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Detectives turn to rapid DNA technology for clues in 45-year-old cold case

ANDE Machine.jpg
Posted at 6:58 PM, Apr 07, 2021

There’s a new crime-fighting tool being used by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office and for the first time, it’s being used in a cold case.

The ANDE rapid DNA instrument is being used in the cold case homicide of Paul Ornelas.

The 16-year-old Goleta resident was found dead more than four decades ago and his killer was never found. Ornelas's body was discovered near the train tracks below the Turnpike Road overpass on June 21, 1975.

Detective Matt Maxwell, assigned to the Major Crimes Bureau, is working on the reopened case.

Paul Ornelas.jpg
Paul Ornelas

“I’ve been in contact with his family and the thing that they've expressed to me, more than anything, is just that the grieving process has never ended for them. They never got the closure,” Detective Maxwell said.

The rapid DNA instrument, created by a Colorado-based company, is designed to identify decedents and solve crimes.

“If you touch a handgun or a steering wheel of a car, we can collect DNA from that,” said Sgt. Jarrett Morris of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office Coroner’s Bureau.

Tissue samples, blood samples, or touch samples along with buccal swabs will work.

“If we have a sample from like a suspect, we obtain a cheek swab from them and that generates a profile and I can compare it with any profiles we generated from any evidence that was collected,” said Detective Brice Bruening of the Coroner’s Bureau.

The ANDE Rapid DNA machine

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office was first introduced to the rapid technology back in 2019 following the deadly Conception boat fire.

“That helped us identify all 34 decedents of that boat fire within a matter of days,” Sgt. Morris said.

In January of 2020, they drove it down to Calabasas to help identify those killed in the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash.

It’s since been used in a variety of local homicide cases, felony cases, some misdemeanor cases, and several decedent ID cases.

They even helped the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office identify a human foot found in Templeton that was linked to a car crash last summer.

“We can run five different cases through this instrument,” Sgt. Morris said.

The biggest benefit is that it cuts down on time, bringing detectives the name of the suspect, for example, much quicker.

“We get results in a matter of hours so at the most, two hours,” Sgt. Morris said.

Normally, they would have to send the samples to labs, taking weeks or months to get the results back.

“We're able to get these answers and able to move forward whether it's a criminal investigation or again, just bringing closure to a family,” Sgt. Morris added.

As for the Ornelas case, the goal is to do just that - get the case solved with preserved evidence and this new technology, bringing the family closure.

The company that makes the technology says roughly a dozen law enforcement agencies have the instrument in California at this time. It’s also in over 20 countries.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office says they currently have 31 cold cases. The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office says it has 41 cases, mostly dating back to the 1970s and ’80s. It adds that it’s in the process of getting the rapid DNA technology as well.