SALT LAKE CITY — Sometimes, truth hides in plain sight, but you have to have special skills to find it.
Truth for Barbara Rocky, who was murdered in 1974, was found in a tiny bit of tissue in the soil near where her body lay. Murder victims Cathy Cobb and Karin Strom both carried it under their fingernails, as did little Anna Palmer, a 10-year-old girl killed in Salt Lake City in 1998.
For a generation raised on crime TV shows, it's no surprise their truths were found in analysis of deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA, the body's genetic blueprint, has segments unique enough to tie them to a single individual.
What does surprises is that the company that answered the questions surrounding each of their deaths was formed to process genetic samples for a foundation created to link genetic information to ancestry data. That genetics and genealogy company eventually spun off what is now one of the top three forensic DNA labs in America, and another of its subsidiaries put the first paternity test on the neighborhood drugstore shelf, not far from the company's take-home test for sexually transmitted diseases.
Nothing about the squat, tan building that houses Sorenson Genomics near dozens of others that look much like it on West Temple hints at the cutting-edge tools and techniques employed inside.
Late Utah inventor and billionaire James L. Sorenson, who made his money in real estate and in medical device patents, was passionately certain that all people are more alike than they are different. They're related, he said, and should be kinder to each other. To prove it, he established the nonprofit Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation so that deep analysis could show that DNA from George Washington and Eva Peron and virtually everyone else had at some point in time resided in the same regions, maybe even the same towns.
He also founded Sorenson Genomics for the sole purpose of analyzing the genetic samples for the foundation — a job it did so well that it developed a unique core competency in DNA analysis.
Since finding the threads that stitch all of humanity together was an expensive dream, mid-decade Sorenson also reminded the staff that Sorenson Genomics was not a not-for-profit. It must create products, hone expertise and provide services that could transform lives and make enough money to support the foundation, he said.
"We were doing more extensive analysis of DNA than any commercial lab," says Doug Fogg, chief operating officer of Sorenson Genomics, which just turned 10. "We recognized that forensic DNA is about human identity, just as ancestry DNA is. It was an expertise we had in house."
It was summer 2006 and Myriad Genetics was dismantling its forensic lab team. It was a short hop from ancestry work to becoming a forensic lab. Sorenson Genomics snapped up the well-trained forensic scientists and analysts, turned them loose on its own excellent equipment and DNA analysis capability and a company within the company — Sorenson Forensics — was born.
Even Sorenson, who died in early 2008, would probably not have predicted he was creating a company whose fast, accurate and high-volume DNA analysis could put names to the question marks that linger after disaster and crime: "Who was she?" Or, "Who did this?" Or that Sorenson Forensics would be involved in some way with every cold case solved in Utah in the past few years — and many elsewhere, as well.
The foundation still has the largest correlated genealogical and genetic database, though others compete in genetic ancestry testing services. Still, no one has come close to the depths of DNA analysis by Sorenson Genomics for the database. "We're not even using those tests commercially," Fogg says. "It is quite costly." And the forensic lab and other spin-offs each make waves in their own specialties.
"We have become known for innovation," says Fogg, as he guides a reporter through a series of labs, where scientists and lab techs in white coats amplify and replicate tiny amounts of DNA. Some of the equipment looks very familiar: The vials and beakers, microscopes, refrigerators, eye droppers and computers. But others, like the thermal cyclers, are more unique. There's a machine Sorenson Forensics executive director and lab director Timothy D. Kupferschmid describes as a "molecular Xerox machine." Specimens are separated by size, then "excited with a laser."
The lab techs process bodily remnants: the semen, the blood, the saliva and skin cells. After 13-15 locations are examined in a DNA specimen, a profile is generated. It's really a numeric value that can be compared to others.
Someone taking a tour must stay within certain areas in some of the labs to avoid contaminating anything. In others, entry is simply barred.
But peering through the glass, watching rows and rows and rows of tiny samples move through DNA analysis, one can't help but wonder what secrets are being revealed, what lives are being changed.
