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Cotton Swabs are the Prime Suspect In 8-Year Phantom Chase 344

Posted by samzenpus
from the mom-always-said-to-wash-your-hands dept.
matt4077 writes "For eight years, several hundred police officers across multiple European countries have been chasing a phantom woman whose DNA had been found in almost 20 crimes (including two murders) across central Europe. It now turns out that contaminated cotton swabs might be responsible for this highly unusual investigation. After being puzzled by the apparent randomness of the crimes, investigators noticed that all cotton swabs had been sourced from the same company. They also noted that the DNA was never found in crimes in Bavaria, a German state located at the center of the crimes' locations. It turns out that Bavaria buys its swabs from a different supplier."
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Cotton Swabs are the Prime Suspect In 8-Year Phantom Chase

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  • Ewwwwwww... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:14PM (#27338361)

    So they shredded a woman for swabs? I thought we were only good for barbecue, masks, book covers, lampshades and creepy garments.

  • by Onyma (1018104) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:15PM (#27338369)
    Bet you'll find her at the end of the packing line completely unaware she's a highly adept and wanted criminal. Or what a brilliant cover if she was guilty ;)
    • by vidnet (580068) on Thursday March 26, 2009 @05:39AM (#27339859) Homepage

      There are some jobs where you really shouldn't express dissatisfaction by spitting in the products.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by PMuse (320639)

      If the contamination screwed up the law enforcement customers' tests, I wonder what other customers' tests it screwed up. Does the vendor sell these swabs to hospitals, for example?

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by TempeTerra (83076)

        Please sit down, I have some difficult news for you. The test results have come back and it seems the man you knew as your father was not your biological father. DNA testing shows that your true father was a middle aged german woman, possibly with a congenital heart condition. I know this must come as a shock to you.

  • Obviously there's a woman on the cotton swab assembly line who leads a secret life of crime!
  • Sherlock Holmes (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Toe, The (545098)
    "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth."
    • Re:Sherlock Holmes (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Rayban (13436) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:35PM (#27338447) Homepage

      Aliens did it?

    • by w0mprat (1317953)

      "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth."

      Sherlock Holmes is fictional.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by arth1 (260657)

        Sherlock Holmes is fictional.

        No shit, Sherlock!

        Holmes being fictional doesn't imply that the principles found in Conan Doyle's books aren't valid.

        Whether a real person said something or a real person wrote that a fictional person said something doesn't change the wisdom of what was said, does it?

        There are plenty of "laws" that I find useful that stem from fiction, including TANSTAAFL, Hanlon's Razor and even one or two grains of wisdom from that old fictional anthology about the Palestinian guy.

  • by saiha (665337) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:33PM (#27338439)

    But ... but ... CSI, computers and experts are always right! You mean they actually have to do investigations instead of blind trust?

    I wonder how much hard evidence they discarded because they "knew" it was this same woman?

    • by sumdumass (711423) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:44PM (#27338479) Journal

      That's a good question. Cops aren't really all that bright, they are methodical and when applied properly, it gets the job done but they aren't exactly the smartest group of people. It's entirely possible that a lot of evidence and/or leads have been discarded or neglected because of this.

      Before anyone flames me for stating that cops aren't the brightest of the bunch, when doing science it's often the case where a sample of something is tested before it it treated with the substance being tested. These provide baselines for comparative results and it isn't uncommon for them to be randomly done throughout the course of the experiments because you need a control. Now, if they were the slightest bit intelligent in the subject, they would test raw material periodically to ensure it wasn't contaminated in the same ways they shoot and clean their own guns periodically to ensure they are ready for use. This entire mysterious woman contamination could have been caught before it ever effected one crime scene if something was periodically done to validate the test equipment they are using. Instead, they treat it with less suspicion then a flashlight and just assume that it works as advertised instead of "checking the batteries" every once in a while. Doesn't seem to bright to me.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by grim-one (1312413)
        Do you really think the same people are doing the detective work (collecting swabs) as are doing the DNA testing (working in the lab)? It's the scientists in the back rooms getting lazy. The good thing about police departments is once they find an issue, they take steps to avoid it in future.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Firehed (942385)

          Well, I'd like to think that the defense (had it gotten to that stage) would have made the connection that the woman being charged for two dozen random and unconnected crimes works in a Q-tip factory and that maybe, just maybe, she coughed on a box along the way.

