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DNA fingerprints solving more crime puzzles
GBI marks 1,500th match of suspects genetic links to unsolved cases
Dorothy Cannon watches the operation of the DNA biorobot in the extraction lab of the GBI regional crime lab in Cleveland. The GBI recently marked the 1,500th hit on its DNA database matching a criminal suspect to a crime scene. - photo by Tom Reed
DNA ‘hits’ in Northeast Georgia
The number of matches of offender DNA samples to physical evidence since the GBI began maintaining a DNA database in 1998:
  • Hall County: 13
  • Lumpkin County: 9
  • Jackson County: 7
  • Dawson County: 1
  • White County: 1
  • Banks County: 0
Source: Georgia Bureau of Investigation

Missy Dimo figured it would only be a matter of time before someone was caught in the theft of more than half a million dollars worth of jewelry from her Gainesville store.

When burglars broke into Dimo Fine Jewelry in the predawn hours of July 14, 2007, several droplets of blood were left behind on the broken glass of a display case during the hasty smash-and-grab. The blood would eventually be traced back to James Cecil Jones, who was jailed last year in Florida in connection with similar jewelry store break-ins.

In Florida, suspects who are charged with certain felonies must provide a sample of their DNA from skin cells inside the cheek known as a buccal swab. When Gainesville police learned from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement earlier this year that the crimes Jones was charged with were similar to the Dimo burglary, a sample of his DNA was requested and compared to the blood evidence kept at the GBI crime lab.

The genetic fingerprints matched. A hold was placed on Jones at the Hamilton County, Fla., jail and Hall County prosecutors will present the case for indictment later this month.

“We didn’t know how long it was going to take, but we knew they were going to find out something,” Dimo said. “You have to wait until that person does something and (their DNA) goes into the records.”

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation recently marked its 1,500th DNA “hit,” or positive match in an unsolved crime. And while rapes and murders are the high-profile cases in which DNA testing has long been associated, the technique is being used more frequently in property crime investigations like the Dimo case.

“Robbery, auto crimes and burglaries are rapidly catching up the number of rapes we’re solving,” said Ted Staples, supervisor of the GBI’s forensic biology section and chairman of the FBI’s Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods.

As Gainesville Police Lt. Brian Kelly noted, “when you take something, you leave something,” whether it’s blood, skin cells, hairs or saliva on cigarette butts. All can be used to extract DNA.

Kelly stressed that DNA is “not an be-all, end-all” in solving cases. In the past 10 years Gainesville police have gotten more than a dozen DNA matches in cases, yet several “didn’t pan out” because a suspect could provide a reason for how his DNA ended up at a crime scene, Kelly said.

That wasn’t the case with Jones.

“He had to try explain away how his blood got on a piece of broken glass in a massive jewelry heist,” Kelly said.

The number of cases being solved through DNA in Georgia has increased as more samples are being collected from convicted felons. All people entering or leaving the state prison system must provide a DNA sample, and in 2007 the legislature expanded the sample pool to include all felony probationers.

There now are nearly 180,000 known DNA samples of felons stored by the GBI, many at the agency’s satellite crime lab in Cleveland. While the physical samples are kept in storage, the DNA codes are uploaded to a computer system that runs comparisons weekly with the 8,312 unknown DNA collected from crime scenes. Each week the unknown samples also are run against the FBI’s collection of known DNA from all 50 states.

The massive DNA database known as CODIS (Combined DNA Indexing System) was implemented by the GBI in 1998.

“The phenomenal thing is it took us 10 years to reach 1,000 (hits) and only 11 months for the next 500,” Staples said.

When Staples started his career in forensic science 23 years ago, blood and enzyme sampling was about as advanced as crime scene investigations got.

DNA, which the GBI first began testing in 1991, “has been the biggest step in aiding in investigations since forensics began,” Staples said.

Kelly said DNA will never supplant traditional investigative work, noting that it was networking with other law enforcement agencies that first led to Jones being identified as a suspect. Fingerprints, the granddaddy of forensic science, will remain useful and much more cost-efficient than DNA, Kelly said.

“We still actively investigate cases by traditional means,” he said. “If we get a DNA hit, that just tightens the case up. It’s another great scientific tool we can use in the resolution of these cases.”

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