Richland County’s forensic lab eases the state’s workload, produces faster results
Steve Nelson walked up to the house on South Washington Street in Sumter and rang the doorbell to deliver a pizza. The 46-year-old Papa John’s delivery driver had been to the home several times before.
But no one answered the door that night in March 2014. As Nelson turned around to walk back to his car, he was confronted by a young man standing about 5 feet behind him. Probably no older than 20, the gunman concealed his face with a red bandanna, cocked a black and silver semi-automatic pistol and pointed it at Nelson’s head, according to the police report.
“Get in the car,” he ordered, as he walked to the passenger side of Nelson’s car.
That night, Nelson said he was kidnapped and robbed at gunpoint, forever altering the course of his life. He said he ultimately suffered a nervous breakdown and remains haunted by the crime today.
Officers from the Sumter Police Department collected DNA evidence from the passenger-side door handle, where the suspect touched, and sent it to the State Law Enforcement Division for testing. But that evidence still has not been tested — nearly five years later.
The state’s top law enforcement agency in Columbia is grappling with a backlog of thousands of DNA processing requests from police agencies across the state, leaving thousands of S.C. victims waiting for justice. Many like Nelson have been waiting for years.
More than 8,000 cases await DNA processing at SLED, according to data collected earlier this year. The exact number of cases is unclear, as they open and close daily.
For Nelson, the backlog is especially worrisome. He was also robbed two years prior, in 2012, while delivering pizza and is awaiting DNA evidence from that case to be processed too.
“More people like me need to come together,” Nelson, now 51, said, adding that change will have to come from the S.C. State House. “Community meetings and stuff like that won’t work for this. Someone needs to stand up and do something about it.”
Most cases on the backlog have multiple pieces of DNA evidence — including blood, semen or hair — that could provide crucial leads in potentially thousands of cases, including violent crimes such as rape, robbery and murder. Scientists can also analyze “touch DNA,” which is left behind when someone’s skin comes in contact with another surface.
The backlog has not only kept victims in limbo. It has raised questions about communication among the S.C. law enforcement community. The State Media Co. requested information about dozens of cases on the backlog and determined several had already been closed by police. So SLED’s overworked analysts could potentially be processing DNA for cases that have been resolved in court.
SLED Chief Mark Keel said his department began working with S.C. prosecutors a couple years ago to remove cases that had been closed. More than 3,000 cases have been removed as a result, he said.
“There’s no need for our forensic scientist to spend time analyzing cases that have already been disposed,” Keel said.
Additionally, Keel hopes a new, $54 million forensic lab will improve efficiency and allow for the hire of more scientists, which he says would ultimately decrease the backlog. It’s scheduled to be completed in late summer 2021, he said.
Even still, a SLED DNA analyst emailed lawmakers earlier this year, saying overworked employees have reached a “breaking point.”
“One of the greatest frustrations of battling this constantly growing backlog is that we know justice is being delayed for victims and their families,” wrote Jennifer Clayton, a 16-year veteran at SLED. “Furthermore, … it’s possible additional people are being victimized because it is taking us too long to work cases and identify suspects.”
To circumvent the backlog, four S.C. law enforcement agencies rely on their own forensic labs to handle cases locally, and a fifth is working to get money to build one.
“While we’re investigating a case, we can have our lab technicians performing the scientific tests needed to guide us through the investigation,” said Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner, whose DNA lab opened in 2008. ”Are we chasing our tail with one suspect? Should be looking somewhere else?”
“SLED can’t do that because of the backlog — they’re overwhelmed.”
Even state lawmakers are at odds on the issue.
“Chief Keel indicated at our hearing that the new lab will deeply reduce, if not totally eliminate, the backlog,” said state Sen. Shane Martin, the Spartanburg Republican who leads the Senate panel that decides criminal justice spending.
But state Rep. Eddie Tallon, the Spartanburg Republican who was also a former SLED agent, said the problem isn’t going anywhere.
“I think you’re going to have a backlog regardless of what you do. So many crimes are committed and so many people are put in jail,” Tallon said. “It takes time and it takes money.”
