High-Risk Potential Victims’ DNA Database: Pilot Program
By Louis Felini, Joseph Costa, Ed.M., Arthur Eisenberg, Ph.D., Sara Katsanis, M.S., and Martha Felini, Ph.D.
Serial killers operating as long-haul truck drivers continue to murder street sex workers and dispose of their bodies along transportation corridors throughout the United States.1 In response the FBI implemented the Highway Serial Killings (HSK) initiative as part of its Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) to track suspected commercial drivers and provide leads to law enforcement.2
In 2009 ViCAP reported the identification of over 500 homicide victims and the construction of timelines for more than 200 suspects to help detectives develop leads in current and cold-case investigations.3 Dynamics of the truck-stop environment and trucking industry compound the complexities of such serial cases.
Over a 7-year period, Dallas, Texas, officers identified over 1,800 street sex workers in and around four large truck stops—each servicing up to 1,500 commercial vehicles per day—located along the Interstate 20 corridor in the southern sector of the city.4 Although some sex workers at these locations lived in the surrounding area, others traveled with the drivers to truck stops in other cities, making them easy prey for offenders. The opportunity for drivers to transport victims and dump their bodies several hundred miles away gives them a sense of anonymity and hinders officers from developing leads and identifying victims.
The creation of the HSK initiative and the success of an innovative law enforcement-led community collaborative—the Prostitute Diversion Initiative (PDI)—in Dallas suggested that a proactive forensic tool could help agencies stop homicides of sex workers.5 Data showing street sex workers were approximately 200 times more likely to become victims of murder than other individuals of similar age and race reinforced the need for such a program.6
Proposal and Preparation
In 2007 Dallas authorities proposed the High-Risk Potential Victims’ DNA Database (HRDNA) pilot program to obtain voluntary samples from individuals susceptible to becoming a target of violent crime or homicide—specifically, women and men engaged in prostitution. The purpose of the program involved developing a DNA database to serve as an investigative tool for postmortem identification—where other means failed—in the event of a homicide. HRDNA also would identify comatose sex workers or those with debilitating injuries who could not advocate for themselves.
The Dallas County Sheriff’s Office (DSO), Dallas Police Department (DPD), and University of North Texas Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI) dedicated 2 years to planning, determining feasibility, engaging community partners, and developing protocols for implementation of the pilot program. Personnel asked a group of sex workers diverted to substance abuse treatment services through PDI if they voluntarily would submit a DNA sample in case of their relapse and return to the dangers of the street. All individuals surveyed indicated their willingness to participate in the program. Their reasons for volunteering fell into overarching themes of retribution in apprehending their killers, value given to their lives, and emotional resolution for their families.
Volunteers began submitting DNA when the pilot program officially started in 2009. While in treatment services or programs, such as PDI, women and men identified as street sex workers receive information on HRDNA from counselors and advocates. If individuals decide to participate, treatment staff or court liaison personnel notify the HRDNA administrator at DSO to facilitate the collection of samples.
Sergeant Felini serves with the Dallas, Texas, Police Department and is an advisory board member for the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program.
Chief Costa, former chief deputy of the Dallas County, Texas, Sheriff’s Office, heads the DeSoto, Texas, Police Department.
Dr. Eisenburg is a professor and chair of the Forensic and Investigative Genetics Department and codirector of the Center of Human Identification at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.
A law enforcement officer visits the treatment center or court and explains the HRDNA program a second time. Sex workers consent to participation while in the presence of a counselor or advocate. The officer collects detailed demographic information and gathers DNA by brushing the inside of the individual’s cheek with a cotton swab. After sealing the collection packet, the officer transports it back to DSO, where personnel enter biographical data into the centralized reference database currently housed at the agency.
Ms. Katsanis is an instructor of science and society at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Dr. Felini is a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.
The HRDNA administrator assigns the sample a random number with no identifiers and submits it to UNTCHI, which serves as the central repository. Currently, the database has 466 DNA submissions.
Benefits to Law Enforcement
HRDNA provides agencies with leads for homicide investigations; for instance, in 2013 a search of the database helped identify a street sex worker who died in a Fort Worth emergency room. Such leads help to intercede sooner in a serial offender’s criminal career.7 The database also may enable better characterization of causes of violent deaths in communities where street sex workers operate, which could improve community trust and perceived safety. Two potential scenarios illustrate the benefits of the HRDNA pilot program.
