Sheriff uses DNA to catch burglars

By Jeff Whitten


The McNairy County Sheriff’s Department has a new weapon to catch burglars, according to Sheriff Guy Buck.

They now can collect the DNA and send it to the TBI for analysis.

The new weapon in the department’s arsenal against crime has already bore fruit.

DNA evidence from a burglary scene has already led to an arrest and confession in a case where there were no leads.

Blood droplets from a piece of broken glass were all it took to apprehend this suspect.

Jonathan Rieben had allegedly broken a gun case in the course of stealing the guns contained in it, leaving his DNA behind.

The TBI lab in Memphis sent them back a hit from a database that is populated from correction agencies all over the state. These agencies are required to collect DNA swabs from all inmates if they are arrested for certain crimes, including burglary, Buck explained.

 “Lo and behold, the other day we get a piece of paper back saying that you submitted this stuff in February and we have identified a suspect. None of us ever heard of this guy before. He had never been on our radar. We locate him, we bring him in and he confesses,” Buck said.

Buck had a blunt warning for criminals.

“If you’re a convicted felon, and your DNA is in that database, and you’re gonna commit a crime, don’t do it in McNairy County. We’re gonna be collecting DNA from anything you do. If you’re breathing, we’re gonna be collecting DNA evidence,” he said.

Buck believes that this will not only aid in solving crimes, but will also deter crimes.

“I believe that the end result will be that the bad guys in this county—they know if they are in that database. They don’t need to be committing crimes in McNairy County because we’re gonna come find you,” he said.

DNA can be collected from the saliva, blood, perspiration or even skin cells of a suspect.

The test is 99.999999 percent accurate, according to Investigator Robert Hitchborn who has been to school to learn how to properly collect DNA.

“It’s as accurate as a paternity test,” he said.

Once the TBI identifies a suspect, the department will get a search warrant to obtain a sample of their DNA.

Officers can also obtain DNA from a suspect if he gives his consent.

DNA definitively places a suspect at the scene of the crime.

If a suspect’s DNA is found at the scene of a crime, the suspect has to explain his presence. He cannot plausibly deny that he was at the scene of the crime if his DNA places him there, Buck said.

“A jury absolutely loves DNA evidence,” Buck pointed out.

Buck said that they found out that the state would take submissions on property crimes.

“We didn’t know that just on your regular burglaries they would take blind submissions,” Buck said.

The state has accepted DNA evidence for serious crimes against the person such as murder and rape for a while but has started accepting this evidence in property crimes over the past several months.

The state crime lab does the test at no cost to the county.

The state prioritizes which samples it will test based on the severity of the crime.

The Sheriff said that it took the state six months to return results on the burglary case he mentioned.

“Hey, I can’t complain,” he said.

“We may make one or two cases a year on this, but that is one or two cases we have no hope of solving,” Buck said.

“It’s a new day in law enforcement in McNairy County,” Buck said.

“A burglary is probably the hardest case to work in law enforcement,” said Chief Deputy Allen Strickland.

“In a property crime the motive is money and everybody wants money, so you have 20,000 suspects. In a personal crime, your suspect list is much smaller,” Buck added.

Hitchborn attended a three-day class offered by the University of Tennessee at Humboldt.

“They were real good at what they done, the instructors. They covered a lot about collecting and processing,” Hitchborn said.

“The idea of collecting evidence is not new. What he had to learn was the nuances of not contaminating the DNA,” Buck added.

The department can get a sample from residents or other persons who have legitimate reasons to be present at a dwelling that has been burglarized and can separate it from the DNA of anyone else who has been on the premises.

Hitchborn cautioned citizens to be careful not to contaminate DNA evidence at a crime scene.

“The citizens need to know that they can contaminate, they can destroy that DNA evidence ‘cause they’re not used to us doing it. If they find something, spit or blood, before an officer makes the scene, they need not to mess with that because that can be processed and not used to us doing that,” he said.

Even taking fingerprints is a relatively recent practice.

“When I came into office, a lot of the complaints I heard during the campaign were, when they asked for something from the Sheriff’s Office, they said, ‘We don’t do that here or we can’t do that here.’ We made a commitment very early on that we’re gonna do it. ‘We’re not gonna do it’ is not acceptable and if we don’t know how to do it, we’re gonna learn how to do it,” Buck said.

“If there is any tool that is available, we’re gonna use it,” Strickland added.

“If there’s training available, we’re gonna send our guys to it,” Buck said.

Two deputies and supervisors are going to criminal investigator’s school next month, Buck said.

The Sheriff said he was pleased with the progress in making the department a more effective crime fighting organization.

He noted that two K-9 dogs will soon be certified. The department has also trained two of its deputies to do meth cleanups, saving the county the $2,000 it would cost for a cleanup crew for each meth lab.

“I had no clue that in a year we would be where we are at based on where we started. None of what we have done has cost the county any money. We haven’t asked the County Commission for any money for any of the tools, from the body armor to the computers to their weapons. Everything we have done, we have funded through either sales we have done or commissary sales out of the jail. We’ve got new fingerprint machines. There are just so many things that we’ve done. Had I written out a five-year plan, I’m at year six. That’s how quick we’ve moved. The sky’s the limit. There’s nothing we’re not gonna do,” Buck concluded.