‘Oh my God, he’s about to kill me’
On that night in March 2014, Nelson tried to talk his way out.
“Don’t you just want the money?” he asked.
“No, get in the car. Don’t try anything stupid,” Nelson recalls the man saying, while still pointing the gun.
From the passenger seat, the man then directed Nelson through Sumter — turn left on Dingle Street, over the railroad tracks on Sumter Street and a left on Manning Avenue — while pointing the pistol at Nelson’s gut the entire time.
Nelson knew they were approaching the Main Spot bingo hall on Manning Avenue, where one or two police cars usually sit at night, he said. He formed a plan in his mind. He figured he could pull right up to the patrol cars and hop out, and the nightmare would be over. But no one was there.
They continued down Manning past a church, another common hangout for police. But again, no one was there.
“I’m getting scared now. Where is he taking me?”
The man directed Nelson to Whitehorse Street, about two miles away from where they began, and ordered him to turn off the car.
“Oh my God, he’s about to kill me,” Nelson thought to himself.
His mind raced to his four children — what would life be like for them growing up without a father?
That’s when the man ordered Nelson to hand over the pizza, his money and his cellphone. He got out of the car and told Nelson to drive off. Nelson drove back to Papa John’s and called 911. Sumter police officers showed up, wrote a report and collected evidence, including a cheek swab from Nelson and a swab from his car. They needed his DNA for analysts to compare it with anything they find on the passenger door.
A couple days later, the gunman used Nelson’s phone to post a selfie to Nelson’s Facebook account, showing his face and body, and flashing a middle finger to the camera, he said. The man was taunting him. Nelson recognized his bushy eyebrows and showed the photo to police. Officers made copies, he said. But more than five years have passed, and he has never heard anything from police.
The first time Nelson was robbed, it was no big deal, he said. Someone asked for the money and he handed it over. Sumter police never made an arrest, a spokeswoman said.
The second time, a group of teens jumped out of the bushes with a gun in 2012, he said. No arrests have been made and DNA evidence from that case still hasn’t been tested either, records show. By the third time, he’d had enough.
“To be taken, and told where to go, not knowing where they were going or what they were doing, that scared the crap out of me,” Nelson said. “A few years after that, I had a serious breakdown. I could no longer manage or do anything. I couldn’t function right.”
He decided in June 2017 to go back home to New Jersey, where he started working for his brother’s company installing fences. He needed to get his head straight, he said. He returned to South Carolina a couple months later and now works for a packaging company.
But Nelson’s life will never be the same.
“Even still, when I’m sitting in this house, I’m uncomfortable. Worrying about whether someone is going to come one day and kick my door in,” he said. “I just have a fear. This someone-coming-up-behind-you type of fear.”
A woman and three men
The backlog includes more than 1,000 sexual assault cases, with the oldest from 1997.
Another case is 13 years old. It started when an S.C. woman in her early 30s visited Myrtle Beach in January 2006. The State does not name victims of sexual assault.
She met three men while dancing at the Fiesta Club on Carver Street. The temperature dipped below 40 degrees that night, and around 1 a.m., she asked the men if they could give her a ride to her motel, according to historical weather data and the Myrtle Beach Police Department records. She didn’t want to walk in the cold, and they agreed to give her a ride.
She climbed into the backseat of a gold Chevy Corsica and they took off. A short, heavy-set man was the driver; a man with short, wavy hair sat in the passenger seat; a man with dreadlocks sat in the backseat next to her, the records show.
Soon after they left, the man next to her began touching her, the report states. At no point did she give the men any indication that she wanted to have sex with them.
Two of the three men sexually assaulted her that night, according to Myrtle Beach police reports. When it was over, they left her in a dark corner of Georgetown. She had no clue where she was.
The woman walked to a nearby house, knocked on the door and asked them to call for help. Myrtle Beach police initially investigated the case. Officers collected the woman’s clothing, as well as a sexual assault kit, and sent it to SLED for DNA processing.
Police later learned the assault actually happened in Horry County’s jurisdiction. The Horry County Police Department then took over the investigation, but it appears SLED was never made aware, records show.
