Contact DNA test next step in Mischelle Lawless investigation

Monday, May 4, 2009
1992 murder victim Mischelle Lawless. (Submitted by Scott County Sheriff Department)

Forensic experts Richard Eikelenboom and Selma Schieveld-Eikelenboom, who will be conducting DNA analysis on evidence in the 1992 murder of Angela Mischelle Lawless, have forged something of a reputation for shedding light on unsolved homicide cases.

The couple, who started Independent Forensic Services, a forensic lab in the Netherlands, in 2003, typically handle only complex and often high-profile murder cases these days, Richard Eikelenboom said during a phone interview Friday.

Richard Eikelenboom will perform "contact DNA testing," on the clothing worn by Lawless.

This form of DNA testing involves developing a genetic profile based on skin cells or other DNA material left behind when a surface, such as fabric, is touched, as opposed to trying to extract a profile from a stain of blood, saliva or semen.

Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter hopes the analysis will help to narrow the field in the search for Lawless' killer, after DNA testing performed by several different labs on blood evidence and other DNA material in the case has failed to pinpoint any one individual.

Richard Eikelenboom said he has used contact DNA testing in nearly every one of his murder cases since 1999, when he worked for Netherland's national forensics laboratory.

"A lot of times, we don't find the blood of the perpetrator because they're not injured, and I needed contact DNA to solve those," Richard Eikelenboom said.

Last April, the Eikelenbooms were featured on "48 Hours Mystery" for their forensic work in the 1987 murder of Peggy Hettrick in Fort Collins, Colo.

Contact DNA testing performed by Richard Eikelenboom on the victim's underwear exonerated the man convicted of the crime, Timothy Masters, in Colorado's first documented wrongful conviction case.

After seeing the case profiled on television, Walter contacted Linda Wheeler-Holloway, an investigator who worked on the Masters case and was responsible for having the new DNA testing done.

Walter and Scott County detective Branden Caid went to Colorado to meet with Wheeler-Holloway and other investigative experts, bringing the Lawless crime scene photos and other materials to get some "fresh eyes" on the case, Wheeler-Holloway said.

It was there that Walter met the Eikelenbooms and decided to turn the clothing evidence over to them for testing on the spot, Wheeler-Holloway said.

She said the Eikelenbooms often take on high-profile cases that state labs may be unable to devote the time to.

"State labs are literally inundated with hundreds and hundreds of pieces of evidence; they just don't have the time expertise or time that the Eikelenbooms have," Wheeler-Holloway said.

Wheeler-Holloway said several similarities between the two otherwise unrelated homicides stand out, the most obvious being that the original investigations of both murders resulted in convictions of the wrong men.

Masters was freed in January 2008 after the DNA testing cleared him, after having served nearly 10 years in prison.

Joshua C. Kezer, who was convicted in 1994 for the Lawless murder, walked out of prison in February after a Cole County judge declared him innocent of the crime.

Neither Kezer nor Masters actually knew the victims in the crimes for which they were convicted, Wheeler-Holloway said.

"Literally out of the starting gate, law enforcement got tunnel-visioned," Wheeler-Holloway said of the Masters conviction.

Wheeler-Holloway, a former Fort Collins police officer, was one of the original investigators on the Hettrick case, and had doubts about Masters guilt after interviewing him. She later assisted Masters' defense attorneys with the case.

Similarly, Walter, a reserve deputy who responded to the scene the night of Lawless' murder, re-opened the case in 2006 after he was elected sheriff because he was convinced more than one person had committed the killing. Early on in the new investigation, all of the evidence against Kezer began to fall apart.

Another common factor in both cases involves the fact that evidence indicates both women were dragged or carried about the same distance by their killers, Wheeler-Holloway said.

Because contact DNA testing involves such a wide surface, Richard Eikelenboom said, analysts need to gather as much information about the crime as possible.

By attempting to reconstruct how the crime would have occurred, the Eikelenbooms can zero in on specific areas of the clothing where the killer would have had to use enough force to have transferred genetic material.

"We need to know what happened in the case," Richard Eikelenboom said.

Because crime scene evidence indicates that Lawless was moved and placed in her car by her assailant, Richard Eikelenboom said force would have had to been applied to certain regions of her clothing.

Selma Schieveld-Eikelenboom is an expert in cause of death and injury interpretation, her husband has expertise in DNA blood pattern analysis, and both are former members of the International Homicide Investigators Association.

"They're not just lab coats and beakers and test tubes. They have a lot of investigative skills," Walter said of the Eikelenbooms.

Richard Eikelenboom said that while getting a profile from contact DNA testing can be extremely difficult, chances are improved the less the evidence is handled by investigators.

"In this case it looks promising because the material hasn't been contaminated," he said.


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