Utah Cold Case Coalition launches ambitious plan to run its own DNA testing lab to help crack unsolved crimes

(Sean P. Means | The Salt Lake Tribune) Karra Porter, cofounder of the Utah Cold Case Coalition, talks Thursday, April 25, 2019, to the media in front of the coalition's new offices, where the group intends to house the first DNA testing lab owned by a nonprofit.

The Utah Cold Case Coalition is aiming for something its founders call “revolutionary” in the cracking of unsolved crimes: the first DNA testing lab operated by a nonprofit.

Coalition co-founders Karra Porter and Jason Jensen announced Thursday the group’s plans to build its own DNA testing lab in a tree-shaded, two-story office complex in Murray.

“This is going to revolutionize cold cases across the United States,” Porter said. “We saw this need and it was too big to ignore.”

The coalition has signed a lease for space at the Spring Terrace office building, at 4885 S. 900 East, Porter said, and a contractor has been hired to remodel the space.

The lab should be running by year’s end, Porter said, if the coalition can raise the $200,000 needed for DNA lab equipment. Toward that end, the coalition Thursday launched a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe.com, with a starter goal of $81,000.

Once operating, Porter said, the lab should be able to process DNA samples, first for Utah cases and ultimately for cases around the country. The coalition, Porter said, is monitoring some 400 cold cases, including unsolved homicides and missing-persons cases.

Francine Bardole, senior crime scene investigator for the West Jordan Police Department, said there is a glut of untested DNA from crime scenes, rape kits and other evidence.

Law enforcement agencies that have DNA testing capabilities often face a backlog, Bardole said, of between eight and 18 months. Agencies that don’t have their own DNA resources go to private labs, she said, and “the price can be overwhelming” for a small police department or sheriff’s office.

For example, Bardole cited a case her team in West Jordan had been working on in which investigators used a new device, called an M-Vac, to extract DNA evidence from surfaces. Her department, which is one of the first in Utah to use this device, had to go to a private lab to process the filter that catches the DNA samples. The processing cost for four filters was $6,000, she said.

“How many departments can afford to pay, on one case, $6,000?” Bardole said.

Jensen also gave brief updates on four prominent cold cases:

• In the case of Susan Powell, the West Valley City mom who went missing in 2009, Jensen said the Bureau of Land Management has allowed the coalition to go through the permit process to search on BLM-managed land in Utah’s west desert, with an expected waiver that will allow search teams without getting insurance first. A search is planned for May 18, and volunteers are asked to register in advance, via the coalition’s Facebook page, so organizers can coordinate search teams.

• In the case of Rosie Tapia, the 6-year-old girl who was raped and murdered after she was abducted from her bedroom in 1995, Jensen said coalition investigators have interviewed a previously reluctant witness, and news of that interview has prompted others to come forward with information. Jensen said the coalition is waiting for a composite sketch of a possible perpetrator.

• In the case of Elizabeth Salgado, whose body was discovered in a Utah County canyon last May, three years after she disappeared, Jensen said the coalition is seeking the public’s assistance to piece together what the 26-year-old did in the 18 days between her arrival in Utah and her disappearance.

• And Jensen said the coalition has presented one anonymous cold case to Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and is awaiting his review.