WEST JORDAN — The Utah Cold Case Coalition announced Monday it is building the first nonprofit forensic lab in the nation.
“This is going to revolutionize DNA testing in cold case and homicides throughout the U.S.,” said coalition co-founder Karra Porter.
On Monday, cold case and forensic detectives from many law enforcement agencies in Utah, as well as Idaho and Washington, gathered at the West Jordan Police Department to listen to Porter and her group talk about their plans for a nonprofit lab.
An office building at 4885 S. 900 East is currently undergoing reconstruction to be turned into a lab. Porter and her group hope to start testing cases by April. Dan Hellwig, who worked with Sorenson Forensics for a decade and has helped Salt Lake police with high-profile murder investigations such as Anna Palmer and Uta von Schwedler, will be the lab director.
Porter said the idea of the coalition starting its own lab came about because of the high fees private forensic labs typically charge.
“One of the things we sometimes heard was, ‘Gee, maybe if my family was rich, we’d have one of those phenotypes or maybe we’d have a DNA profile.’ So one of the things we want the public to know is this will level the playing field,” she said. “This is going to help resolve cold cases throughout Utah and throughout the country on this nonprofit basis.”
Not only will it make forensic testing more affordable, but Porter said the group has received generous donations to fill the new lab with cutting-edge forensic equipment.
One machine, the MiSeq FGx Forensic Genomics System, allows researchers to “get a better profile from a smaller sample, a more degraded sample. They’re getting full profiles from samples from the eighth and ninth centuries,” Porter said.
She said it’s a different way of processing DNA, but something hospitals and universities have been doing for years.
The new lab will also offer free phenotyping and will do genetic genealogy testing.
Phenotyping predicts a person’s physical appearance and ancestry using genetic codes. Based on that information, researchers can predict skin color, hair color, eye color and facial structure using percentages.
In 2017, South Salt Lake police released a snapshot composite of a possible suspect in the 2010 murder of Sherry Black, 64, the mother-in-law of former Larry H. Miller Group CEO Greg Miller. A Virginia-based company produced the composite, which was believed to be the first time a phenotype was used in Utah.
Also, on Monday, the coalition gave an update on its Utah Cold Case playing cards. The cards, which have been used by police departments in other states, are regular playing cards, but with pictures and information about 54 Utah cold cases on them. Porter announced Monday that most of the county jails in Utah have agreed to allow the cards into their facilities.
The nonprofit Utah Cold Case Coalition, headed by Salt Lake attorney Porter, formed in late 2017. It initially started to bring renewed attention to the Rosie Tapia case. Tapia, 6, was taken from her bedroom at the old Hartland Apartments, 1616 W. Snow Queen Place (1675 South), early on the morning of Aug. 13, 1995, when she was assaulted and her body dumped in a nearby canal. There has never been an arrest in the case nor a suspect named, and it has become one of the state’s most infamous unsolved murders.
Since then, the coalition has also helped introduce legislation that passed unanimously during the last session to create a cold case database in Utah.