More than 13 years have passed. That evidence is still on SLED’s backlog with Myrtle Beach police listed as the investigating agency, and it’s unclear whether any arrests have been made.
SLED is working these cases as quickly as it can, said Maj. Todd Hughey, director of forensic services at SLED. But in reality, the crime lab acts as a funnel.
At the bottom, there are a limited number of forensic scientists, machines and space. And at the top of the funnel, about 300 agencies across the state lean on SLED for assistance every day. Each case is unique, complex and time consuming, Hughey said.
In addition, the crime lab is intended to provide investigative leads and information previously unknown, Hughey said. People tend to think DNA can be tested in a matter of minutes, showing exactly whodunit.
But that’s not how it works, he said.
“Sometimes TV is great, but it has done a lot to hurt the forensic science world,” he said, adding that it’s a comparative science. “I can’t get your sample and develop your DNA profile, and have it mean anything to me, unless you’re in the database or we have (something to compare it to) at a crime scene.”
But you never know unless you test it, said Tracy Bowie, executive director of the Rape Crisis Center of Horry and Georgetown counties. She has worked with many women who never received justice due to untested rape kits.
“It’s a piece of the case,” she said, remarking on the importance of testing DNA evidence. “This continues to be an issue.”
The State interviewed nearly a dozen S.C. police chiefs and sheriffs, all of whom praised SLED’s work, saying they can rely on a quick turnaround for high-profile cases when needed. In addition, SLED prioritizes DNA analysis in violent crime cases and cases that are preparing for trial.
But everyone agreed, it could be more efficient.
‘I thought we were goners’
For victims, they’re traumatized by the crimes, then feel snubbed by SLED.
Eight years have passed since Holly Youmans last heard about the day she and her fiance, Dominick Kenny, were robbed at gunpoint in their living room, until she was contacted by The State.
That “speaks volumes about the issue,” she said, wondering about the DNA evidence that ultimately piles up from an untold number of victims.
“It honestly makes you feel like you’re not important,” she said.
It was August 2011. Youmans was wrapping up a research project for her psychology degree at Coastal Carolina University, while balancing a job at a local ice cream shop. She and Kenny were living together in an area of Myrtle Beach known for drugs and violence. The rent was cheap, and it helped them get by, she said.
One day, the couple was relaxing on the couch and playing Nintendo Wii, when someone knocked on the door of their townhouse. They were expecting a friend and she opened without hesitation, she said.
Instead, it was a man they had never seen before.
“Have you seen a little white kitten?” the man asked, gesturing with his hands.
In that instant, three other men rushed into the apartment, pushing her against the door. One held her mouth shut, and another held her boyfriend at gunpoint, according to the police report.
They ordered the couple on the ground and to put their hands behind their back. One of the men duct taped their wrists. Dominick was wearing a gold necklace and a gold bracelet. Both were snatched off his body, reports show.
Three of the men then went to the bedroom and started emptying drawers, while the fourth continued pointing the pistol as they laid helpless on the floor. The men stole Youmans’ jewelry, laptop and wallet containing $80 cash, she said.
The man with the gun then ordered her boyfriend to lie between the table and the couch and put a pillow over his head.
“I thought they were going to shoot him right in front of me,” she said. “I thought we were goners. I didn’t have any emotion. I was frozen.”
But suddenly, the men left. Youmans and her boyfriend got up and went next door to call the police. Myrtle Beach police collected DNA swabs from the scene, which were sent to SLED for DNA processing.
And then nothing happened.
“I would have been more motivated years ago to get some type of justice than I am now,” said Youmans, who now lives with Kenny in Florida. “I’ve moved on with a new chapter (of my life) and I try to leave that situation behind me, even though I’ve taken some life-long anxiety from it.”
Every survivor interviewed for this story said they were surprised to learn their case was stuck in a backlog. Each still struggles in their own way — sleepless nights, always looking over their shoulder.
For Youmans, she is now terrified of guns.
“The last experience I’ve had with a gun, it was held to my head,” she said. “I’ll never know to this day if it was loaded or not, and I thank God that I never found out.”