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Potential Idaho cold case expansion could start to solve cases 'immediately'

The Idaho Cold Case and Advanced DNA Methods task force is looking to expand the search for justice with the application of another federal grant.

MERIDIAN, Idaho — Idaho’s cold case unit began with just a few investigators seeking justice, and is now beginning to expand into something much more.

Solving a cold case can take thousands upon thousands of dollars and the use of multiple resources – but the Idaho Cold Case and Advanced DNA Methods task force is looking to extend the search for justice with a new federal grant of $2.5 million that they applied for in June of this year.

The cold case task force is led by Idaho State Police Forensic Services and is in partnership with the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association, the Idaho Chiefs of Police Association, the Idaho Sheriff’s Association, the Idaho Statistical Analysis Center, the Rocky Mountain Information Network and Boise State University.  

DNA testing to solve Idaho crimes is a team effort, requiring funding, employees, training and equipment. The task force is using not just regular DNA testing, but advanced molecular genealogy testing to begin hunting for suspects. Some more complicated pieces of testing equipment can cost nearly $1 million.

The unit is trying to solve any number of cases that can utilize DNA, which could be murder, assault, sexual assault, and can also include missing persons or unidentified persons cases. So far, they’ve discovered nearly 50 they believe they can solve, and are actively working on.

The oldest case the lab is working on dates back to the 1980’s.

If the Bureau of Justice Assistance gives the team the grant, they are seeking to hire retired detectives and officers that can travel across the state to investigate unsolved cases, obtain evidence, test DNA and bring justice to the families of victims, as well as improve other areas of the task force. They will also seek out those who have “slipped through the cracks,” obtaining DNA from them and putting the samples into a national criminal database to see if they get any “hits.”

The last time ISP received grants for their efforts, it was around  $750,000. $150,000 went to cold case testing in particular.

Matthew Gamette, the Idaho State Police laboratory system director, told KTVB part of the reason they are seeking this grant is because they had other cases they wanted to work on, and the best approach would be to resource all of their local agencies with some extra funding to look into more unsolved cases.

The extra money and resources could begin to have an impact on solving cases shortly thereafter, Gamette said.

“You will start to see other (cases) solved almost immediately,” he said.

Gamette said that a case becomes cold when the investigator has exhausted all or most of their leads.

“It’s really when there’s no hit in the database and they’re not able to find additional suspects to send in,” Gamette said. “If nobody is coming up as a suspect, we need to use other DNA technology to generate investigative leads for them.”

The first case that came out of this team is nicknamed “Mr. Bones.”

“Mr. Bones” was an unidentified man found in the forests of Idaho in 1984. The man’s identity remained unsolved until 2022, when genealogy testing of the bones gave Idaho investigators enough leads to contact a potential sibling of the unidentified man in Oklahoma.

It was a match, and the man was finally identified as Roger Bennett of Oklahoma, who was thought to have been traveling at the time of his mysterious death.

This was only the beginning, Gamette said. With the expansion, investigators can do more with local agencies across the state.

“(Investigators) will start to work with an agency to get the DNA submitted to determine what type of testing they need to do, and then ultimately on the back end when we run this DNA through the molecular forensics process and through the genealogical process, we’re gonna get to a suspect,” he said.

The processing is complicated – scientists will break open a cell to get to the nucleus, where the DNA is located, and extract it. Once it is extracted, they must duplicate it and match it to other samples. The process could take 24 hours, 50 days or even six months depending on how complicated a case is and how many samples need to be tested.

Sometimes, however, there might only be enough DNA for one test — which means one shot at justice, one time to choose to compare the DNA to the right person. 

Gamette’s team in action will utilize the evidence they have and then begin digging, creating a family tree with possible genealogical evidence, even using social media to their advantage to find family members they could reach out to and gain samples from.

Additionally, the task force is working towards different ways to test DNA and are hoping to be the first state lab in the country in the next few years to implement the entirety of options for DNA testing, rather than outsourcing to private labs.

Next week, Idaho will be hosting a Forensic Investigative Genetic Genealogy training for forensic agencies across the country that will then become the national training plan taught across the nation. 

Gamette hopes this will lead to more cases being solved.

“We are going to solve a lot of crime with this initiative,” he said.

Tracy Basterrechea, the Meridian Police chief, is part of the cold case initiative and has been trying to seek out retired officers who would be willing to become investigators within the task force.

“The formation of this team is vitally important to help provide the victims and families of victims some form of closure.  Many departments just don’t have the resources or the expertise to work these cases.  This team is a force multiplier for investigators throughout the state to help provide them with the needed resources and expertise to work as a team to bring justice to victims across the state of Idaho,” Basterrechea said in a statement.

If the team receives the grant, they can continue to apply for more money as the years go on, growing their team and their resources to continue to solve cold cases.

“We want to bring these cases to a conclusion point for the families, for the victims of these crimes,” Gamette said.

The force hopes to receive the grant by October of this year, and will begin their hiring process in January 2023. The expansion could make Idaho the go-to for DNA testing across the country.

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