- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 2, 2007

RICHMOND — The killer had left his mark all over the crime scene.

Grayish-tan hairs lay strewn on the ground below the old willow tree on Marylin Christian’s Loudoun County farm, inches away from where her beloved cat, Cody, was found dead.

Cody’s distraught owner vowed to seek justice. But when she suggested that animal-control officers collect saliva from a neighbor’s dog, Lucky, to see whether it genetically matched hair found in Cody’s mouth and claws, she was met with bewilderment.

“They kind of acted like, ‘Well, you’ve been watching a little too much ‘CSI,’ ” Mrs. Christian recalled with a laugh.

Perhaps. But her idea wasn’t that far-fetched. Law-enforcement officials increasingly are relying on traditional forensic methods to solve crimes in which an animal is the victim, perpetrator or witness.

“There’s some real serious cases where animal DNA played a role in helping solve the case,” said Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, a DNA specialist who has asked investigators to collect DNA samples from murder suspects’ pets at crime scenes.

Mrs. Christian eventually paid $500 for the evidence to be tested at the Veterinary Genetics Lab at the University of California at Davis, which has the largest database of domesticated-animal DNA in the country. The result? A one in 67 million chance the hair belonged to anyone other than Lucky.

The lab handles 150 to 200 cases a year from around the world, including ones in which animals attack humans, humans attack animals and even ones in which humans attack each other and an animal may yield important clues.

In one case, the lab used DNA testing to match dog excrement found on the bottom of a murder suspect’s shoe to excrement found near the crime scene — a key piece of evidence that helped secure the man’s conviction. In another case, a sexual-assault victim couldn’t pick her attacker out of a lineup, but she remembered her dog had urinated on the man’s pickup truck. The dog’s DNA matched DNA traces found on the truck’s tire, and the suspect pleaded guilty.

ASPCA forensic veterinarian Melinda Merck relies on the same techniques as standard CSIs — ballistics, toxicology, blood-spatter analysis — to help solve animal-cruelty cases across the country.

Last year, she testified in the Atlanta trial of two teenage brothers who tortured a puppy and left it in an oven to die. Mrs. Merck proved the puppy was alive when it was tortured and reconstructed the animal’s final moments in grim detail for a jury. The brothers were sentenced to a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison.

Even forensic entomologists — who use insects such as maggots to help estimate a victim’s time of death — have moved into the world of animal-related crimes.

Forensic entomologist Jason Byrd often is called to help investigators with wildlife crimes and poaching cases. If a bald eagle is shot at a game reserve, he can examine the maggots on the bird’s carcass to help determine its time of death. Investigators then can access the records at the reserve to narrow down who was in the area at the time of the shooting.

“They’re not scared to spend money now to figure out who’s been poaching animals,” Mr. Byrd said. “Now they do true investigation techniques. They throw forensic science at the problem.”

Colleges are just beginning to take note. This year, Purdue University’s School of Veterinary Medicine began offering a forensic veterinary-medicine course, thought to be the first of its kind in the country.

It has been nearly two years since Mrs. Christian lost Cody, her feline companion of 13 years. Despite the DNA results, animal-control officers refused to declare Lucky a dangerous dog, though Lucky and his owners have since moved away.

And though her CSI-style pursuit of justice was expensive and frustrating, she has no regrets. The stay-at-home mother of two considers her other four cats to be her children, too.

“I felt like I needed to do it for my family,” Mrs. Christian said. “The two-legged and the four-legged.”



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