          • Well, I'd like to think that the defense (had it gotten to that stage) would have made the connection that the woman being charged for two dozen random and unconnected crimes works in a Q-tip factory and that maybe, just maybe, she coughed on a box along the way.

            She must cough on each one, extra-special-like. She's been doing it for 8 years...

            And this one is just for you, Detective Jimbo Junior...>hack< >wheeze< >bloodsplutter<

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by sumdumass (711423)

          It could be entirely possible that the same police doing the collecting is also doing the testing. Perhaps not on the samples they collected themselves but testing other people's samples. Many of the lab technicians are or could be field certified and full blow cops to boot.

          The problem that links this to the cops is that they create the procedures for collecting the evidence. If they aren't periodically sending blank samples in, then things like this happen. DNA, like Blood type evidence was originally supp

      • by PitaBred (632671) <slashdot@pitabre ... org minus distro> on Thursday March 26, 2009 @12:20AM (#27338613) Homepage
        The police actively don't hire [nytimes.com] people that are too smart. Which scares the shit out of me.
        • by ushering05401 (1086795) on Thursday March 26, 2009 @01:53AM (#27338933) Journal

          The police actively don't hire [nytimes.com] people that are too smart. Which scares the shit out of me.

          Intellectual outliers destabilize control structures.

          Being predictable to your teammates/backup under all circumstances is an essential part of performing a life and death job - whether performing undersea construction or policing the 'projects.'

          Having a tendency to come up with bright ideas under pressure is simply a liability in the world of street level law enforcement.

          • by I cant believe its n (1103137) on Thursday March 26, 2009 @04:27AM (#27339545) Journal

            Having a tendency to come up with bright ideas under pressure is simply a liability in the world of street level law enforcement.

            Hmm... I call bullshit, but I do this with a nice little story to soften the blow.

            When I was in the army (which used to be mandatory in my country), our units where made up of people from all walks of life. We had the rich and the poor, the bright and the slightly dim, in all four combinations.

            Whenever something dangerous happened, it allways involved someone less intelligent. Please note that I don't define "less intelligent" based on the actual incidents, but on obeservations made when living toghether as two companies for almost a year.

            These people forgot to unload their weapons, fired from behind the line during moving live fire training, repeatedly managed to throw grenades which had not been properly handled so they did not explode and had to be detonated by others. Several of them managed to leave behind their own AK5 with a full magazine of live amunition inserted for the public to find.

            I saw no potentially deadly situations caused by people with high IQ. The smart people on occation whined about illogical orders, but they always understood when not to "fuck around", i.e. during live fire.

            High IQ is only a problem when it is missing. A lack of impulse control and short attention span is a problem.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Dun Malg (230075)

            Having a tendency to come up with bright ideas under pressure is simply a liability in the world of street level law enforcement.

            Bullshit. I'd love to hear you explain how this might possibly be the case. Give my a plausible hypothetical situation.

            In reality, people capable of sophisticated intelligent thought can't stand driving around in a car mostly doing nothing for 8 hours a day. They're trying to hire people that are less likely to quit.

          • by Hurricane78 (562437) <deleted@slashd[ ]org ['ot.' in gap]> on Thursday March 26, 2009 @08:07AM (#27340733)

            Being predictable to your teammates/backup under all circumstances is an essential part of performing a life and death job - whether performing undersea construction or policing the 'projects.'

            Which, in reality, never works, because then they are too stupid to predict their teammates anyway. :P

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Ihlosi (895663)

          The police actively don't hire people that are too smart. Which scares the shit out of me.

          You're talking about US police. The requirements for aspiring police officers in Germany are significantly higher.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Scrameustache (459504)

            The police actively don't hire people that are too smart. Which scares the shit out of me.

            You're talking about US police. The requirements for aspiring police officers in Germany are significantly higher.

            They only let in ubermensch?

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by BobReturns (1424847)
          The worst part of that article is this statement:

          Judge Dorsey ruled that Mr. Jordan was not denied equal protection because the city of New London applied the same standard to everyone: anyone who scored too high was rejected.

          Because this statement makes just as much sense:

          Judge Dorsey ruled that Mr. Jordan was not denied equal protection because the city of New London applied the same standard to everyone: anyone who was foreign was rejected.

