SPOKANE -- Forensic scientists typically are successful in finding DNA on worn hats.
But the straw hat at the root of Vicente Ruiz's first mistrial in the 1987 body shop slayings failed to produce any evidence of its owner, Lisa Turpen testified Tuesday.
A supervising forensic scientist in Cheney's Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, she told jurors that in August 2008 she swabbed, then cut the silky material inside the rim of a "woven, cowboy-type hat with a black band" in an attempt to test DNA. But the amount of DNA in the samples was too low and thus insufficient to continue.
"My conclusion for this hat was there was no interpretable DNA typing profile ...," she said. "None of the information was above our reporting threshold."
Less than three weeks after Turpen first received the hat from Pasco police, Ruiz's lawyers decided they wanted further testing done with the hope it would clear their client's name. The first trial ended before a jury was seated.
Now, more than two years later, the hat was the focal point of testimony in Ruiz's third trial in Spokane as attorneys questioned why scientists couldn't find DNA on an item recovered 23 years ago.
"Time does degrade DNA, so it might be more difficult with older items to obtain a DNA profile," Turpen told Peter Connick, one of three defense lawyers.
Hats are a "good source" for DNA because they come into close contact with a person's head and can either soak up sweat or rub up against the skin. But she noted that how often the hat was worn, the temperature at which it was stored by police and how it originally was preserved also can be factors in later finding DNA.
Turpen said she did not get reference samples for Ruiz or his brothers because what she retrieved from the straw hat wasn't enough to tell her if it had been worn by a man or woman, let alone to compare to other DNA profiles.
Prosecutors have said a Pasco convenience store video shows Ruiz wearing the straw hat shortly before six men were gunned down inside Medina's Body Shop. The hat was found in a Mazda RX-7 believed to be driven in the crime, and that places Ruiz in town at the time of the shootings.
Ruiz denies ever wearing the hat and told investigators, after his return to the United States in 2007, that he left town in mid-October 1987 for a scheduled vacation in Mexico. He claimed he didn't remember the exact date and, when told about the timing of his departure to the shootings, said "it doesn't mean anything."
Ruiz, 46, is on trial for five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder. The Franklin County Superior Court case was moved to Spokane because of extensive media coverage surrounding the first two trials, both of which ended in mistrials.
Defense lawyers say it is a case of mistaken identity and have suggested it may have been one of Ruiz's brothers because they looked alike.
The lone survivor in the Oct. 13, 1987, crime pointed the finger at Ruiz, along with the defendant's cousin, Pedro Mendez-Reyna. He got life in prison for his role after agreeing to testify against Ruiz, and is expected to take the stand this week.
Aldo Montes, who was hit in the stomach by a ricocheting bullet, was in the hospital that night when he picked Ruiz's picture out of a photo montage as one of the two shooters. He had driven to the Pasco Police Department after the shootings, then was taken by ambulance down to the block to what is now Lourdes Medical Center.
Dr. Petra Illig was an emergency room doctor on duty that night when they got word "we had something brewing." Montes, who also was known as Jesse Rocio, arrived at 7:10 p.m. He was followed by Misael Barajas, who was taken from the scene by paramedics at 7:30.
Illig testified that Montes had a "non-penetrating wound to his abdomen" and was told "that he had been injured in a shootout." Montes reportedly dove under a car he was sanding in the shop to avoid being shot. At 8:45 p.m., he was transferred to the surgical floor for further observation, but only needed over-the-counter pain pills.
Once Barajas arrived without a heartbeat, Illig said her attention turned to him as hospital staff made every effort to resuscitate him. His injuries included a gunshot wound to the left clavicle, and another bullet hole in the left hip.
Barajas, 22, of Pasco, was pronounced dead at 7:47 p.m.
Also killed were: Juan Antonio Lopez Garcia, 20; Eliceo Guzman Lamas, 20; and Rafael Parra Magallon, 22, all of Pasco, and Francisco Venegas Cortez, 21, of Kennewick.
John Van Hoy, the son of the late owner of Phil's Sporting Goods Store in Pasco, testified that a sales receipt found with the straw hat in the Mazda RX-7 was for Winchester .223 rifle ammunition. Van Hoy, who grew up working in the family business including running the cash register, said the ammunition was sold at 6:03 p.m. -- less than an hour before the slayings.
The victims were all shot by .223-caliber bullets.
-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; firstname.lastname@example.org