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As a forensics team sifts through dirt near Topaz Mountain, scientists in Salt Lake County are prepared to quickly process any clues they unearth in the search for missing West Valley City mother Susan Cox Powell.
Investigators hoping to catch bone fragments, clothing, or jewelry will use DNA technology to make any potential links to the missing woman. The process is one that Timothy Kupferschmid knows well.
Kupferschmid, executive director at South Salt Lake-City based Sorenson Forensics, has more than 20 years of experience in forensic DNA testing. His work on high-profile crime cases in Utah enables him to know the process that evidence will undergo if discovered.
"They have to dig very slowly and very meticulously because they're treating it as a crime scene," said Kupferschmid, whose credentials include stints as a senior DNA analyst at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, lab director of the Maine State Police Crime Laboratory and forensic technical director at Salt Lake City-based Myriad Genetic Laboratories.
"If there are skeletal remains or clothing, they will collect those, package those and take the evidence to the Medical Examiner's office in Salt Lake City."
What investigators discover will impact how long it will take to make any personal identifications, Kupferschmid said.
Should skeletal remains emerge, including a skull, an X-ray would be taken at the ME's office and compared with dental X-rays of Powell's, he said. A dentist could match dental records in as little as 30 minutes, he said.
If investigators don't have a skull to work from or can't match remains to dental records, they move on to DNA testing a lab process that at its fastest takes three days with skeletal remains, Kupferschmid said.
When remains arrive at a lab, the first thing scientists do is extract DNA out of a bone. A chemical process applied to the bone dissolves calcium, and once the calcium is dissolved, scientists are left with a cellular material and then DNA, Kupferschmid said.
What comes next is a polymerase chain reaction, a process to amplify millions of copies of starting materials of DNA.
"We think about it as a molecular X-ray machine. We need to make more copies of it," he said.
Once the process has replicated DNA in a test tube and enough copies exist, they run the copies out in an instrument where DNA fragments are separated. A DNA profile is generated once the process is complete.
When DNA is processed, the next step is to compare the DNA results with Powell's profile. The woman's DNA was likely collected by investigators from samples in her home, such as a toothbrush or hairbrush, Kupferschmid said. If police failed to do that, they could now collect DNA from Powell's children and do a "reverse maternity test," in which Powell's DNA would potentially be determined because it matched that of her children, he said.
If the remains turn out not to be those of Powell, scientists can work with law enforcement to see if there is a DNA match to other missing persons cases.
If a skeleton is unearthed, anthropologists can assist in determining a person's sex, race and what decade the bones are from, Kupfershmid said. Extracting bones from hundreds of years ago is easily doable with today's technology and a reason why missing soldiers from the Korean War and World War II are still being identified today, he noted.
Sorenson Forensics contracts out its services to many law enforcement agencies, and the state forensics lab also can provide technology needed in cases where fragments are discovered in soil, he said. The dozens of cases Kupferschmid's business has assisted in include the 1998 slaying of 10-year-old Anna Palmer in Salt Lake City. After years of dead leads, advances in DNA technology allowed police to link fingernail clippings from the girl's right hand to 32-year-old Matthew Breck, who lived down the street from Palmer in 1998.
Breck, arrested last year, is serving life without parole in prison after pleading guilty to aggravated murder in 3rd District Court last month.
The business has also performed international work, including DNA testing on victims of a 2010 airplane crash in Libya and the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia.
It's not yet known if DNA will provide answers in the ongoing mystery of Powell's fate.
Kupferschmid said the desert is working in investigators' favor to help preserve potential evidence near Topaz Mountain.
"Dry is the best thing for DNA to preserve it. If there are personal effects like clothing, or a wedding band, or a watch or jewelry ... you have a fairly good opportunity to get a DNA profile from any items like that," he said.