Curiosity, Web and DNA may solve murder
By DAVID ADAMS
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2001
MIAMI -- It was a shocking crime that for five years has frustrated authorities in France and caused untold anguish for a family in Britain.
But now, thanks to the curiosity of a diligent Detroit immigration inspector -- and some DNA -- the case may have been solved.
Veteran agent Tommy Ontko was reading a British newspaper online April 1 when his attention was drawn by an article about a murder mystery in northwestern France.
The article recounted the investigation into the 1996 death of a 13-year-old British schoolgirl, Caroline Dickinson, who was raped and strangled at a youth hostel during a school trip to Brittany.
It described how French officials conducted DNA tests on all 200 or so male residents from 15 to 35 in the small town where the crime occurred.
What caught Ontko's eye was mention in the article of a 50-year-old Spanish man named Francisco Arce wanted for questioning in the case. The story said European immigration officials had lost track of Arce, but it didn't say where they had looked.
"He thought he should try to see if anyone had looked for the suspect in the United States," said Greg Palmore, spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Detroit. "He was just doing his civic duty."
Not exactly. April 1 was a Sunday and Ontko was on his home computer.
When he ran the name through a law enforcement database he got an instant hit: The computer showed that an unemployed waiter from northern Spain with the same name had been arrested March 13 in Miami Beach.
Ontko realized that he would need more data to know if he had the right man. He contacted British and French officials for more details, such as a date of birth. The information he received confirmed that the French suspect and the Miami Beach man were one and the same.
Ontko contacted Miami Beach police to see whether the man was still in custody. He was told that indeed, due to his Spanish nationality, Arce was being held as a possible flight risk at Miami-Dade County Jail in lieu of $30,000 bail.
According to the police arrest report, Arce was accused of breaking into a woman's room at the Banana Bungalows Hotel and international hostel in Miami Beach, cutting off her underwear while she slept and then masturbating. At first, police didn't take much notice. "On its face it wasn't a major case," said Miami Beach police spokesman Al Boza. "We had no idea there was suddenly going to be such international attention."
Even so, Miami-Dade crime laboratory technicians were already working on Arce's DNA to provide evidence in the Miami Beach case. A sample of semen taken from the Banana Bungalows crime scene was analyzed to compare it with a saliva swab taken from Arce after his arrest.
The DNA analysis suddenly took on new significance. Now fully alerted by Ontko's information, French authorities sent a DNA profile from the Brittany murder scene to be compared with Arce's sample.
On Wednesday, Miami-Dade police confirmed that its own DNA analysts had concluded that the two profiles were an almost certain match.
"There is little doubt in my mind that this is the man they are looking for," said detective Ed Munn, a Miami-Dade County police spokesman. "Based on this evidence it looks like we have solved an international murder mystery."
Wednesday morning a Miami judge revoked Arce's bail and ordered him held until a July 2 trial date on the Miami Beach charges.
Despite the preliminary match, French investigators may have to carry out further DNA analyses before any extradition request can be made.
While all forensic science services use the same basic methods, there are some minor differences in laboratory protocol from country to country.
For a perfect DNA match that will stand up in court, the crime scene sample and the swab taken from the suspect must be examined using the same protocol.
French police are on their way to Florida take their own DNA samples, which will be tested at the same French laboratory that analyzed the crime scene samples, using the same method as in the original tests.
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