Forensic vacuum was key to solving Utah cold-case murder
It was a frosty December morning 18 years ago when Wasatch County Sheriff’s Deputy Todd Bonner arrived at the Provo River crime scene to investigate the murder of Krystal Beslanowitch. He looked at it every which way, but the eventual suspect — a man named Joseph Michael Simpson — was not on his radar.
He and fellow detectives doggedly followed every lead across the state but the trail went cold. Persistent, they went over the case time and time again and sought the insight of seasoned cold case detectives. While the case grew colder still, Simpson moved in with his mom on the west coast of the Florida panhandle.
Bonner felt haunted.
Then along came a vacuum.
The M-Vac was invented in Utah by Jared Bradley’s father in 2002 as a way to suck bacteria off food. Then Bradley described it to his friend in the FBI, who coveted such a tool for crime scene investigation. Bradley’s Bluffdale-based company (his father died in 2009) tried it out — and discovered that it could glean 40 percent more DNA from a saliva stain on polyester than a cotton swab, and 88 percent more from a blood stain on nylon fabric.
Simpson’s name had come up before from older DNA tests. He was a felon convicted of second-degree felony murder who was paroled months before Beslanowitch died. But in layman’s terms, the samples were providing incomplete pictures of Simpson — until the M-Vac came along.
Sorenson Forensics, a private crime lab on West Temple, had bought one. In May, they used it on two rocks that had never been tested. Investigators suspect the rocks were used to bludgeon 17-year-old Beslanowitch to death.
The results came back in July. The bacteria vacuum-turned-CSI machine had picked up "touch DNA" from the rock — genetic material that’s left over when someone touches or leaves saliva on a surface that is hard to collect. Bonner had the full DNA profile of Simpson he needed.
"There are many officers, analysts and agencies that need to be thanked for their part in solving the Beslanowitch homicide," Bonner said in a statement. Last week, following the arrest of Simpson in Florida, Bonner named the state crime lab, the Unified Police Department, including cold case-guru Todd Park; and Ogden police detectives, among others. But Bonner added in a new statement that "without a doubt, the M-Vac system is the major tool that allowed us to make critical DNA connections in this case."
Bonner flew to Florida last month, followed Simpson and waited for him to smoke a cigarette before snatching it up without his knowledge. Another DNA test on the cigarette, one last match to verify, gave Bonner the evidence he needed to return to Florida and haul Simpson to jail on suspicion of aggravated murder.
Simpson, who has not yet been charged in 4th District Court, awaits extradition to Utah.
"We are pleased to provide the device that helped solve this case," Bradley said in a statement. "Getting DNA from a cigarette butt is impressive, but collecting a full DNA profile from an [18-year-old] rock is amazing."
Bradley also lifted his proverbial hat to everyone involved in solving the crime, especially Bonner, adding in his statement that the sheriff "never gave up, which is a credit to his profession and his department."
The M-Vac is something of a "last resort" tool for Sorenson, said lab spokeswoman Cami Green. "If you used this technology on a blanket for example, it does such a great job at collecting everything that a lot of times you’re just going to collect everything that’s touched it in the whole history of this blanket’s life."
If the forensic scientists just want to find last person who touched a piece of evidence, they will start with a traditional swab. But when the traditional options have failed, then the scientists go deeper with the vacuum, Green said.
"When we used the vacuum collection method, that was when we got the most DNA that did yield the best DNA profile for comparison."
Wayne Carlson, the M-Vac vice president of engineering, felt blind-sided, in a good way, by the news that their vacuum had led to Simpson’s arrest. The company had no idea Sorenson had the discovery coming down the pipeline and first learned of it through the media last week.
"Frankly it was pretty amazing," Carlson said.