WESTMINSTER — In what law enforcement officials call the first case of its kind in Orange County, Westminster police Thursday announced the arrest of a rape suspect on the strength of "genetic fingerprinting" involving the use of DNA testing.
The case involved the November rape of a 79-year-old widow at her mobile home in Westminster. Classified by police as a suspect at the time, Frank Lee Soto, 30, of Westminster was arrested Tuesday after results from a DNA testing lab linked him genetically to the crime, police said.
Although there have been three other Orange County criminal cases involving use of DNA in court evidence, local law enforcement officials said this was the first in which genetic testing led directly to an arrest. Westminster Police Chief James Cook said that before a genetic match was made between Soto and evidence at the crime scene, investigators had only circumstantial evidence against the suspect.
"We could never have completed this arrest without DNA," Cook said in a press conference with Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates and Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi.
Gates and Capizzi, who face opponents in the June 5 election, hailed the arrest as
"We now have a tool just a little dissimilar to fingerprints," Gates said. "You can put on gloves to hide your fingerprints and a mask to hide your face. (But) there's no way to get away if we can identify you with DNA. My best advice (to criminals): Don't commit the crime."
Gates and Capizzi both denied that their appearance at the press conference was tied to their election campaigns.
"We're just here doing our job," Gates said.
Gates faces challenger Don Bankhead, a Fullerton police captain, in June, while Capizzi faces Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas Avdeef, Assistant Dist. Atty. Edgar A. Freeman and Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. James Enright in the nonpartisan race.
Genetic testing was first used successfully to help capture a serial killer in Great Britain about five years ago. That case was popularized in Joseph Wambaugh's novel, "The Blooding." American prosecutors subsequently began using the technique and claimed that they could pinpoint to a 99%-plus accuracy whether semen left in a rape victim can be matched to a defendant.
The testing involves studying the unique genetic codes in DNA--deoxyribonucleic acid--that are found in everything from hair and skin samples to blood and other body fluids.
If a match is made between a defendant's blood sample and semen sample, DNA specialists say their tests are so accurate, that only one person in a billion could be the victim's assailant.
Some scientists have said, however, that DNA fingerprints sometimes stretch and shift, making them difficult to read and match. Some Orange County defense lawyers also have criticized law enforcement officials for beginning to abandon former methods of identification in favor of DNA.
In an article this month in the Scientific American, for example, two scientists question the accuracy of DNA testing, saying that, among other things, crime scene specimens are often too contaminated by bacteria to be reliable.
Cook said DNA will never replace the cop on the street, but "this is a very important tool to help the community."
In the Westminster case, the 79-year-old woman answered a knock on the back door of her residence on Nov. 17. When the victim opened her door, she was confronted by a masked, knife-wielding man who threatened to kill her if she did not do as he instructed, Police Investigator Dave McDowell said. The victim was pushed into her bedroom, where she was raped.
As a result of blood tests conducted shortly afterward by the Orange County Crime Lab, McDowell said it was discovered that Soto has a rare blood type. Soto was further identified by the positive DNA match, McDowell said. Police declined to say whether the genetic link came from blood, hair or some other body fluid left at the rape scene.
Soto was booked into Orange County Jail on suspicion of rape, and bail was set at $200,000. His arraignment is set for this morning.
Gates said his office next week will begin processing at least four new DNA cases through the sheriff's new genetic testing laboratory, which became fully operational this week. The cases involve two rapes, one incest and one child abandonment, Gates said, declining to reveal additional details.
Gates' new laboratory is the only DNA laboratory west of the Mississippi and one of only six in the United States.
With the new laboratory, Gates said his Orange County Crime Lab will have to wait only six to eight weeks to receive DNA testing results, compared to as long as six months from the private labs the county has been using. The county has been using a laboratory in New York, which is heavily backlogged with other cases.
Capizzi said the genetic testing can be used not only in identifying suspects, but in eliminating them as well. To date, Capizzi said, there have been six Orange County criminal cases in which suspects were eliminated because they did not genetically match evidence found at the scene of a crime.
"It (DNA testing) gives all of us a comfort level in solving some of these allegations," Capizzi said.
Capizzi said DNA testing has been used in three other Orange County cases, including one in which a rape suspect pleaded guilty after being genetically linked to a crime. The other two cases, both involving sexual assault, are still pending, Capizzi said.
In Los Angeles County, prosecutors in March obtained their first conviction against a suspect arrested on the basis of DNA testing. Henry Wilds, 34, was sentenced to 42 years in prison for a series of rapes and robberies in the North Hollywood area.