          That judge needs a new job fast.

          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by msouth (10321)

            Maybe the judge was just unable to get past this question:

            "If you're so smart, Mr. Jordan, why weren't you smart enough to intentionally score low enough to get the job?"

    • by EdIII (1114411) * on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:50PM (#27338499)

      How about how scary it would have been for the woman? Just imagine if the government got a hold of her DNA in a few years as part of some new Not-Really-Totalitarian-Fascist-Plot-We-Are-Really-Your-Friend program to grab DNA data for massive profiles of their citizens? She gets handed her ID card back and then picked up by the police a few hours later as the databases are furiously matching old crimes to new citizen data. She has no idea what is going on, just that they state they have DNA evidence of her involved in crimes all over the EU.

      Considering how much the police and the courts blindly trust all the data coming from forensic laboratories, she would be well and truly fucked.

      • by Animaether (411575) on Thursday March 26, 2009 @12:03AM (#27338555) Journal

        she would be well and truly fucked because apparently all cops are stupid idiots who just go "the computer says it was you, so we're not even going to bother asking you that question you seen on TV - you know, the one going 'where were you on the night of', or even gather evidence for a solid care or present that evidence to a judge - we're just going to lock you up, for life, right away".

        oh wait. that's not how that stuff happens in any reasonable nation.

        In fact.. -because- that's NOT how that stuff happens is that they realized there's gotta be something going on with the swabs themselves.. as opposed to, say, the DNA lab handling them. Or that the same woman really -was- involved in the actual crimes themselves.

        I know it's popular to say that DNA evidence is being used to lock people up left and right, but very few cases -hinge- on that DNA evidence (some exceptions are e.g. rape cases where DNA from a sperm sample collected is pretty strong evidence that moves the question of "did the woman even have sex with that man?" to "was the sex that she had with that man a case of sexual violation?")

        That's not to say that I'm in favor of a building a DNA database with everybody's samples in them - but to make it seem like it will auto-jail people is naive in all but the strangest nations where you probably wouldn't get much of a due process regardless of DNA tests being involved or not.

        • by AJWM (19027) on Thursday March 26, 2009 @12:16AM (#27338593) Homepage

          oh wait. that's not how that stuff happens in any reasonable nation. [emphasis added]

          Yes, well, that's the catch. Are there any? Remember, they're all run by politicians.

        • by EdIII (1114411) * on Thursday March 26, 2009 @01:07AM (#27338751)

          she would be well and truly fucked because apparently all cops are stupid idiots

          I never said or implied that. "Blind trust" was the word I used which indicates negligence, and not stupidity.

          "the computer says it was you, so we're not even going to bother asking you that question you seen on TV - you know, the one going 'where were you on the night of', or even gather evidence for a solid care or present that evidence to a judge - we're just going to lock you up, for life, right away".

          Unfortunately, that does happen quite often. There are plenty of men that have been released from prison after 10-20 years for precisely just that.

          oh wait. that's not how that stuff happens in any reasonable nation.

          That's meaningless. I find it hard to categorize any of the actions of the U.S, Canada, U.K, France, Australia, etc. as reasonable. Most people don't, or have you not read most of the posts on Slashdot? In an unreasonable nation they would not need a computer in the first place. Your guilty only because it serves the purpose of somebody that wants you out of the way for whatever reason.

          In fact.. -because- that's NOT how that stuff happens is that they realized there's gotta be something going on with the swabs themselves.. as opposed to, say, the DNA lab handling them. Or that the same woman really -was- involved in the actual crimes themselves.

          Gotta? Really? As in, for sure? Fo Shizzle?

          The investigating officers don't "gotta" do anything. The only choice they have is to 100% rely on the veracity of the findings by their forensic technicians. Anything less puts the whole system in doubt which greatly hampers any investigations by the officers.

          When faced with forensic evidence across many crime scenes I don't find it reasonable that the vast majority of investigating officers will be second guessing the findings to figure out how they may be wrong. More likely, they will try to construct a "reality" that fits the findings. That is the danger.

          Once it leaves the investigating officers hands, it reaches the courts. The prosecutors don't give two shits about the defendant, the victims, or the truth. They only care about ONE THING, AND ONE THING ONLY. That is, "Can I get a conviction?". I highly doubt any prosecutor has ever thought long and hard about the veracity of any of the evidence in front of them that they are using. As far as the other side, "discredit, discredit, discredit".