A dozen years after Anna Palmer was found stabbed to death on her front porch, the victim of a sexual assault, a giant billboard bearing the little girl's picture and a request for information reminded Salt Lake drivers that someone had gotten away with murder.
Then, in 2010, DNA from under her fingernails, preserved since her death, led officers to a suspect: John Breck, who was 19 at the time of the killing and had lived not far from the child's home.
Sorenson Forensics had matched the DNA collected and preserved at the time of her death to his profile in the FBI's CODIS DNA database. He has since been charged, but not convicted, of the crime. He was jailed in Idaho at the time the DNA match came up; last summer he was transferred to Utah, where he's awaiting a preliminary hearing set for June 14-16.
In September 1998, when Anna died, it was nearly impossible to extract DNA from beneath a fingernail, the Sorenson scientists say. But police, ever hopeful — or perhaps prescient — kept fingernail clippings in case.
These days, it's often even possible to get enough "contact" DNA from the spot where a finger touched a bullet surface or an eye socket was pressed to the lens of a camera to provide an identification. Experts have pulled usable DNA from cell phone keypads, mirror surfaces and cloth. If you can touch it, you can leave a bit of your very essence behind.
DNA is found in the nucleus of cells, which have to be opened to extract it. When it has been degraded by conditions or time, or when there's very little of it, amplification or replication techniques can make it possible to find those coveted answers, says Kupferschmid.
Sorenson's laboratory was the first certified for genetic ancestry testing under an international guideline for labs called ISO 17025. And it holds several other valuable — and rare — accreditations: That of the American Association of Blood Banks for parentage and familial relationship testing, the American Society of Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board for forensic DNA casework services, New York State Department of Health for parentage and identity testing services and Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments for diagnostic testing services.
"We get lots of work from law enforcement and government. And we also are sometimes that independent look that is needed, as well," Kupferschmid says.
Utah has a state lab that does forensic testing, and Lt. Justin Hoyal, a spokesman for the Unified Police of Greater Salt Lake, notes that local law enforcement use it or send materials to Sorenson for testing, depending on how heavy the labs' workloads are and whether there's a backlog. "We send a lot of cases over to Sorenson, specifically for DNA testing," he says. "We've had good results with them, especially with STR DNA testing and Minifiler testing."
He's referring to two ways to analyze DNA. STR technology, shorthand for "short tandem repeat" technology, looks at specific areas of nuclear DNA. "Minifiler" analysis is used when a DNA sample has degraded.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation selected 13 specific STR locations as the standard that all labs use to come up with a CODIS match. CODIS stands for Combined DNA Index System, the software that compares sample results within this DNA database. The collected forensic DNA profiles include samples from convicted offenders, relatives of missing persons and bodies that have never been identified, among others. By making sure that all forensic labs in criminal cases use identical locations on the DNA, the integrity of the process and the matches hold up. Scientists are comparing apples to apples, not rhubarb.
The federal government's DNA Initiative (www.dna.gov) says the variable nature of the 13 STR regions analyzed for forensic cases "intensifies the discrimination" between one DNA profile and another. Unless they're identical twins, the likelihood that two people will have that same DNA profile could be 1 in 1 billion or more.
Incidentally, identical twins have the same DNA in the areas that forensics experts care about. But their fingerprints are not alike, Kupferschmid says.
Normally, fairly large fragments of DNA are tested. Minifiler technology allows accurate results with smaller fragments.
Sorenson Forensics' Rick Barlow says the company teaches law enforcement officers proper collection techniques for processing a crime scene for DNA evidence. In just three years they've trained more than 1,350 officers from 330 agencies in 18 states.
"We work dozens of cases for law enforcement each day," Kupferschmid says, doing lab work for more than 100 U.S, law enforcement agencies. And Sorenson experts have helped create national forensic DNA labs in Senegal and Nigeria, where nothing comparable had existed.
Fogg says Sorenson Genomics is all about "human identification."
