Administration

SCF Professor Offers Riverview High Students a Lesson in Investigative Techniques

(Bradenton, Fla., Oct. 31, 2017) — Matthew Thomas, a State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota (SCF) biotechnology professor who has a doctorate in molecular biology, helped change a man’s life. Don McLeod had been accused of murder 50 years ago after he discovered the bodies of the Walker family in their home in south Sarasota County. That murder is still unsolved but Thomas was able to gather enough DNA evidence to exclude McLeod as the killer and take him out from under the cloud of suspicion that had plagued him most of his life.

Thomas is not done with the case yet. The advances in science have given him more tools to test evidence that may still be around. Thomas was joined by Kim McGath, a former detective who also worked on the case. Steinur Bell, an English teacher at Riverview High whose students were reading Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” invited the pair to speak to the 11th and 12th grade classes.

“Scientists are better at ruling things out, than knowing for certain that something is going on,” Thomas said. “On crime shows they talk about getting a match and everyone on the show knows that’s the guy who did it, but there are so many factors that can make them wrong. For example, identical twins have the same DNA, and organ transplants or bone marrow transplants can cloud things.”

Thomas got involved in the investigation when he teamed up with detectives and reporters to try to unravel one of Sarasota’s longest and more infamous unsolved murders. By 2005, when he was recruited to sample the DNA, much of the evidence was degraded from improper storage and poor handling during the investigation – a time when many of the scientific tools used now were unknown.

When Thomas used DNA testing to rule out several suspects, it allowed detectives to focus on a theory that had been raised and dismissed long ago: that the two men who killed a Kansas family and were featured in Truman Capote’s non-fiction “new journalism” book, “In Cold Blood” also killed the Walker family. The men, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, fled to Florida after the Kansas murders and were seen in Sarasota around the time the Walkers were killed. McLeod identified a pocket knife that Smith had, as belonging to Walker. It had a distinct fruit tree design on it denoting the Florida orange groves where Walker worked. While most of the DNA evidence from the crime scene is too degraded to compare with DNA from Smith and Hickock, there is still one more piece of evidence to be tested.

Smith had engineer boots with a distinct pattern on the bottom. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation kept those boots in evidence and there is still organic material on the boots. Thomas believes he can get a sample of soil from the crime scene and test whether there is a match to the material on the boots, even 50 years later. If soil from the boots matches soil from the area in Osprey where the murders happened, it could help support the case in combination with other evidence.

“There is a diverse ecosystem in a soil sample,” Thomas told the Riverview High School students. “I can take a sample from the area where the crime scene was, isolate DNA from the sample and compare that against the material on the boots. That is technology that didn’t exist 10 years ago.”

To learn more about SCF’s biology and natural science program, contact Thomas at thomasm1@SCF.edu or 941-752-5624. 

 

Kim McGath, a former Sarasota County detective, and Matt Thomas, a State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota (SCF) biotechnology professor who has a doctorate in molecular biology, talking to Riverview High School students about the use of DNA and other investigative techniques used in an old Sarasota murder case with links to Truman Capote’s non-fiction book “In Cold Blood.” The 11th grade students at Riverview High School had recently finished reading the book.

Kim McGath, a former Sarasota County detective, and Matt Thomas, a State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota (SCF) biotechnology professor who has a doctorate in molecular biology, talking to Riverview High School students about the use of DNA and other investigative techniques used in an old Sarasota murder case with links to Truman Capote’s non-fiction book “In Cold Blood.” The 11th grade students at Riverview High School had recently finished reading the book.

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