Evidence chief avidly pursues the cold cases

Unsolved crimes cracked with DNA and databases

`He'll remember every detail'

Genetic samples saved in freezers are crucial later

August 11, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

His name isn't in the Anne Arundel County court case's paperwork.

But Jeffrey G. Cover's "we'll-send-it-in-because-we-can" attitude began a series of events that connected a Chicago man with an 11-year-old sex crime, giving Maryland its first "hit" on a national database of criminals.

Only DNA directly tied Gary W. Pescrillo - a sex offender registered in Illinois - to a sexual assault of a Linthicum woman by a gunman who broke into her home around midnight in June 1989. After pleading guilty, Pescrillo was sentenced last month to 45 years in prison.

Investigators and prosecutors credit the perseverance of the Anne Arundel County Police Department's evidence chief for jump-starting a literally cold case: DNA dating to 1985 lies in two freezers chilled to 62 degrees below 0 Celsius.

As it became possible to do more sophisticated genetic profiles needed for potential matches in the federal database, he dug into the freezers in March 2000 and sent the DNA sample from the Linthicum crime, as well as material from other old cases, for the updated genetic analyses.

For Cover, 47, such sleuthing is a matter-of-fact way of working behind the scenes in the basement of police headquarters in Millersville.

"If it weren't for Jeff Cover and people like Jeff Cover who collected and saved the evidence properly, we wouldn't have this stuff," said Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan, who helped hire him as a civilian evidence technician in 1985. "He is good with people. He is good with science."

At crime scenes, Cover brings an unassuming presence, eyes that take it all in and a mind for making it useful to police, Shanahan said. At police headquarters, he moves quietly through blue-walled offices and amiably through the 20-person unit he supervises.

"He has a very gentle way of going about his business," noted Shanahan, who said Cover's mixing of skill, science and art with a meticulously combing of a crime scene has rubbed off on the staff.

A personal quality probably helps with this line of work: "I am a pack rat," Cover said.

Binders and books on forensic this-and-that jam his office shelves, piling around a CD player that exudes classical music. The same holds for his Annapolis home, he said.

"My work bench is quite a mess - I never know when I'm going to need that old piece of wire," he said.

Prosecutors refer to Cover as the "Rain Man," after the character with a remarkable memory portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 film of the same name.

"If I call to ask him about an old case, like Pescrillo, he'll remember every detail. He's like that. He is amazing," said Kathleen E. Rogers, the assistant state's attorney who prosecuted Pescrillo.

Rogers, who turns to Cover for evidence advice, described him as up on the latest forensic technology and game to use it.

The Baltimore native has been the evidence chief since 1993.

He intended to apply his 1976 bachelor of science degree in biology, earned at Towson State University, to a career as a wildlife biologist.

He took a job as a crime scene technician for the Baltimore City Police Department and left after less than two years to try mixing police work with the outdoors as a state National Resources Police officer. But he missed being around people.

In 1985, he pursued an entry-level Anne Arundel job. He worked his way up to supervising the evidence collection and identification unit, where gathering evidence from a crime scene and proper preservation of it are key.

He is surprised that suddenly he and his crew are everybody's darlings.

Their work and gory specialties - Craig Robinson, for example, has expertise in blood spatter - have drawn interest from a public wowed by how-to crime dramas such as the CBS whodunit CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, for many weeks the most-watched show in the nation.

In police departments across the state and country, detectives increasingly rely on the techs' sciences, arts and skills.

"Crime-scene techs have languished in obscurity since Jack the Ripper," Cover said, who noted that CSI's focus on their hidden work has "bolstered professionalism." But there's a down side: "Now everybody expects you to come to a crime scene and solve the case. Right there. We can't live up to that."

A binder's faded pages tell the story of previous times the county police lab checked the DNA from the Linthicum crime scene against a new local sexual assault suspect: 1989, 1990, 1991, 1994 and so on.

"Any time it was a connotation of serial rapist, we ran it through," Cover said.

Cover was startled when, on a day off two years ago this month, his pager beeped as he neared Kent Island.

"I was on my way to go fishing," he said.

Teresa Long, forensic chemist manager with the Maryland State Police, told him he had a hit on one of the dozen unsolved cases whose genetic profiles he sent May 12 to the state lab. On May 19, the lab uploaded the numeric patterns into the federal Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS, a database of more than 1 million genetic profiles of convicted felons.

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