It's also about what it means to be human. The tests are pure science, but when you add the stories of the people touched, you encounter a roiling range of human emotion and action: Love, sorrow, anger, hatred, lust, hope.
It's true even of the commercial DNA testing Sorenson Genomics pioneered with the over-the-counter paternity test that's sold at major pharmacies. That Identigene DNA Paternity Test Kit told Suliemon Clemens he had twins and David Cabrera that the young man who'd come to him believing he'd found his father should keep looking. They were not related.
When Steven Smith, director of sales and marketing for Sorenson's Identigene talks about it, he speaks not of identifying a reluctant father, but about bringing families together. His favorite area, he says, is immigration. The tests have restitched families torn apart by war and time and circumstance.
It was "intuitive" for a company that is at its essence about human identification to become interested in paternity testing, Fogg says, because it's about "relatedness. We saw paternity testing as the great evolution of ancestry testing, more specific to relationships, not just family associations. It is the next step of resolution, specifically about the relationship between two individuals."
Fogg says that 5,000 to 6,000 are sold each month. For the price of a $30 kit and $130 lab processing fee, tiny skins cells on a cheek swab turn into knowledge.
So does the company's readily available take-home test for chlamydia and gonorrhea, launched last year. It's an extension of the science. The very same processes that apply to human DNA can be used on a bacterium's DNA, to provide answers people need, he says.
But if you really want to see raw human emotion, find a family where someone is missing.
Sorenson Genomics helped Thai families devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed at least 227,000 people in a dozen countries the day after Christmas, 2004. Shock and devastation jockeyed for attention first, but before long, bodies were being gathered in makeshift morgues throughout the region, overwhelming local efforts at identification.
A Park City businessman, Dave Rockwood, had met Fogg a few months before and knew what Sorenson Genomics could do. He was even more familiar with the Thai people. He'd served a mission there for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He brought the two together.
After Sorenson himself declared the company could help identify the victims and he would absorb the cost, Rockwood flew to Thailand with as many swab kits and collection vials as he could fit in his luggage. At a makeshift morgue in one of the temples in Phucket, he told Dr. Khunying Pornthip that the Utah company wanted to help. No turf wars. No charge. Just help. Months later, visiting Utah, Pornthip, deputy director of Thailand's Central Institute of Forensic Science, described Rockwood and Sorenson Genomic's work as "miracles."
They had successfully identified many of the dead, giving them back to their grieving families.
C. Lars Mouritsen, chief scientific officer of the company, remembers well the massive effort: Rockwood's team would put a sample in a collection vial — typically a piece of muscle tissue, a bone fragment, a tooth. Where possible, they collected three: one for China, which had also offered to help, one for the Sorenson lab and one for the Thai government.
In Salt Lake City, analysts ran 1,300 samples, 800 from relatives of the missing and presumed dead and 500 from victims whose bodies had been found. They did high throughput DNA sequencing, looking at specific segments of DNA. They created a database and each time they added a sample, they ran it against the others. Thai police were given the matches so families could be notified.
Sometimes, though, science must advance to make human identification possible or a crime solvable.
When Barbara Jean Rocky, a 21-year-old BYU coed, was murdered in 1974, her bullet-ridden body left in Big Cottonwood Canyon, investigators had a suspect, but not enough evidence to convince them to arrest him. That changed last year when Sorenson experts matched human tissue found in a soil sample saved from the crime scene against the database. It pointed to Gerald Walter Hicker, now nearly 60, who has since admitted that he shot her.8 comments on this story
Cathy Cobb was 40 years old in 1998 when she was strangled in her home in Salt Lake City. Last March, her ex-husband, Michael Waddell Johnson, was found guilty of the crime. He was literally fingered by DNA taken from under her nails that matched his. The ability to use that DNA didn't exist back then.
Edward Lewis Owens was found guilty based on DNA taken from under fingernails of a victim in an even older case, the strangulation death of Karin Strom, 25, in Woods Cross in 1980,
While Sorenson Genomic's DNA work speaks to the living, it seems both powerful and poignant when it speaks for the dead.
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