At his sentencing in the first DNA Cold Hit Unit prosecution case in Alameda County, Bennie Lee Alder demonstrated how terrifying a sexual predator can be and why law-enforcement agencies are collaborating to keep others like him off Oakland streets.
Alder slammed his hands against a table before leaping from his seat, shouting profanities and trying to attack deputy district attorney Sharmin Bock, the prosecutor who helped convict him after a two-month-long trial.
Bock painted a frightening picture of Alder as a sexual predator who targets and preys on young and vulnerable African-American women in Oakland. She said he kidnaps and rapes them to fulfill his deviant sexual fantasies. Bock labeled Alder the "Jekyll and Hyde" serial rapist because he subjected each of his victims to a volatile and torturous ordeal.
Judge Jeffrey Horner described Alder as an "extremely dangerous sexual predator" and sentenced him to 180 years for his 2002 and 2004 kidnaps and rapes. Alder must serve 85 percent of this sentence.
Although there had been a cold hit — when a DNA databank search links to a felon — on the 2002 case in 2003, these two cases were not linked until 2008, when the 2004 victim saw Alder on the street and identified him to police as her assailant. After Alder's arrest in 2008, the Cold Hit Unit tested the DNA of the 2004 case, which matched the crime scene evidence to his DNA profile in a state forensic database, which
"These criminals are the worst of the worst," Bock said. "They often commit serial crimes and have extensive criminal records. Taking just one of them off the street often solves multiple rapes or murders and provides a significant community service."
Though Alder was a cold-hit sexual assault case, the newly formed joint DNA Cold Hit Unit of the Alameda County District Attorney's Office and the Oakland Police Department also solves old homicide cases, some a half-century old. The unit works collaboratively and is made up of two veteran homicide detectives and two experienced prosecutors along with crime lab scientists and the coroner's office. Together, they examine biological and physical evidence to find new leads they can pursue, old ones that might have been missed or connections to other unsolved cases.
The DNA cold-hit unit officially began operating last year. It was the creative vision of District Attorney Tom Orloff, Chief Assistant District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, acting Oakland police Chief Howard Jordan and Deputy Chief of Investigations Jeffrey Israel. The team also is a part of an Alameda County DNA Task Force, newly formed by the District Attorney's Office, which includes police agencies and scientists from across the county who meet regularly to discuss and review cases.
O'Malley said the unit was formed to manage case information, and DNA evidence is one piece of it.
"DNA is an incredible tool, a forensic tool, it can identify the guilty people, it can clear someone who is not guilty, but it is not the only tool," O'Malley said. "While we may have DNA as an identification tool in an investigation, we still had to put a case together. ... That became one of the pivotal issues around how we were managing this case information."
The importance of finding crime scene connections became tragically clear in March when DNA evidence recently linked Lovelle Mixon, a 26-year-old fugitive parolee, to the sexual assaults of two Oakland women fewer than eight hours before a traffic stop and ensuing shootout that left him and four Oakland police officers dead.
Jordan said Mixon's case shows how important it is to get real-time data to the field.
"We have to keep doing this and the public deserves this," he said. "Mixon is an example what people can do if they go unchecked" and remain on the streets.
But unlike the popular television crime shows, crimes aren't solved in 60 minutes. Sometimes it takes weeks, months or years to crack a case or begin the next phase of an investigation.
Oakland began submitting material in 2001 to the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, an FBI-funded database that stores DNA profiles created by federal, state and local crime labs from across the country.
The goal is to find a match, or "a hit," between DNA profiles in the statewide database and crime scene evidence. The database contains DNA forensic unknowns from crime scenes, DNA samples from past convicted felons and DNA from anyone arrested for a felony. That has allowed law enforcement to identify some of the perpetrators behind unsolved killings, assaults and rapes.
"DNA never changes," said Mark Melton, the other deputy district attorney on the cold-hit team. "You can change your hair and personal characteristics but your DNA never changes."
By the end of 2007, Oakland police entered 663 DNA profiles from 610 cases to cross-match with the state database. That revealed 305 offender matches in 291 cases, for an overall offender hit rate of 48 percent, according to Mary Gibbons, Oakland police crime lab manager.
Since 2001, there are about 200 unsolved DNA sexual assault cases in Oakland. A large number of DNA-related homicides include women who may have been involved in the commercial sex trade.
"That's why it's important to have a team of seasoned investigators and prosecutors to figure out what happened," said O'Malley, who works closely with the cold-hit team. "Because of advancements in forensic science, we can now prosecute those who violently murdered them."
Also, of the DNA profiles submitted in 128 homicide cases to date, there were a total of 54 offender hits in 49 homicide cases. This resulted in an offender hit rate of 38 percent in homicide cases.
"Offender hit rate is defined as the number of cases in which one or more offender hits were made over the total number of cases searched," Gibbons said. "As you can see from the number, we may put more than one profile in a case into CODIS, and we may hit more than one individual in CODIS on a single case."
According to the state Department of Justice, California's DNA database holds profiles from 1,268,000 convicted felons and convicted sexual offenders. Also in that database are the DNA profiles of 24,754 "forensic unknowns" or DNA profiles collected from evidence taken at crime scenes to which no name is attached.
From those two categories, 8,527 "hits" have been identified and are on their way to being solved, officials said.
Before the DNA Cold Hit Unit existed, many of the cold cases sat collecting dust or were parceled out to investigators, who juggled working old cases and fresh ones. Today, the department has dedicated staff members to the unit, including Sgts. Tim Nolan and Donnie Williams and Officers Herb Weber and Jason Andersen.
Oakland has averaged 108 homicides in each of the past five years. Fewer than half have been solved.
"That adds up to a very sizable body of work that potentially needs attention," Nolan said.
Some of the challenges solving cold cases often involve suspects, victims or witnesses who are no longer living. Also, some witnesses, homicide victims' families or victims of sexual assault may not remember details dating to the case and still may feel traumatized.
"It is years later and questioning would be opening old wounds," O'Malley said. "We wanted to make sure we're being appropriate in how we approach people."
The unit is currently working on two homicide cases: Suspects Monte Crawford and George Willoughby are scheduled for prosecution, and could face the death penalty.
Court records assert that Willoughby allegedly forcibly sexually assaulted a 23-year-old woman who was found naked hanging from a tree by a rope tied around her neck and leg after being set on fire. DNA evidence from the scene matched Willoughby's DNA profile in the CODIS database. Willoughby also is charged with eight prior felony convictions, indicating an extensive violent sexual history. Bock is prosecuting Willoughby.
In the second case, court records assert that Crawford allegedly sexually assaulted and killed two women within a week of each other in 1992. They were each found naked or partially naked in the Oakland hills. The women were strangled to death, with DNA evidence from sexual contact linking Crawford to both victims. Melton is prosecuting Crawford.
Neither Bock nor Melton would comment on the pending cases.
Chani Sentiwany is one of about 10 criminalists who works closely with the cold-hit unit. Her job is to examine DNA evidence left on such things as sexual assault kits, bloody clothing and sneakers.
"It's always a puzzle to solve," she said. "There's also a good feeling to know that I have managed to find a piece of evidence to help solve a case."
In the meantime, the unit is continuing to chip away at hundreds of unsolved cases. There are backlogs of samples waiting to be analyzed.
"Cold-hit cases are rife with challenges but also filled with rewards," Bock said. "Everyone in Alameda County is served by our joint effort to resolve cold and complex cases, protect the community from further harm by serious criminals, use forensic science to also exonerate the innocent, and provide closure to victims and families."
Staff writer Angela Hill contributed to this story.