FLORENCE — Jurors in a trial involving a 2016 double homicide in Apache Junction heard several hours of DNA evidence Thursday.
Demian Blu, 44, is one of three men who were arrested in connection with the 2016 deaths of Keith Long and Renae Gardner. The couple were shot and killed while sleeping in their home in an Apache Junction trailer park. Long’s body was found in a canal near San Tan Valley. Gardner’s body was found along Beeline Highway/State Route 87 between Phoenix and Payson.
Blu is charged with three counts of first-degree murder and two counts of abandonment or concealment of a dead body. His trial started last week.
Clint Wendelschafer, 34, of Tempe and Nicholas Douglas, 45, of San Tan Valley were also accused of murdering the couple. Wendelschafer accepted a plea agreement in December 2019 and Douglas is awaiting trial. Wendelschafer is expected to testify in Blu’s trial.
On Thursday two DNA forensic experts who had previously worked for the Arizona Department of Public Safety described how evidence that may have DNA is brought into their lab and processed.
Laura Mueller, who now works for the city of Mesa’s forensic unit, explained how DNA is unique to each person, except for people who may be identical twins or triplets. She explained how a forensic DNA lab would process a piece of DNA evidence, determine if there is enough DNA possible to compare it with a known sample from a victim or possible suspect, compare it with known DNA in a case if available and then write a report on the findings. Each report is then reviewed by another expert in the lab for possible errors.
In some cases, there may not be enough DNA or the DNA may be degraded to a point that it cannot be used, she said. Mueller also confirmed for prosecutors that she could not tell when blood that was found on a piece of evidence had been deposited or how that blood got there.
In this case, Mueller said she was responsible for comparing DNA found on a cigarette butt found under Long and Gardner’s trailer, an unburned cigarette found next to a body in the desert and a cutting from a pair of pants.
Mueller said she was able to get a partial DNA profile from the cigarette butt found under the trailer and was able to determine that the DNA belonged to a female but was unable to conclusively match it to anyone.
There was not enough DNA on the unburned cigarette to test it, she said.
On the cutting from the pair of pants, Mueller said she was able to match DNA from a blood stain to a piece of foot bone that was tested by another expert in the lab.
One of Blu’s attorneys asked if blood could be transferred from one surface, such as a mattress, to another, such as a piece of clothing and from there to another object, such as a pair of pants.
Mueller said that is possible but the stain would then appear very faint.
She also confirmed for Blu’s attorneys that she would not be able to tell if a person was alive or dead when the blood was transferred to a piece of evidence.
Dan Marana, a retired DNA analyst for the DPS crime lab, described how he extracted DNA from the foot bone that Mueller had used to compare to DNA on the evidence she received. He was able to use the DNA from the foot bone to identify Gardner.
He also explained how he tested a coaxial cable, pieces of a mattress top and couch cushions for DNA. He said he was able to match the DNA from a blood stain on one of the clippings from the couch cushions to Long’s DNA.
He was unable to get enough DNA from one of the samples from the mattress top to match it to anyone conclusively. The second DNA sample from the blood on the mattress top he was able to match to the foot bone and he noticed that there was also a very limited quantity of DNA in the sample that could have come from another person but the sample was too degraded to make a match.
He was unable to find enough DNA on the tarp or the cable to test.
He also tested three cartridge casings that were found during the investigation. One casing had a mix of at least three individuals' DNA on it. One individual was a match to the owner of the foot bone and at least one other individual was an unidentified male. However, Marana said he did not have enough information from the DNA to conclusively determine if that man was one of the defendants in the case.
During the lunch break, Christopher Duran, one of Blu’s attorneys, argued with prosecutors before Judge Robert Carter Olson that he should be allowed to present a spreadsheet that tried to simplify the process of matching DNA from the casing to known DNA from the victims and defendants in the case for the jury.
Prosecutors argued that jurors could be confused by the spreadsheet and possibly use it to do their own analysis of whose DNA had been left on the casing. Jurors are not supposed to do their own research in a case and are only to weigh the evidence that is placed before them in court by the prosecutors and the defense attorneys.
Olson stated he would allow the spreadsheet only as a demonstration aid for jurors and would not, at this time, allow it to be admitted as evidence.
When the jury was reseated after lunch, Duran attempted through questions to Marana to use the spreadsheet to explain how a DNA expert would determine that there might be blood from more than one person on the casing.
Jurors then heard testimony from two forensic experts from the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office on the skeletal remains that were found in the desert near Beeline Highway that were later identified as belonging to Gardner.
Dr. Amanda Maskovyak, a medical examiner for Maricopa County, explained the process of how the office would process a body and determine if reviewing a report, a simple examination of the outside of the body or an autopsy would be necessary to determine the cause of death.
Because the remains found in the desert were in a mostly skeletal state, Maskovyak said she called in the office’s forensic anthropologist, Dr. Laura Fulginiti, for help in determining the cause of death. Maskovyak said she was ultimately able to determine that the cause of death was “a traumatic injury, not limited to, but including, a gunshot wound to the head and neck.”
Maskovyak pointed out evidence on the skull of a rounded defect in the bone near the right eye and in the lower jaw on the right side from what appeared to be a projectile, possibly a bullet. She also pointed out fracturing inside the skull that could have been caused by the gases escaping inside the skull from a gunshot.
When Blu’s attorneys asked if she had tried to determine a time of death for Gardner, Maskovyak said she did not attempt to determine a time of death due to the condition of the body.
She also stated that she did not know if she was told before or during the autopsy that the body belonged to a possible homicide victim and said she does not go into an examination of a body with a specific cause of death in mind.
Fulginiti explained to the jury that a forensic anthropologist specifically looks for injuries to the bones in a body. Bones often show injuries in a way that is different from the soft tissues of the body such as skin and muscle. She can sometimes tell from an injury to a bone if the injury was made while the person was still alive, if the injury had time to heal or if the injury was made after the person was dead. Bones can also be used to determine the age, sex and ancestry of a person.
She explained the process of examining skeletal remains such as those found in this case. She also pointed out the round defect in the right eye socket and lower jaw in the skull and a fracture in the spine between the first and second vertebrae and damage to other vertebrae in the spine.
She was able to determine that the wounds to the skull and spine were probably made at or near the time of the person’s death.
She also said that she was not asked to determine a time of death for the person but because the remains were skeletal, she judged the death had happened sometime well before the body was found.
After hearing a brief explanation of how a vehicle in the case, believed to belong to Blu, was confiscated and towed, the court recessed for the day. The case was expected to continue Friday morning.