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As Jenny Carrieri pressed for progress in the homicide of her twin sister, most recently posting billboards in Baltimore seeking clues, she learned of the M-Vac: a wet-vacuum machine that can extract DNA from rough or porous surfaces and lead investigators to previously unknown suspects. The M-Vac has identified killers and other suspects in crimes across the country, helped free one man who had been wrongly imprisoned for 20 years for murder, and is being used in Florida to find DNA evidence on boats authorities think were used in human trafficking. Carrieri wants the Baltimore County police to use it on the clothes or vehicle of her sister, Jody LeCornu, who was shot to death inside her car 23 years ago.
While police in Baltimore County ponder whether to use the technology, whose manufacturer has offered it to them free, they might consider the impact it is having elsewhere.
In 2014, the sheriff’s office in Broward County, Fla., was struggling with the case of a woman who had been beaten to death with concrete landscaping blocks. The victim’s blood was on the flat side of the blocks, but the edges where the killer’s hand had been were rough like English muffins, now-retired Broward crime scene Sgt. Stewart Mosher said. Investigators had spent $130,000 on DNA testing without developing a profile when Mosher turned to M-Vac Systems in Sandy, Utah. Company President Jared Bradley flew to Florida with a machine about the size of a suitcase and taught the Broward detectives how to use it.
“We made the [sample] collections and sent them in to the DNA unit,” Mosher said. “Before Jared lands back in Utah, we’re walking the suspect into the Broward County jail with a full profile from each of the blocks. ... My chain of command said, ‘Don’t you let that M-Vac leave that office. We’re purchasing that.’” Broward now has two of the machines, one that is kept in the lab and one that is taken to crime scenes, and Mosher said South Florida detectives’ crime-clearance rate is soaring.
“This is a game-changer,” said Francine Bardole, a crime scene investigator with the police department in the city of West Jordan, Utah. Her department was the first to buy an M-Vac machine. “It collects so much more DNA. Any agency that’s going to work cold cases ought to think about using the M-Vac.”
The FBI is testing the M-Vac, and in a first round of results published this month, the agency found it to be far more effective in extracting DNA from rough services such as pressure-treated wood and plywood and 47 times more effective on automotive carpet than the standard method of running a swab or “Q-Tip” over the surface. It found that swabs may still be equally effective on flat, nonporous surfaces such as glass or countertops.
The M-Vac, short for microbial vacuum, sprays a sterile solution on a small area and then sucks, creating a “mini-hurricane” to extract skin cells or dried fluids that may lie below the surface of a piece of clothing, a car seat or taped-up package of cocaine. The recovered solution is poured through a filter that captures biological material containing DNA. Bardole has even soaked items such as bullet casings in the sterile solution, filtering the resulting samples and identifying the DNA of shooters.
The machine was invented in Idaho by Bruce Bradley, who was looking for ways to discover and track the roots of E. coli outbreaks and knew that swabbing the surfaces of meats or plants was unlikely to yield the bacteria. But the food industry showed little interest in the device, said Bradley’s son Jared, now the company’s CEO.
Meanwhile, Jared Bradley described the machine to a friend who was working for the FBI. “He said, ‘Man, that would’ve been amazing on some of my crime scenes,’ ” Bradley recalled. Within a year, Bradley and his team had the machine tested for DNA extraction and received high praise for its effectiveness. He said that repurposing the machine required no design changes, so he moved his father’s company to Utah “and pivoted to forensics in 2012.” Bradley now attends law enforcement conferences and approaches police investigators in news-making cases to offer the use of the M-Vac technology.
“If there’s blood spatter on a scene,” Bradley said, “when you can see it, you can scoop it up with a spoon. But when you’ve got degraded DNA, or touch DNA, or surfaces like brick, concrete, old clothing, you have to get more aggressive to get in there. That’s what the M-Vac does.”
The M-Vac technology is not necessarily for every case involving DNA, said Matthew Gamette, director of the Idaho State Police lab and president of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, in part because of the cost: A machine sells for about $42,500, and the “consumables” — solutions and filters — used in each test cost about $100. Gamette said he also wanted to be sure there was no cross-contamination of the system from use to use, with DNA from one case being introduced into another.
“It’s not something I would recommend using if you can see the blood stain,” Gamette said. He considered it a “last resort technology,” he said. But “when you’ve got a cold case, we’re going to be looking at any technology we can to solve a case. ... If it’s useful, then use it.”
The M-Vac is building a catalogue of success stories. In Salt Lake City in 1977, 16-year-old Sharon Schollmeyer was found raped and stabbed to death inside her apartment. Nearly four decades later, Salt Lake police used the M-Vac to pull DNA off a piece of clothing that had been stuffed into the victim’s mouth, and used the national DNA databank to connect it to a convicted sex offender living in Florida. He was arrested, pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 10 years to life in 2017.
In Charleston, S.C., police used the M-Vac to find evidence in a home invasion and sexual assault committed in late May 2017. By early June that year, they had identified a suspect and arrested him on charges of criminal sexual conduct, burglary and kidnapping.
And in 2016, Chris Tapp was released from prison in Idaho after serving 20 years in the rape and murder of Angie Dodge, who was killed in her Idaho Falls apartment in 1996. Idaho authorities used the M-Vac to collect DNA that eliminated Tapp as a contributor. Tapp had been coerced into confessing, Idaho authorities found, and this month, a different man was arrested and charged with Dodge’s murder.
Mosher said the M-Vac was used in Broward County in a sex assault case to confirm a suspect’s alibi that “the DNA was present where he said it would be, and not anywhere else. We moved on, redirected the investigation itself, and from that day forward I was an extremely huge proponent of the M-Vac.” He is now on the board of advisors of M-Vac Systems, and has volunteered to travel to Baltimore County to assist in the LeCornu case. But after speaking with the lead detective, Mosher said he does not think the time is right for its use, as the police pursue other leads, which he could not disclose. A Baltimore County police spokesman said the investigators could not publicly discuss whether the M-Vac would be used in the case.
On March 2, 1996, Jody LeCornu, 23, was sitting in her white Honda Civic, making phone calls from the empty Drumcastle Shopping Center parking lot on York Road in Towson, Md. At 3:40 a.m., a stocky black male wearing a green Army-style coat approached her car and spoke to her, according to one witness. Then, police said, LeCornu apparently began driving away and the man fired one shot from behind, striking her in the back. LeCornu drove across York Road to another shopping center and stopped, apparently unconscious. Witnesses told police that a man climbed out of a white BMW, reached into LeCornu’s car and pulled something out, then drove away. LeCornu’s purse was never found, her sister said.
After The Washington Post published a story about Carrieri’s campaign to solve her sister’s 23-year-old slaying, Carrieri was contacted by Sheryl McCollum of the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute in Atlanta, who told her about the M-Vac. “I was so excited because I knew they had Jody’s clothes,” Carrieri said, hoping that perhaps the killer had deposited DNA while reaching into her sister’s car. “I thought this could possibly be it; they could solve Jody’s case. It brought me hope, because there’s been a lot of hopeless times.”