WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - The Wilmington Police Department is using a new piece of equipment to help with DNA collection.
The microbial vacuum system, better known as M-Vac, will allow investigators to solve more crime through better DNA collection. The system is supposed to collect up to 200 times more forensic DNA material from evidence than traditional methods by spraying down and vacuuming up a sterile solution from the evidence surface.
The system is able to test surfaces that often are not ideal for swabbing, like rocks and shell casings.
“Generally, we’re going to focus on crimes and evidence that’s not a good surface for swabbing," said Crime Scene Unit Supervisor Maggie Le Senechal. "If we have a soda can, that’s a great surface for swabbing so we wouldn’t need to use this.”
Wilmington City Council approved the purchase of the M-Vac in 2018 for $38,000. The agency began its research into the system after working with Lisa Valentino, the sister of the late Allison Foy, who was killed in Wilmington in 2008. Her murder has not been solved.
“Whenever there’s a new type of technology, I always like to bring it up and out there because if it can’t solve Allison’s case, perhaps it can solve somebody else’s and for me, that’s really important because I really don’t want my sister’s murder to be in vain," Valentino said. "I’d like to see her name and what happened to her almost 13 years ago serve another family because I know what it’s like to walk in those shoes because it’s definitely not easy.”
Valentino helped Wilmington investigators find a nearby lab that used the technology, leading WPD to purchase the system. The M-Vac was unable to help with Foy’s unsolved murder but like Valentino, investigators hope it will help with others.
She hasn’t given up on her sister’s case though.
“I have to remain hopeful that it will be solved," Valentino said. "When you go through something like this, it changes a part of who you are and that part is changed forever. I’m keeping Allison’s name alive and remaining hopeful and trying to give back to other families who walk in these shoes.”
Ten WPD crime scene investigators were trained to use the M-Vac in January.
Since then, WPD has tested a few pieces of evidence using the machine, and sent those samples to state or private labs for testing. Le Senechal said it will take a few months to get test results back from labs, and the lab must have a DNA reference sample to identify a suspect.
“We’re hoping it’s really going to help us out and allow us to go back to some of those cold cases and collect some evidence that we were not able to before," Le Senechal said. “We’re also hoping it will help in some of our shooting scenes where we don’t have a lot of other evidence to go on. We’re really excited to put it to use and we can’t wait to see the results we’re getting back from the state lab.”
Investigators are also optimistic about the ability of the M-Vac to extract DNA off fired shell casings, which could lead to more arrests in Wilmington shooting cases.
“It may help us with casings because I’m sure, as everybody knows, we have a lot of shootings in Wilmington, and they have seen results on getting DNA from fired shell casings," Le Senechal said. "With traditional swabbing, you’re not likely to see results so we’re hoping processing casings will get better results but that will have to be tested once we start getting results back from the labs.”