Book Review: DNA the key to solving killings of two Port Alberni girls

The Bulldog and the Helix: DNA and the Pursuit of Justice in a Frontier Town
By Shayne Morrow
Heritage House, 209 pp., $22.95

Two brutal murders of young girls in Port Alberni almost two decades apart were not connected, but together helped to advance the use of DNA in solving crimes in Canada.

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That might be little consolation for the families of Carolyn Lee, 12 when she was murdered in 1977, and Jessica States, just 11 when she was killed in 1996. Both crimes shocked Port Alberni, and helped make everyone aware of the evil that could be found in a community where it seems, at times, that everyone knows everyone else.

But the successful use of DNA in the two cases helped to change the course of criminal investigations and murder trials in this country. Every step using the new technology is a step forward, and the steps taken on Vancouver Island helped prove the validity of the new tools available to law enforcement.

dx-0915-helix.jpgCarolyn was abducted while walking home from a dance class. Jessica was chasing foul balls at a fastpitch game close to her house. In both cases, there were no witnesses; no person who could tell the police who had grabbed or assaulted the girls.

DNA made the difference; DNA put the killers behind bars. But, to be fair, a DNA sample means nothing on its own; it took intense work by devoted, determined police officers before arrests could be made.

Shayne Morrow, a former police reporter with the Alberni Valley Times, helped cover both cases, picking up the thread of the Lee case when he started working in Port Alberni in 1994, and working on the States case from start to finish.

His book, The Bulldog and the Helix, tells the story of both cases, with a strong first-person point of view. We get to know more about Morrow, but also more about the police officers he worked with over the years.

It’s easy to see that Morrow had deep respect for some of the RCMP members involved. As well he should, and we should; one case had gone quite cold, and the other was at risk of going cold, but the police kept at it.

Morrow also takes readers back to the glory days of small daily newspapers, when reporters would hustle every morning to ensure that afternoon’s newspaper had the most recent news possible. You can almost smell the ink as he describes his work at the Times.

The use of DNA in criminal investigations has not been without controversy. In the past couple of years, police have tapped into genetic genealogy websites in their search for the perpetrators of serious crimes. Their work has helped them find some killers, but has angered genealogists who did not expect that their interest in family history could help police put a distant cousin behind bars.

In Port Alberni, all of the DNA evidence was collected through traditional means, including voluntary samples as well as swabs from discarded food items.

DNA will be used in law enforcement much more in years to come; with its effectiveness beyond doubt, its use will be unstoppable.

And Port Alberni was on the leading edge of DNA’s use in Canada, as Morrow’s book details for us.

The reviewer is the editor and publisher of the Times Colonist.

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