by Bob Couttie and John Paolucci
For Olivier Van Den Bogaert, a 41 year old Belgian in pre-trial detention in Kampot charged with rape and murder, his freedom, or long-term incarceration, may ultimately depend on DNA assays carried out in France. Often depicted in TV cop shows as a magic bullet to catch perpetrators, Van Den Bogaert’s family and friends believe that DNA evidence will exonerate him.
But it may not be that easy.
At noon on 10 February 2013, the body of 25-year old French tourist Ophelia Begnis was pulled from the Kampong Bay River in Kampot. Last seen at 4:30 pm the previous afternoon cycling away from the guesthouse in which she had been staying, she had been reported missing that morning, when she was due to depart from this pretty, sleepy tourist town with two friends.
Her body was naked, her face bludgeoned with a heavy bladed weapon and, according to reports, her head was almost severed. Olivier Van Den Bogaert has been charged with rape and murder but there are conflicting eye-witness accounts about his activities on the night of the crime.
A French team led by an investigating judge, in country on another case, visited Kampot to take DNA samples from the victim’s remains. Those results are now in the hands of Cambodian authorities and have yet to be made public.
What are the chances of getting a sufficiently good DNA sample to determine Van Den Bogaert’s guilt or innocence? All Things Crime Blog asked John Paolucci, former NYPD Crime Scene Unit Supervisor and Commander of the OCME Liaison Unit, and current owner of Forensics4Real Inc to analyze this issue for us. This is what Mr. Paolucci came up with:
The likelihood of obtaining the killer’s DNA profile from the victim, whose body was recovered from the river after a period of possibly 12 but not exceeding 24 hours, will depend on certain conditions. First of all, a rape had to have taken place; in the course of that rape, the perpetrator had to have ejaculated inside the victim, without using a condom. The perpetrator must also be producing sperm, so if he had a vasectomy, then sperm cannot be recovered. If all these factors are in place, then at autopsy, samples should be collected from the victim’s cervix which is less acidic than the vagina, therefore it is an environment where sperm are more likely to be recovered. Sperm in the victim’s cervix may well survive the victim being in a river for the above-mentioned duration.
If the victim fought with the perpetrator, under normal conditions it would be likely that DNA can be recovered from the area under the victim’s fingernails whether or not a rape occurred. This is where the victim being dumped into the river is damaging to DNA evidence. Skin cell DNA soaking in river water for so many hours may become rapidly degraded in the victim’s subungual region. If the river water is brackish, the peril increases proportionately to the salt content of the brackish water.
So if we DO get a profile……then what? Since there is a suspect in custody, then a one –to-one comparison can be made between a DNA profile developed from sperm collected in the post mortem examination, and a DNA exemplar from the suspect. If the suspect is not a match, then the options are very few.
In a country like Cambodia, where DNA testing is not performed, there will not be a local or National database containing DNA profiles into which the unknown DNA profile recovered from the victim can be uploaded. This being the case, if additional suspects are identified as the investigation continues, DNA exemplars can be collected from them to compare to the unknown profile collected from the victim. Another tactic for investigators would be to request that all the locals voluntarily provide their DNA exemplar for comparison, and see who, if anyone, refuses to provide an exemplar. The only other option would be for the French investigators to compare the DNA recovered from the victim to the Interpol database. There will be a lot of work for investigators, even if that holy grail of biometric identifiers, DNA, is recovered.
A second issue is whether the DNA evidence will be accepted by the Cambodian investigating judge or by the court if the case goes to trial. For Cambodia these are uncharted waters.
Which ever way it goes, Van Den Bogaert’s future is uncertain. All Things Crime Blog has confirmed that, despite his Facebook announcement that he intended to leave Kampot for Ecuador, in April, with a partner, Van Den Bogaert had contracted to lease a new riverside property south of the town to develop a new guesthouse.
For now, his future is a river of uncertainty.
Click here to see earlier reports on this case:
Click here to see other posts from John Paolucci:
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