New technique to extract DNA when cases go cold

The detectives looking for Ronald Fraga's killer had hit a dead end.

The year-old murder investigation was as cold as they come, with every lead exhausted, every potential witness interviewed and the last days of Fraga's life reconstructed.

Nothing gave detectives hope they would find the person who stabbed the 17-year-old Fraga outside a Peoria house last January.

That changed this year, when the state Department of Public Safety perfected a new DNA- extraction technique that will give new life to cold cases like Fraga's. The knife handle officers had recovered at the scene, which hadn't produced any viable evidence last year, now contains a wealth of information.

DPS lab workers spent the better part of 2008 developing the method that would allow them to extract DNA samples with enough information to identify a potential suspect. Pieces of evidence frequently arrive at the lab in damaged condition, making it difficult for technicians to isolate molecules that might have a suspect or victim's unique genetic code.

The new process, which essentially cleans the samples, produces a tenfold increase in sensitivity, said Todd Griffith, the scientific-analysis superintendent at the state's four DPS labs. The labs performed more than 2,000 DNA profiles last year and now have the capability to successfully perform many more.

"We can see way more information than before," Griffith said. "In cases where we essentially have no profile at all . . . it just doesn't give you enough information, we can now pull up a full profile."

DPS is only the second agency in the country, along with the state of New York's lab, to perfect the new technique. DPS representatives have shared the breakthrough at a trio of seminars for law-enforcement and human-identification experts.

Investigators have used the new technique to explore six cases that had previously gone cold, including a 20-year-old homicide in which bleached remains were found in the desert.

In the Fraga case, detectives hope evidence from the knife handle may lead to the identity of the murderer.

"Our detectives get very frustrated by the fact that they can't solve the issue, 'cause that's why they're in the business," said Mike Tellef, a Peoria police spokesman.

There were few clues in Fraga's case from the start. The teenager was involved in an argument with a group of people in front of a house near 75th and Peoria avenues about 10:30 on a Saturday night in mid-January.

When Fraga came back into the house, he realized he was stabbed.

"But nobody saw the stabbing," Tellef said.

Fraga was taken to the hospital, where he died that night. Police put out a suspect description at the time, but the case soon went cold.

Dozens of cases like Fraga's were piling up in the DPS laboratory, which conducts forensic-evidence testing for agencies around the state. Lab employees began searching for a solution to the problem of getting a clean sample from "dirty" DNA about the same time Fraga was killed.

Performing the procedure adds about 52 cents to the $800 to $1,500 it costs to conduct a DNA test.

"Any time we can enhance law enforcement's ability to solve crimes, that's going to be a positive," said Sen. Chuck Gray, R-Mesa. "The budget is the biggest issue down here right now at the Legislature, and given that we're literally on the edge of bankruptcy, we're doing all we can to solve that problem without jeopardizing public safety."

The budget issue is especially pertinent in the DPS lab, which became the subject of some controversy last year when the agency started charging cash-strapped police departments around the state to conduct some of the lab work. The decision to spread $2.5 million in fees among the agencies that use the lab was a product of a last-minute deal to get the state budget balanced last year.

Tellef, the Peoria spokesman, said bringing some closure to families of victim's like Fraga is most important.

"We love the fact that DPS has picked one of our cases to be one of the first six in Arizona," he said.

Information contributed by: JJ Hensley