SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Fe police may be on the verge of solving a two-decades-old rape case after matching a DNA sample that had been stored in a police department refrigerator since 1992 with that of a suspect whose DNA sample is in a national FBI database.
“This is the second case we have been able to solve (with old DNA samples) – we are calling them the freezer cases,” police spokeswoman Celina Westervelt said Thursday. The other one was also a rape case and that suspect is being extradited from Missouri.
No one has been arrested in the 1992 case at this point. But court documents show that DNA collected when the victim, then a 16-year-old girl, underwent a hospital exam just after her sexual assault has been matched with that of a 51-year-old Santa Fe man.
He was required to give a new DNA sample via oral swabs on Dec. 30. He has not been charged with the rape at this point.
The Journal is not naming him in this news story because his has not yet been charged in the rape case.
Court records show he pleaded guilty to several counts of fraud and embezzlement from 1997. Neither the suspect nor his attorney from the 1997 case could not be reached for comment Thursday.
According to Westervelt, the SFPD’s Crimes Against Persons Unit, working in batches, has been taking more than 100 items of old evidence including hair, blood and clothing samples from their icebox to the state crime lab to see if newly developed “touch DNA” techniques, nonexistent until recently, can now solve so-called cold cases.
Those techniques can reveal miniscule traces of DNA, for example those left when someone briefly touches a glass or a weapon.
“Before you couldn’t do anything with it because there wasn’t enough of a DNA sample,” said Westervelt. DNA is an acid in the body’s cells that carries a genetic code unique to every individual.
One of the prime goals of analyzing the old samples was to solve the murder-rape cases of Susan LaPorte in Santa Fe in December 1985 and the killing of Maria Padilla five months later in Albuquerque’s South Valley, said Westervelt.
LaPorte, 25, was visiting Santa Fe when she borrowed a friend’s car and disappeared. Her body was found near the car several days later. She had been raped, stripped and strangled. Padilla, 31, disappeared while jogging and her strangled body was found by her family the next day.
In 2009, DNA testing revealed the same suspect was responsible, but there have been no arrests.
In the 1992 rape case that the DNA sample has brought back to life, the teenage victim told police she had an argument with a girlfriend while they were driving around Santa Fe and got out of the car on Second Street. She was walking near Berry Avenue when a van pulled up and a male passenger in the front seat offered her a ride home.
There were two other men in the van, which was equipped for handicapped people – the driver and a man in a wheelchair in the rear. The front-seat passenger told the girl that the van was running out of gas and he needed to retrieve his own car.
She and the passenger were dropped off at an unknown address on Hopewell Street, where they got into an Oldsmobile Cutlass. The man did first drive the girl to her boyfriend’s house, but he wasn’t home. The man then drove to a park off Navajo Street, told her the car was overheating and needed to stop, then raped her at gunpoint.
He pulled a small handgun and pointed it at the girl’s chest saying, “Shut up, the doors are locked and I have a gun.” While continuing to cry, the victim responded, “You might as well shoot me.”
Afterward, she fled to a nearby convenience store where she called her mother, who took her to the hospital.
A rape examination was performed, and the evidence that was collected was turned over to the police.
Last year, on June 13, SFPD’s Sgt. Michelle Williams took the old rape evidence to the crime lab for a DNA analysis. About six weeks later, she got word from the lab that the DNA profile of an unknown male had been obtained from the 21-year-old sample.
That profile was entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System and on Nov. 15, it was matched to a previous offender whose DNA was on file – the 51-year-old Santa Fe man who is now a suspect.
Because a recent sample is needed to make a match that can be presented as evidence in court, a Santa Fe police detective obtained a search warrant which was served on the Santa Fe man on Dec. 30. Two samples were obtained using oral swabs, an affidavit for search warrant said.