"We just had to wait and wait and wait," said Davis County sheriff's Lt. Robert Thompson. "Getting the evidence back to confirm that [match] was a killer."
In Utah, the case isn't an anomaly — Crime Lab Director Jay Henry estimates that it now takes the 12 analysts in the lab's DNA forensics section about a year to process a single sex-assault kit or any other sort of DNA evidence.
That may soon change. A new, bigger crime lab, a new robotics station that will automate some of the DNA extraction process and another boost in funding will help analysts get DNA results quicker. Instead of a year or more, Henry hopes their turnaround time will soon be 30 to 60 days.
But the long waits for results may still occur.
Utah lawmakers have approved a new mandate to test all rape kits — but not all the funding needed to cover the additional work. And while robotics will speed up a key part of testing, a lack of staff may just mean a bottleneck at a different step in the process.
Snipping swabs • The Davis County girl could describe tattoos inked on her attacker's face, but she had never seen him before. It was an "extremely rare" case; most sex-assault victims know their assailant, according to Thompson.
"We had a really good description, but we had no idea who he actually was," Thompson said. "We were chasing leads down and all of it ended in dead ends."
A forensic nurse had used swabs to collect evidence from the teen's body and sealed them in the sexual assault kit, which was sent to the state crime lab.
One common holdup happens immediately. Analysts in the section's serology lab don't begin testing a kit until they have all of the evidence that will need testing in the case. For instance, Henry said, if the victim has a partner, the lab needs a DNA sample from that person in order to exclude the partner as a potential suspect.
"It's faster and more efficient to do everything at once," Henry said.
That wait can be days, weeks or even months.
Once they begin working on a kit, lab workers open more than a dozen little envelopes found inside. After identifying the best samples, the workers cut off a piece from a selected swab, put it in a tube and send the tube to the DNA lab.
An analyst can typically process two to three kits per day, Henry estimates, but it can take longer if there is larger evidence to swab, like bedding or clothing.
Extracting DNA • It's at the next step, the DNA lab, where the primary delays now occur, according to Henry — and where the biggest change is about to happen.
Now, forensic scientists extract DNA samples from the swabs the "old school" way: An analyst adds chemicals to a tube by hand, then moves the vessel between a series of small machines that extract the DNA particles from the swab.
But workers have been training on a new robotics station purchased last year and coming online this month. It can extract and prepare 96 samples in five hours — a task that would take a single person about 24 working hours over several days, according to Henry.
After the DNA is extracted, another machine makes copies of it to create a larger sample. A different machine reads the sample and converts what it sees into a digital readout.
Lab workers then analyze those readouts.
An emerging bottleneck • As the new system more swiftly gets cases to this step, this is where cases could continue to pile up, with only a dozen staffers in the entire DNA section, Henry warns.
"We have the facility," he said. "We have the equipment, we have the technologies there … You get to the point where you really need more bodies to test the evidence."
Forensics staff members analyze the digital DNA profiles to ensure the processes worked correctly. They compare the results to "reference" DNA samples, taken from the victim, suspect and consensual partners, to see if there is a match with the DNA evidence found. It can take about 30 minutes to confirm a match with a single DNA profile.
"If a sample swab has more than one [DNA] profile, then the analysis becomes more complex," Henry said. "In general, the more profiles in the mixture, the more difficult and time-consuming the analysis."
Once the analysis is complete, the DNA analyst will write a report, which is reviewed by another staffer before it can be entered into a federal database to check for a match. The Combined DNA Indexing System, called CODIS, contains profiles from offenders who have committed violent felonies.
Finally a name • More than a year after the Davis County girl was assaulted, Thompson received a December 2015 letter from the crime lab: Analysts had successfully extracted a suspect DNA profile from a swab taken from a bite mark on the girl's chest.
A month later, another letter arrived. Lab workers had entered that DNA profile into CODIS. The DNA matched Richard Simon Garcia, a now-47-year-old Utah man with a string of convictions — some for sexual-related offenses — stretching as far back as 1989.
Finally, investigators had a name.
To verify the match, Thompson needed to collect another DNA sample from Garcia to test against the DNA discovered by the lab.
Garcia was then serving a prison sentence at a local jail. He was transferred to the Davis County Jail, Thompson said, and his cheeks were swabbed for DNA. That sample was sent to the crime lab, where it went through largely the same process that the evidence from the rape kit did.
It was another year before the match was confirmed.
One step forward; then what? • Henry expects the robotics system to speed up justice.
"There will be more DNA information available to [law enforcement] than ever before," he said. "I think the criminal justice system as a whole will be greatly enhanced, and the system will benefit tremendously by having CODIS solve their cases quickly, accurately and more cost effectively."
But Thompson remains worried about the outlook for cases like the Davis County teen's assault.
The bill approved by Utah lawmakers, now awaiting the governor's signature, would require police to send all sexual-assault kits to the lab within 30 days after the evidence is collected.
Lawmakers earmarked $1.2 million to pay for testing — but that was about half of what fiscal analysts estimated it would cost. And the bill left the deadline for testing at "to be determined."
That underfunding, combined with an increase in the number of kits sent in and the small forensic staff, could mean the lab "may not be at the ideal turnaround time we'd like to get to," Henry said. "But we'll certainly be a little better than we are now."
Still, as more police departments send in every kit, Thompson said, investigators can't control which gets tested first. A case in which a perpetrator's identity is a mystery may get in line behind others in which a suspect is known and the issue is whether the sexual contact was consensual.
And in cases like Garcia's, Thompson said it's critical that a DNA match is confirmed with a second sample before charges can be filed in court.
Garcia made his first court appearance on charges of rape, sodomy and sexual abuse last month and waived his right to a preliminary hearing. He is expected to enter a plea to the charges on Monday. He remains behind bars as he continues to serve a 5-years-to-life prison sentence for a 2015 aggravated robbery conviction.
While it was "absolutely" frustrating waiting for those DNA results, Thompson said he was relieved that, in this case, the suspect was already in custody.
"I would have lost my mind if this guy was out on the streets," he said. "Knowing that he was incarcerated helped me. I had comfort in that."