince him to lead them to the girl’s body, Mutter said. It certainly “expedited” the process, he added.
The machines are fully automated and “very police officer friendly,” Mutter explained, and "all we need to do is worry about getting the evidence." Rapid DNA is exceptionally accurate, he added, though crime labs will often verify later what the quick DNA test has found.
The technology became an even more potent crime-solving force in 2017 when a bill sponsored by former Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was signed into law by President Donald Trump.
The bill created a system that allows samples collected in the field to be connected to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS — a national database that houses DNA profiles from federal, state and local forensic laboratories.
Previously, police agencies could only use results from accredited labs, rather than Rapid DNA, to search for matches in the FBI database. Mutter believes the technology and new bill will also help crime labs reduce the amount of backlogged DNA tests.
“If law enforcement has the opportunity to (use) this, it will reduce the pressure of requests for any crime lab to run DNA," he said, "So maybe they can start catching up.”