Potential victims give DNA for Dallas database

by jeeg 10. July 2010 07:08

Tesha Cobb knows the risks of the life of prostitution and drugs she is fighting to leave behind for good.

The 35-year-old mother was once beaten in the head with a hammer and another time jumped from a moving vehicle at highway speed. She's drug-free now and is determined not to look back. But having relapsed before, she knows there's always a chance that dark past could catch up with her.

"If something was to happen to me, I would want someone to know who I was," Cobb said. "I don't want to be the one with the toe tag on that says Jane Doe."

That is why she was one of the first women to voluntarily submit a DNA sample Thursday toward what is believed to be a first-of-its-kind database for high-risk potential victims.

The samples, collected for the first time on Thursday from Dallas prostitutes and former prostitutes, would be used to identify the women if they are later believed to be missing, comatose or murdered.

It is the next phase of the nearly 3-year-old Prostitution Diversion Initiative, a Dallas police and Dallas County Sheriff's Department program based on the belief that prostitutes are victims and that offers them a structured rehabilitation program, usually as part of a criminal sentence.

More than 135 women have entered the program since it launched in fall 2007. But many have relapsed. That's why the DNA database is a logical next phase, police officials say.

"It gives value to their life, it gives emotional resolution to their family and allows law enforcement to advocate for them in the event that they do become a victim of violent crime," said Dallas police Sgt. Louis Felini, founder of the diversion program.

"Despite their best efforts, many will relapse and return back to the streets. This just provides us a tool and allows us to continue our efforts in helping this transient population."

The effort comes as federal and local authorities throughout the country are increasingly working together to solve at least hundreds of killings thought to be committed by serial killers, working as truckers, who often target prostitutes.

Analysts have gathered information on about 500 victims and 200 potential suspects, officials say. Authorities have detained at least 10 suspects – all truck drivers – linked to more than 30 homicides in recent years, according to the FBI.

Dozens of other truckers are documented as possible suspects.

"There are potentially hundreds of serial killers associated with the trucking industry," said Arthur J. Eisenberg, co-director of the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification in Fort Worth, where the samples will be sent. The victims "could get picked up, transported, murdered and dumped anyplace," Eisenberg said. He hopes the program will eventually go national.

"It is not an indictment of the [trucking] industry," said George Adams, program manager for missing persons at the UNT center. "It is an indictment of the circumstance."

Much of the program is focused on helping prostitutes who work at truck stops in the southern Dallas area. One night every month, authorities set up a temporary staging area, usually near truck stops. Dallas officers make arrests for prostitution and other crimes.

But those arrested don't have to go straight to jail. Instead, prostitutes can get a full health screening and a chance to commit to a comprehensive rehabilitation program.

The voluntary DNA option is presented to the women once they have settled into a rehab program so that they do not feel pressured, officials say. Sheriff's Department employees are collecting mouth swab samples, and the Dallas Police Department will maintain records of the names and other key information for the women.

The samples will then be sent with reference numbers to the UNT Center for Human Identification.

On Thursday, just before Dallas County sheriff's Senior Sgt. Ilana Presley took a swab of Yvonne Hall's mouth in a back room at the Frank Crowley Courts Building, she asked the 46-year-old if she was voluntarily providing a DNA sample.

"Yes, I've been in some abusive relationships," said Hall, who was shot with a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun in 2005 and is now several weeks into the rehabilitation program. "I don't want to be no Miss Jane Doe."


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