Cat DNA database helps convict killer

RAPHAEL SATTER, Associated Press
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A cat (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

A cat (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

LONDON (AP) — A newly created DNA database of British cats has helped convict a killer, a British university said Wednesday, illustrating how even pets’ genetic material can be a boon to forensic scientists.

The University of Leicester says its catalogue of feline DNA buttressed the prosecution case against David Hilder, who was convicted of manslaughter last month at a court in the English city of Winchester.

“This is the first time cat DNA has been used in a criminal trial in the UK,” said Jon Wetton, who led the project. “This could be a real boon for forensic science, as the 10 million cats in the UK are unwittingly tagging the clothes and furnishings in more than a quarter of households.”

Although drawing DNA from human hair, saliva, or blood samples has long been established part of crime scene investigations, animal material has also provided investigators with valuable clues. The Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California, Davis has used animal DNA to catch criminals for more than a decade — including in one case in London in which blood left at the scene of a nightclub stabbing was matched to a murder suspect’s bull terrier.

In the most recent case, investigators were trying to identify the cat hair discovered on the dismembered torso of David Guy, 30, which was discovered hidden in a trash bag on a British beach in July of last year. Detectives matched the hair to a cat belonging to the man’s neighbor, Hilder, but they still needed to determine how good the match was.

That’s where the DNA database came in.

Wetton said in a statement that the strength of the match could only be determined if the hairs were run against a wider sample of other felines. Wetton — who had previously worked setting up a similar DNA database for dogs — said he worked with doctoral student Barbara Ottolini to create one, gathering samples from 152 felines across England.

“Only three of the samples obtained matched the hairs from the crime scene,” the statement said, suggesting that while the match wasn’t perfect, it was still pretty good.

Hilder, 47, was sentenced last month to life in prison, with a minimum term of 12 years before he is eligible for parole. In a statement, police noted that the cat hair was just one element in a “wide range of evidence” used by prosecutors to bring him to justice.

Police said Wednesday that the cat, Tinker, was alive and well with new owners.

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