by Douglas Ankney
The Utah Cold Case Coalition (“Coalition”) announced in November 2019 that it is building Intermountain Forensics — the first nonprofit forensics lab in the United States. The Coalition is headed by Salt Lake attorney Karra Porter and was formed in 2017 to spotlight the 1995 unsolved case of Rosie Tapia, a 6-year-old girl who was taken from her bedroom, murdered, and dumped in a nearby canal.
Dan Hellwig, who worked for 10 years with Sorenson Forensics and helped Salt Lake police with numerous murder investigations, will serve as lab director. The nonprofit will resemble a private DNA testing lab, avoiding the bureaucracy, politics, and red tape that often exists with public labs.
With multiple revenue streams, Hellwig told Forensic Magazine, “We can charge as minimal as we can for a case that keeps our lights on, but we can supplement that with donations.”
Intermountain Forensics will devote most of its time to testing DNA from cold cases and from sexual assault cases in Utah and across the country. With roughly 200,000 unsolved homicide and non-negligent manslaughter cases from 1980 to 2018, the need for testing will always be there. And the sexual assault cases are predicted to number in the hundreds of thousands.
Owing to generous donations, the lab is outfitted with some of the most advanced DNA technology today. “[W]e are not buying used equipment,” Hellwig said. “We will be working with state-of-the-art equipment.” This already includes the MiSeq FGx Forensic Genomics System from Illumina and QIAGEN’s automated extraction equipment.
Hellwig and the lab have already received inquiries concerning case submissions as well as case consultations. Because of start-up costs, the lab will initially operate with two or three forensic scientists. But the lab will be interactive — accepting cases and then talking through evidence with the submitters to help law enforcement and lawyers understand the results they are getting.
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