Funding cut for Wisconsin missing persons and cold cases

NOW: Funding cut for Wisconsin missing persons and cold cases

For years, investigators in Wisconsin have relied on a lab in Texas to process evidence in cold cases and some missing persons cases. But now that lab is no longer available. 

The University of North Texas Health Science Center sent this letter to medical examiners all over the country, notifying them that UNT would no longer accept their DNA submissions because federal grant money dried up. 

CBS58's Bill Walsh traveled to Fort Worth, TX to learn more about the lab, and spoke with Dixie Peters, the technical leader of the Missing Persons Unit. For some tests, UNT's lab is one of the best in the country. "There are probably about 10 public labs that perform mitochondrial DNA testing," Peters said. 

The quality of UNT's work has not gone unnoticed in Wisconsin. Michael Simley is a forensic investigator for the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner, and lauds the short turnaround time to process samples. "A lot of counties in Wisconsin use UNT," Simley said, "we use them to examine skeletal remains that we aren't qualified to do here." 

Simley says UNT would perform these specialized tests for free, until now. "The fact that we're losing that is very damaging to our office," he said. 

Investigators all over Wisconsin will now have to find a new lab, and the other options will cost them money, and cost them time trying to solve certain cases. "If it's the FBI and it's not a pressing matter might take years to complete," Simley said. 

UNT's lab was used in the case of Kelly Dwyer. Dwyer's remains were found on a desolate road in Jefferson County on May 1st, 2015, ending a nearly 18-month missing persons investigation. On May 7, 2015, Jefferson County M-E Nichol (Wayd) Tesch told the media that UNT's lab would be used to try to determine the cause of death. 

In Dwyer's case, the test results never led to a killer. The one suspect named by investigators, Kris Zocco, is serving a 19-year sentence for possession of child porn. Zocco was never charged in Dwyer's death.  

But Simley says UNT has helped crack other local cases. "In 13 different cases, the University of North Texas has been (integral) in solving the case in multiple ways," Simley said. 

But now investigators will need to find new ways to solve cases, and for some Wisconsin families, the wheels of justice may turn more slowly. 

According to the National Institute of Justice website, UNT's DNA processing lab was awarded just under $2-million in 2016. 

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