By Scott North / Herald Writer
A vial of blood and five hairs mishandled in a woman’s 1995 murder case can’t be used to identify her killer.
That’s not because the evidence languished for four years in a former Snohomish County homicide detective’s closet.
Instead, genetic tests conducted six years ago determined the blood and all the hairs belonged to murder victim Patti Berry – and almost certainly nobody else, The Herald has learned.
Berry, 26, of Arlington was killed July 31, 1995. The Arlington woman left behind a daughter, then just 2.
The investigation of Berry’s killing has been assigned to a special “cold case” unit at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office. The unit exists in part because the slain woman’s mother, Nancy Stensrud, joined with the families of other murder victims to lobby the sheriff’s office for detectives who are given the time to focus solely on long unsolved killings.
Published reports have raised doubts whether Berry’s killer will ever be brought to justice.
A Sept. 13 article in a Seattle newspaper detailed how a former lead detective on the case, John Padilla, was fired from the sheriff’s office in 2004 after investigations focused on alleged domestic violence and stalking of his now ex-wife and a former girlfriend.
The report also detailed how investigators were shocked to learn that an envelope containing what the writers characterized as “critical DNA evidence” from the Berry case had turned up in the closet at Padilla’s home. The detective’s mishandling of the evidence also was grounds for termination, records show.
Padilla had sent five hairs and a vial of Berry’s blood to a North Carolina lab for advanced genetic tests. The items were tested and mailed back to the sheriff’s office in May 2000. That was five months after Padilla had been promoted to sheriff’s sergeant, and reassigned to duties other than investigating Berry’s killing.
The Herald in 1999 negotiated access to many of the records in the Berry murder investigation.
Documents reviewed at the time showed that other tests performed by the state crime lab had determined that four of the five hairs found on Berry’s body came from her.
The source of a fifth hair could not be determined using genetic testing methods then available in Washington. Padilla asked the sheriff’s office for permission to send the hairs to the North Carolina lab because it was using techniques that allowed comparison of the mitochondrial DNA found inside the hairs.
The North Carolina tests concluded to a high degree of certainty that all five of the hairs came from Berry, sheriff’s Sgt. Shawn Stich said Tuesday. He supervises the detectives now investigating Berry’s killing.
It was those hairs – all from Berry – that were inside the sealed evidence envelope found in Padilla’s home and brought to the sheriff’s office by his ex-wife in 2004.
There are more than 200 other pieces of physical evidence logged in Berry’s case, Stich said. The case file, reorganized by the cold-case unit, is now 16 volumes and growing.
“I think it is a solvable case,” Stich said.
Stensrud, Berry’s mother, said Tuesday she is comforted to know that genetic evidence that may have pointed to her daughter’s killer was not lost. Even so, Sheriff Rick Bart owes her an apology for failing to make certain she knew that there could be problems with the case, she said.
“I know, in the beginning they said there are certain things they can’t tell us, but there are also so many things they can tell us, little things, to ease our minds,” she said.
Bart said his department’s practice is to make certain that the families of homicide victims are the first to learn of significant developments in murder cases.
He said he couldn’t explain why that did not happen with the Padilla revelations, particularly when the sheriff’s office discovered the problems more than two years ago.
The sheriff also was at a loss to explain comments attributed to him in the Seattle newspaper, describing how he had ordered detectives to investigate Padilla as a possible suspect in Berry’s killing.
“I’m not saying I didn’t say it,” Bart said Tuesday. He was quick to add, however, that Padilla never was a suspect in Berry’s killing and was not investigated for anything other than failing to return evidence from the case.
“I do not believe John Padilla killed anybody,” Bart said. “I do not believe John Padilla tried to conceal evidence … I believe he made a mistake in handling evidence.”
Padilla also did a lot that was right in the case, Bart said.
“I think John’s investigation is going to lead to the killer. Nobody else’s. John’s,” Bart said. “I think it is a big leap to go from evidence in the house in the closet to ‘He’s the killer.’”
Stich said he worked the Berry case with Padilla and on Tuesday recalled poring over the woman’s blood-spattered car together.
“Even now, if somebody in my family was murdered, I wouldn’t hesitate to have him handle the case,” he said.
Padilla declined comment for this story on the advice of a civil attorney he’s been consulting since issues surrounding his termination at the sheriff’s office became public.
Stensrud on Tuesday said she never felt good about Padilla’s work on her daughter’s case. She was uncomfortable enough at one point that she complained to his supervisors at the sheriff’s office.
Questions about catching her daughter’s killer have plunged her back into grief, she said.
“This is way beyond hurt,” Stensrud said.
Reporter Scott North: 425-339-3431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.