          Prosecutors and Politicians have one thing in common. They are both whores. In fact, good prosecutors turn into Politicians, and the vast majority of Politicians started as lawyers anyways. Their jobs are not to find the truth, but to bend the truth to whatever agenda they are trying to accomplish. Cynical, I know....

          The problem here is the forensic technicians. Every single one of them needs to be fired. Not only could this woman have been at risk, but possibly many others as they clearly did not take the time to do proper science in any, way, shape or form. A lot of victims probably lost out as well since if they could not be competent in the bare fundamentals, what leads us to believe they did not miss huge amounts of evidence?

          ALL of the evidence this lab produced is suspect going back at least as far as the first sample was taken in this case. That opens the flood gates for lawyers to get convictions turned over based on this negligence alone. Certainly new trials where the laws allow it.

          I realize you are coming to the defense of the authorities here, but this is indefensible. Investigating officers and the courts cannot afford to ever second guess the technicians, so when something like this happens it is perfectly reasonable for people like me to suspect that innocent people have been made victims.

          Keep in mind, this was across many laboratories

      • by artor3 (1344997) on Thursday March 26, 2009 @12:36AM (#27338659)

        Imagine an even worse scenario... the Totally-Not-Fascist DNA database already exists and has her DNA in it at the time this first started. Disproving 20 crimes would probably be easy for her, as a solid alibi to one would call into question the rest. But if it were a single crime, there's no way she'd get out of it unless she were lucky enough to have an alibi on that one specific day.

        But hey, no worries, the innocent have nothing to hide!

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by eltaco (1311561)
        it's a good thing that a fuck-up like this happened on such a high profile international scale then. This has reminded everyone how unreliable DNA testing can be.
        this incident has raised major awareness.
  • Sigh (Score:5, Interesting)

    by The MAZZTer (911996) <.megazzt. .at. .gmail.com.> on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:35PM (#27338449) Homepage

    Is it really too much to ask for a SERVER at the other end of that hyperlink?

    nyud.net doesn't seem to have it cached, neither does Google. And MirrorDot is no help at all:

    Presently sustaining 0 parallel Slashdottings. Far out!

    Are there any newer slashdot caching tools I don't know about? Specifically one that has this article?

  • by alextheseal (653421) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:36PM (#27338451)
    First thing I was taught in my high school class on problem solving. Always state your assumptions, right underneath stating your explicit goal. We were also taught that if you start running into dead ends, circle back to your assumptions and review them critically to see that they are 1) all inclusive, and 2) actually true. Oh, and never use contaminated cotton swabs. I think that was day two.
  • Bad Slice (Score:3, Funny)

    by Frosty Piss (770223) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:53PM (#27338505)
    This guy is using Slicehost for his blog or whatever. Apparently, he didn't pay for a big enough slice.
  • Prawo Jazdy (Score:5, Funny)

    by lobiusmoop (305328) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:59PM (#27338529) Homepage

    This sounds similar to the case of Ireland's most reckless driver. [bbc.co.uk]

  • by incognito84 (903401) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:59PM (#27338531)
    It took them eight years to find out what CSI could have found out in one episode! Reality is so unrealistic.
    • That's the hole I can't figure out... Why was this woman's DNA on eight years worth of cotton swabs? Do they seriously buy them in that large bulk that they only need a purchase every 8 years? If there was so much widespread contamination, why wasn't this showing up in even more crimes? Why didn't they figure out that there were two different pieces of DNA on these swabs?

  • Prawo Jazdy (Score:5, Funny)

    by MillionthMonkey (240664) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 @11:59PM (#27338533)

    This reminds me of the "Prawo Jazdy" story. The Irish police were looking for this dude "Prawo Jazdy" who accumulated a very large number of speeding tickets. He kept committing infractions all across Ireland but always got away whenever he was stopped by giving a different address each time. They thought they had a supercriminal fugitive speeder on their hands until someone noticed that his name was Polish for "driver's license".

  • So how do you explain your dna at the crime site?

    I used to work in a cotton factory. its possible that cotton from that factory ended up to tbe the cotton they used. did you hear about that case where a woman's dna ....

    • by z0idberg (888892)

      Good point.

