The fates of David and Dina Weller all came down to a cigarette butt and blood.
In the spring of 2005, the modern-day Bonnie and Clyde were ransacking the West Washington Park neighborhood, but Denver Police Department detective Philip Stanford didn't have enough evidence to charge anyone. There were no fingerprints. No eyewitnesses. All he had was the saliva left in a cigarette butt, the blood that had been found inside a victim's home, and a hunch that this was a serial situation.
Stanford knew that the crime lab usually reserves DNA testing for solving murders and rapes, but he decided to take a chance and ask the lab to run his evidence. The director agreed, and Stanford's cases were some of the first burglary investigations in Denver to use DNA evidence. In November 2005, Denver became one of five trial cities to participate in an eighteen-month DNA Burglary Project that is being funded with a $418,000 Justice Department grant as part of President George Bush's five-year, $1 billion DNA Initiative. Denver was one of about twenty cities invited to apply for the project, and it won the slot with a unique joint proposal from the Denver Police crime lab and the Denver DA's office.
Two weeks ago, the burglary cases Stanford built with those first DNA samples finally wrapped up. In January, David Weller pled guilty to three Denver burglaries and was sentenced to 36 years in prison. On September 1, his wife, Dina, was also convicted and is now awaiting sentencing.
The pair's downfall began on March 23, 2005, when Joy Anema returned to her home on Emerson Street and found her back door ajar. She told her young son to stay in the car while she went to check things out. When she got closer to the house, she saw that the wooden door had been broken from the doorknob down; splintered pieces were lying on the ground. She walked into the house to grab the phone and noticed that the kitchen smelled like cigarette smoke. No one in her family smoked.
The next night, Eric Jacobsen returned to the home he shared with his mother on Acoma Street after having dinner with a friend. Still outside, he saw two silhouettes inside the kitchen. A minute later, he heard his front screen door slam shut. The house was a wreck when he entered, and he immediately noticed that the coin collection his mother had been amassing in their living room was gone.
Later that night, patrol officer Paul Rulla got a call about a prowler in the 2100 block of Logan Street. When he got there, he found a man crouching behind some dumpsters, his pockets filled with collectors' coins. Rulla arrested David Weller, who was wanted on an unrelated warrant.
Officer Greg Arnold returned to the alley after Weller was taken into custody to make sure no garages had been broken into. While looking around, he found a duffel bag embroidered with the name Keith Anema. The bag was filled with items missing from the Jacobsens' home, including a prescription bottle with Carol Jacobsen's name on it.
Detective Philip Stanford was assigned to the cases on March 29, and he immediately suspected that he could link them to a third case -- and a second Weller. Just days before, another Washington Park burglary victim had been at the Denver Merchandise Mart and had identified a pair of antique earrings stolen from her home. Not only did the paper trail lead back to a pawn slip with Dina Weller's name on it, but the culprit in that case had left blood all over the house. "He cut himself pretty bad getting in," says homeowner Patricia Fenner. "I was surprised he made it out alive."
In early April, Stanford got the DNA results: David Weller's DNA matched that found in the blood in Fenner's house and in the saliva in the cigarette filter that was found on the Anemas' kitchen floor. Dina Weller's DNA was also detected in the cigarette. "The evidence still has to speak for itself, but when you have biological evidence in your house and you've never met this person before, someone's going to have to explain what he or she was doing in your house," Stanford says.
When Stanford interviewed Dina, who was in jail for a parole violation, she signed a written statement confessing to the Jacobsen burglary after being told that there was DNA evidence. "We went into people's houses," she said. "I remember it was cold and I wanted to go home."
David was charged with all three burglaries, while Dina was charged with burglary for the Anema and Jacobsen cases, as well as a violation of the Pawnbrokers Act for selling Fenner's jewelry.
At the trial, defense attorney R. Scott Reisch argued that Dina had become too sick withdrawing from heroin to make a statement, and suggested that the confession was unreliable because Stanford hadn't recorded it or asked Weller to write it out herself. David testified that Dina was not a part of either burglary, claiming he had committed these burglaries, along with hundreds more -- maybe a thousand -- on his own. His explanation for the duplicate DNA on the cigarette butt in the Anema house was that he must have picked up one of Dina's used smokes before the burglary.
On September 1, the jury came back with a not-guilty verdict for Dina on the Anema burglary and a guilty verdict for the Jacobsen case. At sentencing, the prosecution will argue that she should be deemed a habitual criminal because she has more than three felony convictions, which would give her 48 years, four times the maximum burglary sentence and more time than her husband got for pleading guilty to three burglaries. The Pawnbrokers Act violation is still pending.
Carlos Samour, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted Dina Weller's case, says that since the couple was taken into custody, the West Washington Park neighborhood has seen a huge decrease in burglaries. "That's what we find in research with a lot of these burglars," he explains. "They do a lot of burglaries, so if you can take one burglar off the street, you can prevent a lot of burglaries."
The Wellers' convictions are just the beginning, too. Since the burglary project's November start, 27 cases have been filed using DNA, new equipment has been purchased, a full-time DNA analyst has been hired and officers have been trained. Over eighteen months, the goal is to collect DNA evidence from 500 burglaries, which will be analyzed to study the efficiency and effectiveness of using DNA to solve property crimes. Stanford and Samour have been leaders in the training of all officers to identify and gather DNA evidence from burglary scenes and in instructing police on how to work with the crime lab.
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"I have stood in the middle of a crime scene with a lot of biological evidence in a burglary, and I have been on the phone with the scientist saying, 'This is what I'm looking at. This is what we have. What do you think would be the best for us to test?'" Stanford says. "We're not just going in there and bringing in a truckload and saying, 'Test everything.' That's not good police work."
Every DNA profile found at a crime scene is uploaded into CODIS -- the FBI Laboratory's Combined DNA Index System -- which could help solve future crimes or link crimes together. Most states upload the profiles of all convicted felons into CODIS, while some go as far as entering the profiles of arrestees. CODIS then not only constantly searches the DNA profiles from crime scenes against those of convicted felons, but also finds matches among the crime scenes, allowing law enforcement to make connections between cases.
According to the National Institute of Justice, when police departments analyze DNA from a burglary, they find evidence that often solves other cases. A study in Florida, for example, found that 52 percent of individuals with CODIS profiles who had been convicted of murder or sexual assault had prior convictions for burglary. "A lot of people tend to think of burglars as just committing burglaries, and that's not the case," says Samour. "This isn't just a program to prevent property crime. This is a program also to decrease and prevent violent crime."
Stanford says the project is just like any other development in the history of police work: "When fingerprints first started, somebody had to invest in the ink and fingerprint cards because they found that was another tool to help them identify suspects. We are probably just at another era where we're changing. We're going to have to invest. We have an obligation to the citizens of Denver and to victims."