SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — Pets are helping solve real crimes in a science that’s slowly gaining traction in the crime-scene investigation community, and was used in a high-profile murder trial in Sacramento.
On an early December morning, just weeks before Christmas, a couple preparing to leave their Natomas home for work instead took in their final breaths.
Eric Beasley remembers his neighbors, Steven and Linda Riley.
“Very, very friendly,” he said. “They would come out pretty much every night and walk the dogs, stop and talk to all neighbors.”
The Rileys, both in their 50s, were stabbed several times. Their bodies were discovered after they failed to show up for their state jobs.
“There were a lot of people upset, left candles on their porch,” Beasley said.
While the crime scene had blood everywhere, there was no blood from any suspect.
Their family had no idea who could ever do this, and neither did police.
But investigators would eventually focus their attention on the couple’s son, Matthew.
Family members couldn’t believe it, but Sacramento Deputy District Attorney Chris Ore believed it. Ore would, for the first time in Sacramento County, use evidence from a cutting-edge crime-fighting technique to prove it
Another case, and another crime scene.
In that same year, Dane Williams disappeared while attending a convention in San Diego. his lifeless body would be discovered wrapped in a comforter.
Investigators helped Williams’ parents get that resolution by turning to animal DNA.
That’s right, animal DNA was collected in both cases, and helped prosecutors pin down the killers.
Key evidence in the Riley double-murder was a pair of boots found on the roof of Riley’s former apartment building, two years after the murder.
“The idea was that he most likely killed in his socked feet, then put his socked feet back into those boots and drove home,” Ore said.
The bad news—no blood was found in the boots.
But after tearing them apart, investigators found dog hair. DNA testing could exclude 87 to 90 percent of the dogs in the United States from leaving that hair.
Prosecutors say that hair matched Winston, a dog belonging to Matthew Riley’s parents.
“In this case, the dog hair linked Matthew Riley to boots he had hidden, and he hid them for reasons he knew,” Ore said, “which was that those boots he believed would link him somehow to this crime.”
Riley was convicted of the brutal murders and given two life sentences without parole.
Beth Wictum leads the forensics unit of the veterinary genetics lab at UC Davis. It’s the go-to lab for getting results that qualify for convictions in court.
“If you own a dog or a cat, you‘ve got fur on your pants,” Wictum said. “You go to your car, it gets in your car, and you’re carrying their DNA, their signature with you everywhere you go.”
The scientists isolate animal DNA for use in cases ranging from abuse, to horse breeding, to cold-blooded killings.
“Sometimes we get results from things we’re not expecting to get results from,” Wictum said.
That’s what happened in the San Diego murder.
The blanket the killer wrapped around the victim’s body was covered in dog hair.
“We were able to match those dog hairs to his mother’s dog, and he lived at home with his mother,” Wictum said.
The lab takes on cases for prosecutors and defendants alike, with their testimony relied on in cases as far away as Europe.
Though tests for animal DNA are being refined all the time, the investigative community is only just starting to tap the tool’s potential.
In some cases, it can provide a voice to the one who might be the sole silent witness to a crime—the faithful pet who watches it happen.
The UC Davis unit also handles cases to positively identify an animal accused of attacking another animal or human.
And they can even identify whose pet left a mess on your lawn.
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