The Amarillo Police Department (APD) begins investigating the homicide of a female victim found partially nude and decomposed near an interstate. Detectives have exhausted all traditional methods to identify her. However, they believe she may have worked as a prostitute at a nearby truck stop.
Detectives contact UNTCHI and submit a DNA sample from the victim for comparison with HRDNA. After locating a match, UNTCHI provides a corresponding reference number to the HRDNA administrator, who retrieves the biographical data associated with the number and notes that the Houston Police Department (HPD) originally submitted a reference DNA sample from the woman 2 years ago. The administrator provides APD all biographical data, including the victim’s photo, tattoo images, and emergency contacts, and HPD’s point of contact.
A Texas state trooper detains an 18-wheeler near a rest stop along the Interstate 10 corridor and discovers a bludgeoned victim in the truck’s sleeper berth. The trooper arrests the suspect, who identifies the victim as a sex worker from Louisiana. During the investigation the trooper exhausts all traditional methods used to identify the individual, who remains in a coma at a local hospital.
The department sends a DNA sample from the victim to UNTCHI with a request to search HRDNA. Upon identifying a match, the HRDNA administrator provides all biographical information to the investigating agency. Later, detectives come to believe the suspect is a serial offender, develop additional DNA profiles from the crime scene, and submit those samples to UNTCHI to identify other potential victims.
CHALLENGES AND ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS
The level of trust between officers and street sex workers helps determine potential victims’ willingness to participate in the HRDNA program. Sex workers may perceive law enforcement personnel as adversarial and, therefore, may distrust their reasons for collecting specimens. To mitigate this barrier in Dallas County, officers partnered with counselors and advocates to educate potential participants on the HRDNA program’s purpose. In addition, DPD’s use of PDI to divert sex workers from jail to treatment centers could change their perceptions of officers.
The voluntary nature of sample collection from individuals viewed alternatively by law enforcement officers as victims or criminals introduces complex considerations regarding confidentiality and privacy. Although the markers used for DNA profiles do not reveal personal or health-related information (e.g., disease susceptibility, behavioral predispositions), stored samples can provide such information, thus raising concerns about privacy violations.8 Explicit guidelines to restrict use of DNA samples or profiles must exist to avoid implication in unrelated open investigations.
While the HRDNA program is voluntary, sex workers remain a vulnerable population and may perceive a danger of falling victim to coercion or abuse of power by authorities.9 Potential HRDNA participants could feel pressured to provide samples and take part in the program. Even with education and consent at the time of collection, sex workers may not fully understand the benefits, limitations, and potential risks associated with DNA collection, storage, and profiling. Research can help examine the psychosocial impact of the DNA collection program on the participants.
HRDNA safeguard policies provide individuals with two separate opportunities to learn about the program and withdraw their consent at any time. If participants withdraw permission, program personnel destroy the DNA sample and purge related biographical data from the reference database.
EXPANSION AND CONTINUING SUCCESS
The success of the HRDNA pilot program has demonstrated that it can grow with ongoing support from target populations and law enforcement personnel. Expansion to other states requires participating agencies to assign HRDNA administrators within their organizations to facilitate the collection of samples in their jurisdictions. Further, a computer portal to the central biographical repository would allow the HRDNA administrator to enter the biographical information of participants. Recent discussions have attempted to identify funding to sustain the current program and its expansion nationwide.
Serial murders of street sex workers have perplexed law enforcement agencies in the Dallas, Texas, area. Investigators want to identify victims and offenders, but leads can prove elusive. The High-Risk Potential Victims’ DNA Database pilot program has provided agencies a valuable forensic tool to help with current and cold-case investigations. Because of the HRDNA pilot program’s success in Dallas, hopefully it will expand to other locations and help agencies nationwide with these difficult cases.
For additional information Sergeant Felini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Chief Costa at email@example.com; Dr. Eisenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org; Ms. Katsanis at email@example.com; and Dr. Felini at firstname.lastname@example.org.