A look at efforts to catch the Dodge killer

Genetics background. 3D render. Getty Images illustration

Angie Raye Dodge was killed on June 13, 1996. Family photo

It’s been nearly 21 years since 18-year-old Angie Dodge was killed in her apartment in the letter streets neighborhood of Idaho Falls.

And though police, defense investigators, outside investigators and Carol Dodge, Angie’s mother, have pursued a variety of leads over the decades and across the country, so far no match has been found to the numerous DNA samples found at the crime scene. All the samples match one unknown man.

The case, in short, is very cold.

In recent years, much of the focus has turned to new techniques and new technology to generate new suspects and new investigative leads.

“Every time we find something new, we’re going to work on it,” Idaho Falls Police Chief Mark McBride promised.

There are a variety of techniques that have some potential to find the man who killed Angie Dodge. Some are already being pursued. Others are currently unavailable. Here’s a look at a few.

Familial searching

One technique that has a track record of solving cold cases such as the Dodge murder is called “familial searching.” But it isn’t used in Idaho.

Rockne “Rock” Harmon worked for more than 30 years as a district attorney in Alameda County, Calif., where he focused on the use of DNA in solving crimes. Among other cases, he was brought in to help with the prosecution of O.J. Simpson. After retiring, Harmon became a cold case consultant focused on the use of DNA evidence and served on a commission that developed the protocols for familial searching in California.

Now, he’s the technique’s biggest cheerleader.

Perhaps the highest-profile case that has been solved with familial searching was the 2010 conviction of Lonnie David Franklin Jr. Nicknamed “the Grim Sleeper,” Franklin is a serial killer who was convicted of 10 murders committed in Los Angeles between the mid-1980s and the mid-2000s. He was given his nickname because he apparently stopped killing between 1988 and 2002, highly unusual among serial killers.

The Grim Sleeper case stumped seasoned detectives in the Los Angeles Police Department’s homicide squad for years, Harmon said, in part because Franklin had no criminal record.

“They had DNA,” Harmon said. “They knew many of these cases were connected. They also had a small subset of them connected by the same gun.”

But for 20 years they were unable to find the killer. It wasn’t until Franklin’s son committed a felony and his DNA was taken that familial searching turned up a lead.

Familial searching works by querying the state’s criminal DNA database. Instead of looking for exact matches, familial searching ranks all the existing profiles in the database by the likelihood that they are closely related to the killer.

Once that ranked list is produced, a certain number of the highest-ranked matches, often the top 25, have preserved samples of their DNA subjected to a second test.

That second DNA test tells geneticists whether there is anyone on the list that is a close relative of the killer.

“Familial searching is successful everywhere it’s used, but it can’t be successful if you don’t use it,” Harmon said.

Not in Idaho

Idaho doesn’t use familial searching.

Matthew Gamette, director of forensic services with the Idaho State Police, said the state police lab isn’t equipped to perform the second DNA test, but the lab will be equipped to do so sometime this summer.

But Gamette said adopting a new technique such as familial searching isn’t something the state police lab will pursue without a go-ahead from above.

“We will not perform familial DNA searching until the attorney general or the Idaho Legislature has weighed in,” he said. “… There’s a lot of discussion that needs to happen about whether it should or should not happen in Idaho.”

Gamette said the Idaho Legislature has authorized more limited use of the state’s DNA database than have lawmakers in states such as California. For example, California stores DNA from people who have merely been arrested in connection with a crime. Idaho requires a conviction.

Harmon thinks the state crime lab should proceed on its own. Familial searching hasn’t been authorized by the legislatures in other states where it’s been adopted, he said, it’s simply been authorized under existing statutes.

Harmon said the Dodge case is “a perfect example of why someone should have been having these conversations long ago.”

The Usry test

Investigators in the Dodge case have employed a technique that is in some ways similar to familial searching, though Harmon argues the resemblance is entirely superficial. The technique used in the Dodge case was to query a commercial DNA database, rather than employing the state’s criminal DNA database.

The way the commercial DNA search was pursued has attracted national concern from civil libertarians. At least four documentary crews have been in town within the last several months reporting on the Dodge case. The first of those documentaries to be released will air Saturday.

The 48 Hours documentary, which will air on CBS, focuses on the use of commercial DNA databases by law enforcement. According to a news release, it will focus in large part on the treatment of Michael Usry Jr.

When police searched a DNA database associated with Ancestry.com, it returned a partial match to Usry’s father. Michael Usry Sr. had submitted his DNA to the database years earlier for genealogical purposes.

Police focused on the son, a New Orleans filmmaker from a Missouri Mormon family. Among his films, he had produced a documentary called “Murderabilia” about people who collect artifacts associated with serial killers.

Police obtained a search warrant ordering Usry to submit his DNA for comparison. When it was tested, he was cleared.

Usry, who is working on a documentary of his own about the case, has spent a lot of time thinking about the implications of new DNA techniques for civil liberties.

“I go back and forth on it,” Usry said. “I want policemen to be able to do their jobs and catch criminals. We have to expect them to use the tools that they are given. Do I think that they should be allowed to use those (commercial) databases? I really don’t think they should. Because I don’t think the people who signed up are thinking about this kind of thing.”

McBride said the department is working with a forensic genealogist to use the results of the partial Usry match to find others on his family tree who could be suspects.

Harmon said there are no civil liberties concerns associated with familial searching. It uses the criminal database, not a commercial one. So police aren’t using DNA submitted voluntarily for purposes other than those envisioned by those who submitted to the test. And familial searching focuses on close relatives rather than distant ones.

“I’ve never even seen a case where they picked the wrong (immediate) family member,” he said.

Usry sees fewer civil liberties concerns with the familial searching technique advocated by Harmon than with searching commercial databases, but he remains skeptical and urges caution. With new technology, he said, it’s often hard to predict what might happen 15 years down the line.

“This could potentially lead us further down the road of a big expansion of police authority,” Usry said. “If police are able to target entire family lines, and it could be distant relatives based on partial DNA matches, that potentially gives them the right to get DNA swabs of thousands more people.”

DNA phenotyping

Another technique that has been employed by police is called DNA phenotyping.

The phenotyping technique, which has been employed by the IFPD, was developed by Parabon Nanolabs. Parabon uses DNA samples to produce a sketch of what the donor could look like. Parabon representatives did not return a phone call seeking comment by press time.

It’s a very new technique, and its scientific merits remain controversial.

But for a cold case such as the Dodge murder, what’s really needed are new leads, McBride said. Hopefully, the sketch can generate ones that are promising.

McBride said the department first plans to pursue leads generated by the sketch internally — for example, by checking to see whether any suspects they had examined in the past resemble the sketch. If no major leads turn up that way, McBride said the sketch will be released to the public, possibly within the next two weeks.

McBride said the department is bracing for what might happen after the photo is released. They are working on setting up a call center. They aren’t sure whether they will be fielding primarily local calls or whether calls may start pouring in from all over the country. There are a limited number of detectives, and they have day-to-day work to complete in addition to work on the Dodge case.

But McBride promised the IFPD would spare neither time nor expense to find the killer.

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.