DNA Dilemma

A brutal and mysterious murder opens a Pandora's box of DNA privacy.

It seemed the case would be closed when, two days after Beverly's horrible discovery, a 19-year-old drifter named Adam Ezerski, who fit the description of Al's companion, murdered a 39-year-old gay man in Fort Lauderdale.

A national APB went out, and after a 16-day manhunt, cops cornered and captured Ezerski at a sleazy Reno hotel. Headlines from Los Angeles to New York to Miami trumpeted the quick collar of a serial killer. But Ezerski wasn't the one. Though he quickly admitted to the Lauderdale murder, he denied murdering Al — and the denial was confirmed when neither fingerprints nor the bloody footprints matched the drifter's.

"The media convicted that guy, and they were wrong," says Aventura Police Capt. Skip Washa. "We were back to square one."

Pat Kinsella

Details

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Nothing much happened for the next few years. Beverly moved on with her life. Aventura detectives reenacted the crime. In 2002, they briefly considered whether a 26-year-old who had strangled an older man seeking sex in Pompano Beach might be the killer.

A dramatic break came a few years later, when the Dade County crime lab received some surprising information: Two fingerprints detectives had discovered on Al's refrigerator and his Lincoln Mark VIII belonged to a 34-year-old who had worked with Al years before. It's unclear why the lab took so long to make the match, but it was probably because the suspect had been arrested for something else. "When you get a latent print like that," Washa says, "you get excited."

The man agreed to come to the station. Police took a DNA sample and interviewed him. He acknowledged going home with Al not long before the murder. And yes, they had a snack. But the man left after Al requested he clean the apartment in his underwear. That was too strange, he told the cops.

Investigators interrogated the man from 4:10 to 9:10 p.m. His story checked out. And his DNA didn't match that found in the apartment.

Next, Aventura cops tried something novel. They posted the surveillance video from Publix on YouTube. (It's available at browardpalmbeach.com.) Though it received tens of thousands of hits, no good tips came in. They were stumped.

In May 2006, the county crime lab called with DNA information. A prisoner in Michigan was a near match to the killer — perhaps a half-brother, they reported. Cumbie asked if he could meet the inmate. Soon Michigan's attorney general issued an opinion: The prisoner's identification shouldn't be released owing to FBI rules.

Driven by empathy for Beverly Sicherer, Aventura detectives soldiered on. On November 30, 2006, they met with U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta. "We told him all we wanted to do was talk to the guy," Cumbie says. "He said he understood. He'd try." Nothing came of it.

What the Aventura detectives didn't realize at first is that they were in the midst of an escalating national debate about partial DNA matches and so-called familial searches.

For years, states had been collecting DNA data and inputting it into a national database called CODIS. But in an attempt to stop the information from spreading, the data was kept anonymously. The FBI allowed sharing of people's names if there was a perfect DNA match. But if the correspondence was even slightly off, as in Al's case, the agency effectively forbade sharing.

That rule, which was never codified into law, ran into a hard-charging Denver district attorney named Mitch Morrissey. His office had received information similar to Aventura's in three rape cases. Inmates with DNA similar — but not identical — to that found at crime scenes had turned up first in California in 2005 and then in Oregon and Arizona. "We had three violent rapes, and we were looking for leads," Morrissey says. "So we started working on the FBI to get the policy changed. This sort of search is a long shot at best, but it's worth doing."

California Attorney General Jerry Brown made the first dramatic change. Last May, after considering Morrissey's request and others like it, Brown created a protocol for searching the state's DNA database, the world's third largest, for partial matches in cold cases.

Around the same time, an FBI advisory group agreed that states should be able to share information related to imperfect DNA matches in some cases. But the FBI left the final decision up to each state.

That's where the roadblock in Al's murder arose.

Many state DNA database administrators, including the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's chief of forensic services, David Coffman, agree that some sharing should be allowed. So far, a handful of states, including Colorado, Oregon, and Arizona, have come up with policies for sharing. Florida is preparing its own rules, Coffman says. But he points out that DNA testing for partial matches is far from perfect. In Al's killing, the Michigan inmate might turn out to be no relation to the killer.

Coffman also points out that a follow-up test of the Michigan DNA would be needed to determine whether it belongs to the murderer's sibling. And even then, it would be inconclusive. "We have always shared information in the state," Coffman says. "The question is between states."

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