Tacoma police officer pushes to fill DNA gap to solve cold cases

Convicted sex offenders are often looked at in sexual assault cases where police have no obvious suspects.

So when Tacoma police detective Lindsey Wade realized not all of the offenders living at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island had DNA on file, she was troubled.

DNA is crucial for solving cold cases and some of the most violent sexual predators in Washington State were not listed in the Combined DNA Index Search (CODIS), which regularly runs known offenders’ DNA against DNA found at crime scenes.

Wade’s concerns were shared by the state, which then changed its policy to collect DNA from offenders as they were brought to SCC rather than when, or if, they were released.

There were 49 sex offenders who did not have DNA on file, including nine who had already died. Officials found four had DNA on file in other states, leaving them 36 offenders from which to request DNA.

A few employees at SCC were trained to collect DNA samples from the residents’ inner cheek with a small sponge. Some residents declined to give DNA but were later ordered by a court to provide a sample.

The last sample was collected in June 2013.

Wade talked with The News Tribune about the changes in procedure:

Question: How did you discover some sex offenders at the SCC did not have DNA on file?

Answer: I contacted the Department of Corrections because I was working on the Teekah Lewis case and I asked them to pull information for me on offenders. I asked off-the-cuff if all the offenders at SCC were in CODIS and they didn’t know. It turns out several dozen offenders never had DNA collected. It was an oversight. They weren’t thinking like investigators trying to solve cold cases; they were thinking these guys won’t hurt anybody while they’re at SCC.

Q: What was your next step?

A: We got the number of those who did not have DNA collected. It was a long process but the Attorney General’s Office really helped. There were 36 total but nine were deceased.

Q: How did you get DNA samples from the offenders who had already died?

A: Three of them, I got their DNA from blood cards taken at the time of autopsy. The other one had a tissue sample taken. The others did not have autopsies so there was no DNA. I’m still willing to dig up the others. If we found a connection to Tacoma and thought they might be involved in case, we probably would look a little harder at an exhumation.

Q: Why is it important to have DNA from all the offenders housed at SCC?

A: SCC houses the most dangerous sex predators in our state and those types of offenders are the ones we look at in our cold cases. I found out we had this whole population of sex offenders who are too violent to be released into the community but they didn’t have DNA in CODIS. That was extremely troubling to me.

Q: Do you track whether any of the offenders you took samples from have been linked to cold case crimes?

A: I set Google alerts for the SCC and all the offender names and then I read all the stories to see if I recognize any names.

Q: Have you recognized any names yet?

A: Michael Halgren. He’s been at the SCC since 2000. I don’t think there would have been any plan to ever release him. It was a total shock for the detective in Bellevue when he got the lab report connecting him to the 1980 murder of Susan Lowe. Michael Halgren’s name never came up in that investigation. That case might have never been solved.

Q: You wrote an article for the International Homicide Investigators Association asking other agencies to make sure they collected DNA from all sex offenders. Why did you choose that topic?

A: There are 46 states that have civil commitment laws. I would venture to guess that if we had this problem in Washington, other states probably have similar situations. That really is an issue because we’ve got unsolved cases all over the place. We need CODIS to connect the dots. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we ended up hearing about more hits.