The Justice Files: New DNA lab ready to help solve cold cases

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) –  The logjam to solve cold cases just got a boost from a non-profit group.

Intermountain Forensics opened its doors this month and promises to deliver DNA testing faster and cheaper.

Some are seeing this as a major step for law enforcement and families of victims.

“This is a game changer,” said Francine Bardole with West Valley police. “Police are going to be able to afford to work their cases and be able to afford to take them to a laboratory that has the latest updated forensic technology which is Intermountain Forensics.”

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The lab which is located in Murray was the brainchild of Karra Porter, the founder of the Utah Cold Case Coalition.  The non-profit group investigates unsolved murders and missing persons cases. Porter sought funding and organized the creation of Intermountain Forensics.

“We at the Utah Cold Case Coalition are excited,” said Jason Jensen, a member of the coalition. “This has been a dream come true, a vision of Karra Porter’s for a long time coming.”Intermountain Forensics is the nation’s first non-profit DNA lab and will join the state’s crime lab and another private company doing DNA tests.

“We’re here to augment,” said the lab’s director Daniel Hellwig.  “We’re here not to replace public crime labs, they do fantastic work but we can help.”

According to Hellwig there are about 250,000 unsolved murders in the U.S. and hundreds of thousands of sexual assault cases nationwide that are collecting dust at DNA labs as they wait to be processed.

“We can take some of the overlap (cases) and apply cutting edge technologies to some of the older cases that are languishing to get some justice,” Hellwig said. 

DNA labs like the state’s are so backlogged, it can take months, even years to process evidence.  Intermountain Forensics promises to do it much faster.

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“To run samples through the process, it’s about a three day process,” Hellwig said.

And for police departments a DNA test is very expensive. Bardole is a consultant for other police departments and is currently working on a cold case.  She said costs on that case have reached $60,000.

“Just doing one item of evidence could cost thousands of dollars,” Bardole said. “(Police departments) just don’t have (money).”

Intermountain Forensics promises to do it much cheaper.  As a non-profit agency they qualify for federal grants and can solicit donations from the public.

Hellwig said its testing is primarily available to law enforcement and crime labs. But he said their service is also available for public defenders, advocates like the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project and to the public if needed.

Jensen is also a private investigator and plans to turn over two pieces of evidence to help solve unsolved murders that he is working on. In a parcel was a pair of boots belonging to Christine Gallegos.  She was murdered in 1985 and the case has not been solved.The boots were stored by Gallegos’ mother.  Jensen said they were carefully kept and wants to know if any fingerprints can be extracted.

“We’re hoping the DNA results from testing will help identify who gave her the boots,” he said. 
Jensen said another young woman was also murdered in that time period.  He said Tiffany Hambleton also was given similar style boots.  But her boots were never found.  He said they believe the two murders were connected.

“We’re hoping that it’s more than just a coincidence,” Jensen said.  “We’re hoping that the person who gave these (Gallegos’) boots will also have al ink to Tiffany Hambleton which may reveal to these two young ladies.”

He also has a penny that was found at the grave site of Elizabeth Salgado.  She disappeared in 2015 and her remains were found three years later in a shallow grave in Utah County.  Jensen said he wants to know who dropped the penny at the grave site.

These are the types of cold cases that have stalled with regular police departments.  But with Intermountain Forensics now open for DNA testing answers to these mysteries may be on the horizon.

Hellwig has worked for multiple DNA laboratories nationwide but was attracted to takeover the program in Utah.

“Salt Lake City is actually a hotbed for crimes with DNA,” Hellwig said.  “There’s more lab work here than in any where else in the country.  This is my passion.  I love this and to take this passion and place it in a non-profit setting, we’re doing good just for the sake of doing good.   It’s amazing.”

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