Lab analysis of DNA samples hindered by onset of COVID pandemic, court hears
“There is quite a number that have not been identified”
NASSAU, BAHAMAS — Police have positively identified 11 out of 47 DNA samples of victims who were killed during the deadly Hurricane Dorian in September 2019.
The revelation was made during the continuation of a coroner’s inquest into people presumed dead and reported to police as missing in the days after the storm.
Assistant Superintendent of Police Sheria King, who testified as an expert in forensic science and DNA analysis, was among other officers and family members giving statements into the Dorian deaths yesterday.
Police Inspector Altida Bowles, who is attached to the Missing and Exploited Persons unit in the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), and Sergeant Austin Bowles, a scene of crime officer, also gave evidence in regards to their roles in the matter.
Bowles testified that in the days after the storm, she recorded statements from the victim’s relatives and assisted in taking DNA samples from them.
While she could not say how many statements or samples were taken since September 2019, Bowles noted that the process included different relatives of the 34 people reported to police as having gone missing.
Those samples were then sent to the police forensic lab for further analysis.
King told the court that while working at the police lab she played several roles in the analysis of the samples submitted.
She told the court that at the end of January 2021, the lab received complete DNA profiles for 46 out of 47 samples submitted to an external lab for analysis.
Those unknown post-mortem samples were compared to the reference samples of family members and nine positive identifications were made, King told the court.
She explained that two additional samples were identified as first-degree matches or parent and child, among the unknown samples taken.
“There is quite a number that have not been identified,” King said.
“It is our hope that we will be able to.”
She said on March 26, 2021, family members of four identified Dorian victims were called into a meeting with police officers at CID and notified that there was a positive identification of their loved one.
Among those positive matches made were Virginia Capron, Jillian Outten and Justillian Jean-Jacques, whose samples revealed they were the mothers of three of the unknown samples.
The results also showed a match for Wishlane Williams’s missing mother.
Additionally, there was a match for the husband of Tervilia Saintil, who testified in court last week about her search in the Pigeon Peas for his body.
King said a sample was taken from Saintil’s son and there was a match to one of the unknown samples of the deceased.
She explained that they received the first set of DNA samples on September 26, 2019, including unknown samples from the remains of bodies found and reference samples from family members who made missing person reports.
She said a team of officers traveled to Abaco on multiple occasions between October 2019 and January 2020, where they took samples of the remains being stored in a container on an island, and subsequently took new samples of additional remains during every trip.
She said when the post-mortem samples were initially sent to the first outsourced lab, there was a challenge with the technology being used to analyze the samples.
The samples were subsequently submitted to a different lab that could provide DNA profiles. There were 47 samples submitted to that external lab in February 2020.
However, in July 2020, that lab advised that while they were working on the samples, challenges compounded by the coronavirus pandemic considerably slowed down analytical works.
King noted that there have been additional samples received from both unknown remains and family members that have yet to be sent to the external labs, insisting that it will be an ongoing process.
King added that the sample profiles will remain in a database as more samples are submitted, even if remains are found years in the future.
“We don’t know what will happen in the future and comparisons will always be needed,” she said.