Be­hind the masks of the sci­en­tific po­lice un­lock­ing the mys­ter­ies of Syd­ney crimes

It’s not at all like an episode of CSI but new DNA tech­nol­ogy is help­ing solve some of our tough­est crimes, writes Mi­randa Wood

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - NEWS -

FOR the state’s top DNA cold case ex­pert, the Be­lan­glo bone had all the el­e­ments of a great mys­tery.

The vic­tim was found in a no­to­ri­ous NSW killing ground but her iden­tity could not be matched on any data­base.

“The re­mains were found in the Be­lan­glo For­est, which raised the spec­tre of a well-known se­rial killer, but it was ob­vi­ous it was too re­cent to in­volve Ivan Mi­lat … it was 2010,” NSW foren­sic bi­ol­o­gist Dr David Bruce said. Fast for­ward to 2015 and a break­through in the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion pro­duced a DNA match — the bone was from slain mum Kar­lie Pearce-Steven­son.

“We were just com­pletely gob­s­macked,” Dr Bruce told The Sun­day Tele­graph.

In July, Daniel Holdom pleaded guilty in the NSW Supreme Court to mur­der­ing Ms Pearce-Steven­son, 20, and her two-year-old daugh­ter, Khan­da­lyce.

The lit­tle girl’s DNA had fi­nally re­vealed the iden­tity of the Be­lan­glo skele­ton — and their killer — one of more than 50 cold cases Dr Bruce has helped crack.

The DNA de­tec­tive led test­ing on more than 2000 his­toric sex­ual as­sault cases and 80 un­solved homi­cides, part of a five-year project with the NSW Po­lice.

“It’s not the CSI ef­fect where in 40 min­utes you say ‘wow, I found all this ev­i­dence’,” Dr Bruce said. “The idea of it was to get the sam­ples that had been stored since 1985, which pre­dated our DNA test­ing, and to re­view the cases and test them.”

Some of the high-pro­file deaths Dr Bruce has helped solve in­clude Pia Navida in 1992, Felipe Flores in 1991 and d Jen­nifer Smith, who was found in a laneway in New­town, in Syd­ney’s in­ner west, in 1998.

“It was very chal­leng­ing,” Dr Bruce said. “It re­lied on re­ally good li­ai­son with the po­lice and it was very re­ward­ing work­ing with de­tec­tive and in­ves­ti­ga­tors.”

Six years af­ter the Cold Case Jus­tice Project ended, Dr Bruce — the state’s “go-to per­son” for cold case DNA work — said the ground­break­ing ef­forts con­tinue to have an im­pact.

“There are still cases that are go­ing through in­ves­ti­ga­tion and through the courts and trial stage,” he said. “We might re­view again and we’ll look at go­ing back to the ex­hibits them­selves. It might be that we

need to hold and wait for the tech­nol­ogy to catch up but they will al­ways re­main open.”

Dr Bruce and the sci­en­tists at the NSW Foren­sic and An­a­lyt­i­cal Science Ser­vice (FASS) are about to add a more pow­er­ful DNA weapon to their ar­se­nal. The team is test­ing a new kit that will map 27 mark­ers on the Y chro­mo­some com­pared with the state’s cur­rent tech­nol­ogy that only marks 17.

The move comes af­ter a Bri­tish back­packer, who was found guilty of rape in a NSW court in 2016, had his con­vic­tion quashed and a re­trial or­dered af­ter a DNA sam­ple was tested us­ing the new kit in South Aus­tralia.

The pros­e­cu­tion con­ceded at the Court of Crim­i­nal Ap­peal the new anal­y­sis “was a more dis­crim­i­nat­ing DNA test than that cur­rently used by the NSW foren­sic test­ing ser­vice”. Although Dr Bruce is pre­vented from com­ment­ing on the case, he said the kit was be­ing “val­i­dated”.

“The South Aus­tralians had im­ple­mented a more ex­ten­sive Y pro­fil­ing kit,” he said. “We are cur­rently val­i­dat­ing that kit for im­ple­men­ta­tion as soon as pos­si­ble.

“The val­i­da­tion is quite an ex­ten- sive process be­cause we want to get it right. We’re not go­ing to put a kit in place where we are un­cer­tain of re­sults and we can’t go back.”

DNA tech­nol­ogy is ad­vanc­ing at such a rate, Dr Bruce said, in the near fu­ture, com­fits — an im­age of a sus­pect pro­duced for the po­lice — would be cre­ated purely from a DNA sam­ple.

“This is where re­search and de­vel­op­ment is go­ing,” he said.

At the DNA lab­o­ra­tory in Lid­combe, in Syd­ney’s west, Dr Bruce and his team process 50,000 sam­ples each year and can turn around an “ur­gent” re­quest in 12 hours.

When The Sun­day Tele­graph was granted ac­cess to the se­cure fa­cil­ity, mouth swabs were taken to pro­vide a DNA sam­ple to the staff data­base. The ex­tra­or­di­nary steps are de­signed to pro­tect the in­tegrity of the ster­ile lab and iden­tify any con­tam­i­na­tion.

If un­known DNA is later found in a sam­ple, we can be ruled out.

And any­one cross­ing a line of white tape into the ex­am­i­na­tion area must wear face masks, hair nets and sur­gi­cal gown.

It’s a “dream job” for Dr Bruce, who started at FASS 18 years ago.

“When we first did DNA test­ing you needed a blood stain the size of a 50 cent piece,” he said. “Now from a tiny blood stain, you can get a DNA pro­file from as few as 20 in­di­vid­ual cells. It just shows how that’s pro­gressed.”

Felipe Flores was found crit­i­cally in­jured in Wool­loomooloo on Septem­ber 2, 1991. Paul Darcey Arm­strong was ar­rested at his Launce­s­ton home in 2008 af­ter his DNA was matched to ma­te­rial found un­der Mr Flores’ fin­ger­nails and on his shirt. A plea of man­slaugh­ter was ac­cepted af­ter it was re­vealed Mr Flores had told Arm­strong he was HIV pos­i­tive af­ter their sex­ual en­counter. Free­lance jour­nal­ist Jen­nifer Ma­ree Smith’s body was found in a laneway off Hordern St, New­town, on Jan­uary 17, 1998. It took 13 years to bring her killer Wayne Joseph Cas­tle to jus­tice af­ter DNA ev­i­dence linked him to the death. Cas­tle punched Ms Smith in the face dur­ing a rob­bery, caus­ing her skull to frac­ture when she hit the ground.

The mur­ders of Kar­lie PearceSteven­son and her daugh­ter Khan­da­lyce were even­tu­ally solved thanks to DNA taken from a small tibia found in bush­land in the Be­lan­glo State For­est in 2010. Pia Navida’s body was found in the Royal Na­tional Park at Bun­deena, south of Syd­ney, on Fe­bru­ary 1, 1992. The mur­der was un­solved un­til ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy linked se­men found on her re­mains to two men in 2011. Steve Isac Matthews was sen­tenced in 2014 af­ter plead­ing guilty to Ms Navida’s ag­gra­vated sex­ual as­sault and mur­der. NSW foren­sic bi­ol­o­gist Dr David id Bruce ( (and and in­set,be­low) at the Foren­sic and An­a­lyt­i­cal Science Ser­vice Cen­tre in Lid­combe. e. Pic­ture: Sam Rut­tyn

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