      I think I will try and take a second job in as many cotton swap factories as I can over the next couple of years. Looks kinda funny on the resume but could come in REAL handy some day.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Mr. Slippery (47854)

      So how do you explain your dna at the crime site?

      I don't have to explain my DNA being at the crime scene, I have to explain DNA that matched mine being at the lab.

      You took a sample of my DNA. You took it to the lab. Please prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you didn't screw up and contaminate a sample somewhere with my DNA. [nacdl.org]

      Furthermore, spurious DNA matches are not as improbable as cops and prosecutors like to suggest [latimes.com].

      DNA is lousy forensic evidence, and should be used only for exoneration.

      And the

      • by tftp (111690)

        Unfortunately defendants aren't allowed to set rules of the Court. Judge usually does that, and if instead of answering questions you start a political speech in the witness box you'd be silenced pretty quick (and it's not a good idea to anger the judge.) The defendant is free to argue that the lab is at fault, but unless your name is OJ Simpson you aren't getting anywhere, statistically speaking.

        Please prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you didn't screw up

        Yes, tell the judge that you want a negative

  • by seebs (15766) on Thursday March 26, 2009 @12:05AM (#27338559) Homepage

    We should NEVER have developed human-cotton hybrids.

  • Whatcha wanna bet they're yet another case of contamination by HeLa cells?

    (Google for it. It's an interesting story, and a good cautionary tale.)

  • negative controls?? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by fatray (160258)

    Police labs are incredibly sloppy. You have to either have negative controls or some sort of validation or acceptance testing on your chemicals and supplies. They have all of these chain-of-custody rituals, but then they use supplies from Wal-Mart.

    • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Thursday March 26, 2009 @01:13AM (#27338771) Homepage Journal

      Police labs are incredibly sloppy. You have to either have negative controls or some sort of validation or acceptance testing on your chemicals and supplies. They have all of these chain-of-custody rituals, but then they use supplies from Wal-Mart.

      In the Jayden Leskie [wikipedia.org] case the lab which searched for DNA on the victims body detected the DNA of an unrelated rape victim. Samples from the owner of the DNA had been processed by the same lab earlier in the same day.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by networkzombie (921324)
      I work with a lot of labs and the errors are always caused by the lab technician. Controls and variances are standard procedure to identify Wal-Mart grade results. From my experience, the less you pay a lab tech, the more mistakes they make, but there are exceptions, like trying to find an honest cop. I'm sure there's one or two, maybe.
  • by paulkingnz (830129) on Thursday March 26, 2009 @12:18AM (#27338599)
    If you worked in a clothing store and folded all the clothing and then later a murder victims clothing had your DNA on it then you're done aren't you! Circumstantial evidence is a bad thing.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by AK Marc (707885)
      Circumstantial evidence is a bad thing.

      Almost all evidence is circumstantial. Nearly all trials contain *only* circumstantial evidence. Oh, and witnesses are generally less reliable than circumstantial evidence...
  • Question (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Av8rjoker (1212804)
    How the hell did this woman's DNA get on ALL of these cotton swabs?
  • Paging George Kaplan (Score:3, Interesting)

    by agrippa_cash (590103) on Thursday March 26, 2009 @12:50AM (#27338693) Homepage

    I'd hate to be that woman. In fiction it's Hitchcock but in real life it would be Kafka (unless she is guilty AND works in a cotton swab factory).

  • control experiments (Score:3, Interesting)

    by speedtux (1307149) on Thursday March 26, 2009 @01:49AM (#27338911)

    That's why scientists use double blind experiments and control experiments. So, with every cotton swab taken from a crime scene, forensic labs should get one or more "blank" ones to test, without knowing which is which.

  • Q & A..... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by IHC Navistar (967161) on Thursday March 26, 2009 @02:36AM (#27339099)

    One of the few instances where an answer is found out BEFORE the question is asked.....

    Answer: "It now turns out that contaminated cotton swabs might be responsible for this highly unusual investigation." .....And now the question:

    How, exactly, did the DNA get *onto* the swab in the first place?

  • by kcdoodle (754976) on Thursday March 26, 2009 @07:56AM (#27340655)
    Doesn't cotton have DNA?

    I always think that when they take a swab on CSI.

    CSI_Stokes - "Sir, I am afraid to tell you this, but, ... YOU are a COTTON plant."

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