Saturday, February 16, 2008

How far to catch killer?

The four victims were, clockwise from bottom left, Julie Green, 34, Stacey Gage, 30, LaQuetta Gunther, 45, and Iwana Patton, 35.

Some wonder if Daytona Beach twists the law by trying to get DNA from everyone arrested.

By Leonora LaPeter Anton, Times Staff Writer
Published February 16, 2008


DAYTONA BEACH - Here at Froggy's Saloon, a biker bar where the women can be tough and the men kind of rough, the regulars can't agree on the latest tactic police are using to help catch a serial killer.

The murders hit close to home recently when the body of Stacey Gage, a Froggy's customer and a mother of two, turned up in January. Police say her murder mimics the killing of three other women over the past two years, all found in remote locations, naked, with .40-caliber bullets in their heads.

Police have a profile of the killer, a "deceptively average" man with a job who wants control in his relationship. But they have no suspects.

Here's what they do have: the killer's DNA.

Now, police have launched a DNA sweep, asking everyone arrested - potentially thousands hauled to jail for everything from misdemeanor drunken driving to disorderly conduct - to voluntarily submit their DNA.

It is unusual territory for Florida, which requires DNA samples to be taken only from convicted felons. Nationwide, however, such pursuit of DNA has become popular with police, who hope suspects will trip up on smaller crimes. Ted Bundy's final downfall was a stolen tag on his Volkswagen, and New York serial killer Joel Rifkin was nabbed for a missing rear license plate. He had the body of a prostitute in his trunk.

But the DNA dragnets - as they are sometimes called - tend to bring out the kind of polarizing debate that you often see with the right to keep a gun, the death penalty and abortion. Some call it a violation of the Constitution; others say it's necessary to make the world safer.

Even at Froggy's, which put up $2,000 to help catch the serial killer, the folksparked at the bar with their Bud Lites disagree about whether they should have to hand over a DNA sample.

"It's an invasion of your privacy," says Mike Daly, 53, a truck driver in Harley-Davidson suspenders and a black leather vest.

"I think everybody should be required to give a DNA sample," says Tammy Fox, a 32-year-old nurse from Ormond Beach wearing a long flowered shirt, black capris and spike heels.

"If you don't have anything to hide, why wouldn't you want to?"

* * *

The serial killer's first victim was LaQuetta Gunther, 45, a construction day laborer and occasional prostitute. Her nude body was found Dec. 26, 2005, between two buildings in a dirt alley barely wide enough for a person to slip through, across the street from a bar named Chubby's.

Over the next two months, two more women were killed: Julie Green, 34, and Iwana Patton, 35.

Gunther and Green were friends and former roommates. Patton, whose brother is an Orlando police officer, worked at an assisted living facility.

All four victims had arrest records. Police initially said the first three women were prostitutes, though only Gunther has a prostitution record in Florida. According to published news reports, friends and family said Green worked the streets and Patton had been arrested in New York for loitering for the purpose of prostitution.

Police suspected they had a serial killer preying on prostitutes, but the murders stopped - for 10 months. Then, on Dec. 11, Gage, a 30-year-old who took care of her disabled grandmother, went out for some ice for her mother's cooler, a temporary substitute for a broken fridge.

Gage had an on-again, off-again drug problem. She had been a baton twirler growing up, winning championships. But then in high school she broke her thumb twirling and turned to cocaine, said her grandmother, Betty Hill.

So when Gage disappeared, her grandmother first thought maybe she was at it again. A police officer doing a routine check found Gage's body three weeks later on Jan. 2, 5 miles from her home in the woods next to an abandoned church.

Hill denied that her granddaughter, a mother of two school-age children, was a prostitute.

Gage's family has donated $1,000 to CrimeStoppers to help catch the serial killer. And they support the DNA collection.

"I want him caught, so I'm all for it," Hill said. "I don't want it to happen to somebody else ... but I know that others might be opposed to it."

* * *

More than a week ago, Daytona Beach police Chief Mike Chitwood announced that the DNA samples collected from those arrested would go into a state database and be used to solve not only the serial killer case but other crimes as well.

Then, the Police Department stopped talking.

"It's voluntary, that's the only thing I'm commenting on," said Jimmie Flynt, a spokesman for Daytona Beach police. "The Police Department is trying to catch a serial killer. With all this information going out that we're doing DNA swabs and we're doing this and doing that, it's counterproductive to catch a killer. We're not commenting any further."

But civil libertarians like George Griffin, president of the Volusia-Flagler county chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, have lots of questions:

"Who's going to use (the DNA)? Who's going to have access to it? What privacy protections are in place? What's the likelihood of human error, mishandling or even malicious intent? And on the other side, if I say no, does that make me a greater suspect?"

Griffin called it a potential violation of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

"I don't understand why the chief is going on such a widespread fishing expedition," he said. "There seems to be a better way to do this."

And even though giving DNA is voluntary, some wonder if those arrested will feel coerced.

"Doing it at the time of arrest is not the time to justify voluntary consent by anyone," said James Purdy, 55, public defender for the area that includes Daytona Beach. "That's the most coercive environment any citizen can be in. ... It will be submission to police authority."

Florida police agencies have collected voluntary DNA in the past.

In 1994, Miami police collected 2,300 voluntary samples to help nab a serial rapist and killer. And in 2003, they collected 300 samples from Hispanic men, again to try to catch a serial rapist. The samples didn't help find the rapists in either case.

Still, "DNA's a valuable tool both for the innocent and for helping in an investigation," said Miami police Lt. Carlos Alfaro, who led the 2003 rapist case. "Criminals tend to repeat offenses and escalate their actions, so in that sense it's the best intent to maintain a database."

Florida's DNA database now holds more than 436,000 total samples, up from 170,000 in 2003. Kristen Perezluha of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement could not say how many of those were voluntary samples. Voluntary samples, however, are kept separate from the DNA samples of those convicted of crimes, she said.

Daytona Beach police, who arrest about 11,000 people a year, declined to say how many voluntary samples they have collected so far.

* * *

At a small white concrete block home a few blocks from where Gunther, the first victim, died, Mark and Stacey Dittmer sit outside with a couple of beers and debate the DNA sweep.

Gunther was Stacey Dittmer's best friend.

"Okay, so someone takes the DNA and puts it in a package and writes the wrong name on it," says Mark Dittmer, 47, taking a puff of a 305 cigarette and turning to his wife of eight years. "You've still got the human error factor."

"Yeah, but you could catch (Gunther's) killer," says his wife.

The couple live blocks from Ridgewood Avenue, the rundown strip where many prostitutes ply their trade.

"A lot of girls are looking over their shoulders now," says Stacey Dittmer, 43. "I'm even looking over my shoulder, and I've never had to do that."

One night recently, a few prostitutes could still be seen on Ridgewood Avenue.

One, who declined to give her name, stood in the lights of an air conditioning repair shop in a hooded jacket and dark pants. She said she was 50, homeless and needed money to survive.

She tries to protect herself by going with mostly older men she could possibly fend off and taking them to lighted parking lots.

As she talked, a man emerged from the shadows toting a backpack, her boyfriend of three years, she said. He writes down the license tag numbers of her suitors, she says.

"I'm old now and I have to eat and I have to survive," the woman said. "That's why I do this."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at or (727) 893-8640.

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