I consider myself a crime scene expert, mainly because I watch television and every show is designed to make the process of crime scene investigation look like a Sunday stroll through the park. Find some blood on the wall, swipe it with a q-tip, send it to the lab, convict a murderer. It’s easy as 1-2-3.
In actuality, the exercise of gathering evidence is a much more complex process. Sure, some crime scenes have pools of blood, providing investigators with a gold-mine of DNA linking criminal to crime. Many times, however, the DNA evidence left behind is microscopic, or buried so deeply within the fibers of an object that trying to find it with a q-tip is like showing up to a fist-fight with no arms — it just isn’t happening.
The unfortunate reality is that while DNA research and testing is more advanced than ever, many DNA profiles essentially boils down to the whims of a 25-cent swab.
“How CSIs gather the evidence is critical because if it gets screwed up at the crime scene then everything beyond that is worthless,” M-Vac CEO Jared Bradley said. “So there’s different methods of gathering this evidence and the most common is what’s called a swab. It’s basically a sterile q-tip...the DNA material—skin cells or blood or saliva or whatever you’re looking for—has to be sitting on the top of the surface. And if they’re way down deep inside cracks or crevices or in the fibers of the clothing, you just don’t get them. And so that’s why the M-Vac exists.”
The M-Vac (Microbial-Vac System) was originally designed by Bradley’s father to identify bacteria in various food plants. Seemed like a decent goal, who doesn’t want less bacteria involved with the food they eat? Apparently, the people in charge of producing it.
“We’ve been kicked out of meat plants when we say, ‘Hey, use this device and you’ll be able to find more contamination in your plant,’” Bradley said. “Thinking that’s a good thing, and they’re like, ‘Get out of here.’”
Here’s some (contaminated) food for thought: when the FDA puts regulations in place for each food plant regarding the amount of bacteria allowed inside, the tradition is to meet those requirements but never, ever exceed them. Finding more bacteria means more work, and you know the old food industry adage about more work: piss on it.
Realizing the M-Vac was too good at its job, in turn preventing its use in the food industry, Bradley began searching for the business field that would most welcome the ability of finding microscopic elements buried far, far away. Crime scene investigation was the logical destination.
“We market this to CSI people, the detectives, and then they typically create the demand and then they’ll push it up to the people that actually purchase,” Bradley said. “Crime labs have to be included in the loop because they’re the ones that actually process the M-Vac sample but the police agencies are the ones that really want it.”
The purpose of the M-Vac is simple — at crime scenes that don’t have DNA evidence visible to the naked eye, it’s designed to pick up any tangible sign of a person’s passing, no matter how small or insignificant. Even when you don’t leave something behind, you leave something behind.
“Touch DNA is basically if I grab your shirt I’ve left my skin cells on you and maybe that’s the only connection that the crime scene would have with the criminal,” Bradley said. “So a lot of detectives and everybody are moving that direction. They’re like, ‘Look. We know the guy was here. He didn’t leave any blood. He didn’t leave any saliva.’”
In a recent study done by the Philadelphia Police Office of Forensic Science, the M-Vac picked up 180 times the amount of DNA compared to traditional swabbing. That’s an incredible difference, and one that has led to the solving of numerous different cold cases throughout the world.
One of those was the murder of Krystal Beslanowitch, a 17-year-old killed near Provo River in 1995. Long after the case went cold, the M-Vac was used to collect evidence from the granite rock used to crush her skull. A DNA match was made, authorities arrested the suspect in Florida, and he now awaits trial for her murder.
The stories about the M-Vac being crucial to murder charges stretch across the globe, yet always stay close to home. Just last month, M-Vac evidence gleaned from the 2011 murder of Uta von Schwedler led to the conviction of her ex-husband, Salt Lake pediatrician John Wall.
“We’ve got distributors that we’re working with now in Australia and China and Dubai and South Africa,” Bradley said. “So it’s spreading all over the place. I get e-mails and phone calls all hours of the day.”
As you can imagine, creating interest for the M-Vac is a unique sales opportunity. The majority of people on earth don’t have need for a DNA-scrubbing vacuum, unless I’m mistaking the personal habits of my fellow men/women.
Law enforcement, however, has an enormous need. And when Bradley can show them the powers of the M-Vac, both sides benefit.
“It’s $21,500 for the system,” Bradley said. “And the consumables work out to $65-75 a sample, so in the grand scheme of things if you figure the total cost of a murder, it goes all the way from cordoning off—securing the site—all the way through trial, well into the millions. And so tacking on another five grand worth of M-Vac, if it’s gonna make or break the case… it’s not very much.”
With each passing day, more crimes are committed, and more cases go unsolved. It sounds depressing, but that’s just how life works. Whatever can be utilized to help these numbers go down is a good thing.
Relying on a 25-cent swab, when the backend contains billions of dollars worth of DNA research, seems silly.
Relying on the M-Vac? That seems a little more reasonable.
“We envision at least one of these in every crime lab and every major law enforcement agency,” Bradley said. “Especially in the US. But it should be all over the world.”
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