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'It's the only thing that opens it up again' | Spokane cold case detectives racing to preserve DNA evidence

Spokane Police are hoping to digitize DNA evidence from dozens of cold case homicides before it becomes unusable.

SPOKANE, Wash. —
The effort to solve cold case murders in Spokane is hitting a roadblock; DNA evidence, sometimes decades old, is breaking down before detectives can get it processed.

KREM 2 Investigators were recently granted rare access to the Spokane Police Department's (SPD) evidence storage facility to see firsthand what it will take to preserve that evidence. The department is hoping to digitize DNA evidence from the roughly 75 cold case homicides before it becomes unusable.

Some of the evidence dates back to crimes in the 1950s and 60s.

Cold case detective Sgt. Zac Storment has spent the last few years digging through this evidence, searching for new leads in old DNA.

But the longer DNA evidence sits in SPD's evidence storage facility, there will become a point where the evidence becomes unusable.

"We have had examples of cases we reviewed where we have not been able to find the DNA," Storment said.

Detective Storment estimates there are 75 cold case homicides, but fewer than 30 with DNA evidence that could lead to a suspect. He now wants to digitize DNA evidence now before it breaks down and can no longer be analyzed.

"Not all are going to be solved through a genealogy investigation, but we're focusing on those first," he explained. "Once the bio is converted to a digital format, it really opens doors as far as what we can do."

But the process is a slow one.

Storment says SPD has already set aside $50,000 in the budget to digitize DNA evidence, but the biggest challenge is time and manpower. Right now, there aren't enough detectives to sort through all the evidence and help the DNA scientist collect samples.

At the current pace, Storment estimates it could take more than 10 years to get through the current caseload.

"Whenever a current homicide or other things come up, we have to set this aside," he said. "And when you have to stop and start again, it's not the most efficient way to do things."

Right now, the department is working on multiple cold cases, including the disappearance and murder of Ruth Belle Waymire. Her body was found in 1984 by fishermen along the Spokane River. Her head, hands and feet had been cut off. For 40 years, her identity was unknown, prompting the daughter of an SPD detective to start calling her ‘Millie Doe.’ 

But in March 2023, ‘Millie’ was finally identified as Ruth Belle Waymire through new genetic technology. 

Police are still investigating who killed her, but Detective Storment says this new crack in the case never would have been possible without digitizing old evidence.

"DNA is going to be the only thing that opens it up again," Storment said.

New technology is also what led to the department's biggest cold case success so far: solving the 1959 murder of nine-year-old Candy Rogers. Even though the suspect, and Candy's parents, passed away years ago, the answers meant everything to Candy's relatives, who are still living today.

Joanne Poss, Candy’s cousin told KREM 2, “It was a relief, a shock. And, and I still can't thank them enough for what they did.”

But Detective Storment knows there are dozens more cases in storage still waiting for answers.

"I'm afraid that there's going to be a case we'll open soon, or in the next couple of years, and we'll see it was contaminated," he said. "And things should have been done sooner."

But he says the work is important and will continue, no matter how slow.

"Whether it's 1959 or it happens tomorrow, law enforcement is never going to give up," Storment said.

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