MYRTLE BEACH -- It could be at least another week before investigators know if the human remains found in Horry County are those of a Galivants Ferry woman missing since 2002, police said.
The process to identify remains when they are found is a tedious task at the State Law Enforcement Division headquarters, where officials annually juggle about 3,200 DNA cases, including about five unidentified bodies, said Lt. David McClure with SLED's forensic DNA lab.
The Richland County Sheriff's Office is the only other lab in the state conducting DNA testing, but officials in Greenville and Beaufort counties are setting up their own labs, he said.
Tests to extract DNA from remains can take anywhere from two days to more than a week once the remains are in the lab, depending on the decomposition, McClure said.
It was unclear if SLED forensic experts or those with the FBI are handling the DNA testing of skeletal remains found Jan. 18, Saturday and Tuesday in a wooded area off Water Tower Road. Horry County police Sgt. Robert Kegler said results aren't expected to be available for about two weeks.
The remains were found after Chadrick Fulks, who is awaiting execution on federal death row, gave clues via a letter about where to search for Alice Donovan. Fulks sent the letter to Monica Caison, founder of the Community United Effort group, a Wilmington, N.C., volunteer organization that searches for missing people.
Fulks was sentenced to die for Donovan's abduction from the Wal-Mart parking lot in Conway in November 2002. Her body has never been found, but her family said Tuesday they are hopeful the remains will be identified as her so they can put her to rest.
The process of DNA testing for human remains and all biological evidence collected in criminal cases has been under way in South Carolina since 1990, when DNA collection began, McClure said.
For bodies that have decomposed, teeth and bones are the most common sources for DNA testing, and teeth are preferred by most forensic experts because extraction of DNA from bones takes longer, he said.
"The extraction method for bones is more lengthy because you're dealing with so much calcium in the bones," McClure said.
There are two types of DNA tests used in criminal cases, the Short Tandem Repeat and mitochondrial tests, he said.
Most forensic labs use STR testing because it is simpler and can be used in most cases, but when remains are badly decomposed, mitochondrial testing is required, McClure said.
That type of testing is more expensive, tedious and time-consuming and only a few laboratories are equipped to conduct it, he said. The test compares DNA from the maternal side of the family because certain DNA is inherited only from the mother.
"With very degraded bodies, you might not get a STR profile so you'll need to develop a mitochondrial profile," McClure said.
Forensic experts will take DNA samples from parents, children, siblings and even more distant relatives for comparison in cases. They will also upload DNA profiles of missing people into a national database, he said.