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Taking DNA technology out into the wild

In Idaho, biologists use forensic science to bring poachers to justice.

August 12, 2007|Rebecca Boone | Associated Press

CALDWELL, IDAHO — A knife with traces of blood found in a suspect's truck. A few hairs picked up at the crime scene hundreds of miles away. Authorities feared the victim was dead, perhaps already dismembered and eaten.

Dr. Karen Rudolph didn't have much time: She had to see whether DNA on the bloody knife matched the scattered hair found on a rock outcropping in the Idaho wilderness. Two days later, working quickly but carefully on delicate equipment in a state laboratory, she had an answer: The DNA was a match.

The suspect was arrested and charged -- with poaching.

"Idaho poachers, until recently, were kind of your average Joe Bad Guy out in the woods doing small-fry things," said Rudolph, 44, a wildlife laboratory biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "But now many of them literally hunt every day and night -- looking for antlers to sell so some rich guy in Jackson Hole can have an antler chandelier, or ingredients to make some strange alternative medicine or to get a trophy for bragging rights. It's become commercial."

That means more high-stakes court cases, she said, with defendants hiring top-dollar attorneys and juries expecting high-tech evidence. That's where Rudolph comes in.

As the state's only wildlife DNA expert, she handles evidence for many of Idaho's poaching cases. At its simplest, Rudolph's job requires her to forensically determine the animal's species, sex and identity from any given hunk of tissue, wayward tuft of hair, bone chip or dried splatter of blood.

Her work has helped prosecutors win convictions and encouraged defendants to plead guilty without going to trial, officials said.

In one recent case, Gary Lehnherr of McFarland, Wis., and Ronnie Gardner of Jerome, Idaho, both pleaded guilty in federal court to illegally killing a trophy mule deer with a high-caliber center-fire rifle. Rudolph matched DNA in blood and hair found at the kill site -- in an area where only muzzleloader hunting was allowed -- with DNA from the deer's antlers, found in Lehnherr's home.

The two face up to one year in prison and $100,000 fines for the federal misdemeanor. Sentencing is set for Oct. 15.

Assistant U.S. Atty. George Breitsameter, who prosecuted the case, said Rudolph's work was "an important investigative tool" in the case.

DNA also helped crack the case of a man who was suspected of trying to poison wolves in Wyoming and Idaho with pesticide-laced meatballs. No dead wolves were found, but the tainted meat was suspected in the deaths of more than 20 pet dogs.

First, DNA from some meatballs found at a crime scene near Salmon, Idaho, was matched to DNA found in blood in Tim Sundles' freezer. The former Salmon resident, who now lives in Montana, was headed for trial but pleaded guilty after more DNA evidence turned up.

Investigators had taken samples of yellow snow found at the crime scene that day, suspecting that the person who left the meatballs had relieved himself at the site. They were right, Breitsameter said -- DNA from human cells found in the urine was a perfect match for Sundles.

In February, Sundles was sentenced to six days in jail, banned from federal or public land for two years and ordered to pay more than $1,500 in fines for violating the Endangered Species Act.

The use of DNA evidence in wildlife investigations is fairly new, but it's growing more common, Breitsameter said.

"I'm not sure if that's because of people's expectations, but DNA is the modern fingerprint that people can use to attach an individual to a crime," he said. "It's only come up in the last couple of years or so here, and as it's available, it's required, because it can either exculpate somebody or has the potential to inculpate them."

At the tiny cinder-block Fish and Game lab where Rudolph works in Caldwell, Idaho, the mail might bring a cardboard tube filled with bear bait or a hunk of meat taken from someone's freezer. Game wardens often stumble on crime scenes while they're hiking in the wilderness, Rudolph said, so they have to collect the evidence with whatever makeshift container they can find in their backpacks.

Sometimes Rudolph finds herself in a countrified scene from the TV crime thriller "CSI."

"I've been given a bone saw that had tissue from different animals stuck between the tiny teeth of the blade. Once, I had to pick through a shop vacuum for tissue. We mostly found hair," she said. "I spent hours examining a pontoon boat for moose blood because the officer had a tip that the poacher had been fishing the same day he killed a moose, and both the boat and the moose were transported in the same truck."

Some suspects, apparently unaware that investigators use advanced forensic techniques, get a little cocky and unwittingly help investigators, Rudolph said.

"One guy had a folding knife that a warden thought had been used in a poaching case, and when the officer asked for it, the guy laughed and said, 'Go ahead and take it. I've already cleaned it and boiled it and you won't find anything.' "

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