Inside the crime lab: Scientists want team dedicated to cold cases

Crime

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — In the last year, demands have skyrocketed at the Rhode Island Department of Health DNA lab.

“Since the task force began, we’re getting a lot more inquiries about cold cases,” Cara Lupino said.

Lupino is the lab’s forensic biology supervisor. Beginning this year, homicide detectives across Rhode Island have been meeting every other week to help each other on unsolved investigations.

Those meetings often include forensic scientists who help guide detectives on new ways to test old evidence.

“Every week they’re resubmitting something,” Lupino said. “It would be nice if we had a cold case team that could just focus on those cold cases.”

In most instances, only one forensic scientist is assigned to testing or re-testing old evidence. It can get backed up, but Lupino said it wouldn’t get in the way of helping a detective with an urgent request.

Last month, Pawtucket Detective Sue Cormier arrived at the lab one morning needing a fast turnaround on a sample.

According to court records, detectives used a DNA link to a suspect but needed confirmation. They got a DNA sample from the man, Joao Monteiro, and went to the lab to see if it matched blood DNA evidence found on 10-year-old Christine Cole’s pants.

Christine was murdered in 1988. Lupino said she found the DNA on the girl’s clothes in the 1990s but there was nothing they could do with it at the time.

“At the time we didn’t have the same technology,” she said.

Now that they had Monteiro’s DNA, they could compare it. Because of the stack of cases in front of them, she said that usually takes two months.

“It can be done in one day but that means every other case gets put aside for that day, so that only is for emergency basis,” Lupino explained.

This counted as an emergency. Lupino said the Monteiro’s sample matched with the sample from Christine’s clothes.

Monteiro was arrested at his workplace that night and charged with murder after the match was confirmed, according to police. 

Monteiro has pleaded not guilty and his attorney said his client denies the charges.

“It’s a good feeling to at least be able to point them in the right direction,” Lupino added.

Beyond the 450 cases the lab works on every year, scientists also take in new samples from convicted felons. Their DNA is added to the federal DNA database known as CODIS.

According to the Department of Health in 2018, 24,299 convicted felons have been added to CODIS. That database has helped 408 state investigations.

Anyone with information on a Rhode Island cold case investigation is asked to call 1-877-RI-SOLVE.

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