Key clue in slaying went untested for 7 years

Single hair led to arrest in 1999 killing


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As the homicide trial nears for a man charged in 2009 with killing his ex-wife in Bethel Park a decade earlier, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review of the case has found that investigators overlooked for seven years the key evidence that led to John D. Minch's arrest.

From 2000 to 2007, the single hair that experts say links longtime suspect Mr. Minch to Melissa Groot's fatal stabbing sat in storage at the morgue. During that time, police refrained from charging Mr. Minch because of a lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime scene.

It was only after investigators realized the oversight that they had the inch-long, blood-encrusted hair microscopically and genetically analyzed along with others collected on the day of the slaying.

Police issued a news release hours after Mr. Minch's arrest that attributed the turn of events to a recognition of "new advances in evidence analysis."

But the very experts whose analysis led to the arrest said in interviews that there had been no leap in technology during the past 10 years that would have affected test results.

"Common sense would tell you it should have been tested earlier," said Dr. Frederick W. Fochtman, former director of the forensic science laboratory division of the Allegheny County medical examiner's office.

"I am retroactively embarrassed," said Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, the former county coroner and medical examiner, when informed of the delay. Dr. Wecht had ultimate authority over the lab from 1996 to 2006. "I knew nothing about this."

No explanation from officials

With Mr. Minch's trial planned for sometime this year, police and prosecutors refused to explain why the hairs were not tested earlier.

"We don't have any comment on an active homicide. Stay tuned. At trial it's all going to come out, and you're going to see it is what it is," said Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli.

William E. Brennan, Mr. Minch's court-appointed attorney, acknowledged that the case hinges on the strand of hair from Mrs. Groot's hand.

"But for that, one can argue there may not have been an arrest at all," Mr. Brennan said.

Mr. Minch, 43, provided the Post-Gazette with a copy of his case file in a bid to convince the newspaper that police planted the crucial hair to frame him for the death of his 29-year-old ex-wife. He contacted the Post-Gazette because of unhappiness with his attorney at the time, Robert Foreman of the public defender's office.

In jailhouse phone interviews Mr. Minch said he did not kill his ex-wife, but he presented no proof that he was set up.

What his documentation did do was raise the issue of why it took a decade to arrest a man thought to be a suspect early in the investigation.

Mrs. Groot's mother, Mary Michael of Castle Shannon, declined comment for this story, saying she feared saying something that might "mess things up" concerning the trial.

But Nancy Ruhe, executive director of Parents of Murdered Children, spoke in general terms about the impact of a lengthy wait for an arrest, especially if the delay were due to an oversight by investigators.

"It absolutely destroys a family, that friction of waiting, the tension. You go every day hoping that someone's going to pick up that phone and call you and say, 'Guess what?' You just go year after year after year with no answers," Ms. Ruhe said.

"If they lose this case, I feel sorry for the authorities that did overlook this. Even if the outcome would have been the same 10 years ago, you're never going to get this through that family's head."

Processing the scene

At 8:32 a.m. on May 6, 1999, the day of Mrs. Groot's death, she received a hang-up call from a pay phone three blocks away, according to police documents. Police said she had been getting such calls for months and believed them to be from Mr. Minch. This one, her mother told detectives, had Mrs. Groot "very upset" according to a police account.

Mrs. Groot alerted her father to the latest call. They were supposed to eat lunch together that day, but when he showed up at noon, he got no answer and left, figuring his daughter had forgotten, according to a police report.

Mrs. Groot's husband, David Groot, tried several times to reach his wife from work. When he learned that afternoon that Mrs. Michael had not heard from her daughter either, he went home. He told police that when he could not enter his house through the front door because the chain was on, he went through an unlocked side door.

Mr. Groot said he found his wife's body, clad in a nightgown, in the bathtub. She had been stabbed several times, and her throat had been slashed.

No neighbors reported hearing anything unusual. The couple's son was in his crib, unharmed. And there were no fingerprints of value in the house or on the murder weapon, a butcher knife lying in the bathroom sink.

According to laboratory reports, investigators recovered at least 10 hairs -- eight from Mrs. Groot's nightgown and two from her hands.

The hairs were placed inside two folded white pieces of paper, which were slipped into a pair of brown envelopes. They were documented in an October 2000 crime lab report. No mention was made of them again until June 2007, according to the documents in the case reviewed by the Post-Gazette.

The description in the 2000 report suggests that the hairs could have come from at least three people. The hairs were described as "long, wavy reddish-brown," "short, dark brown" and "short, straight white."

The first suspect

Investigators initially thought Mr. Groot, 42, could be the killer. They termed him a "potential suspect" in an affidavit for a search warrant on his car and personal records obtained within a week of the homicide. According to police reports, Mr. Groot flunked a polygraph test. And there was other circumstantial evidence pointing to him.

Suspicions were aroused when detectives learned that Mr. Groot wondered aloud to his mother-in-law whether his wife were lying hurt in the bathtub -- a statement made before finding her body. He later told police that Mrs. Groot had a shower routine in the morning, and he could think of no other place she might be at that time.

Detectives interviewed an alibi witness that made them confident that Mr. Groot was not home at the time his wife was killed. So the focus shifted to Mr. Minch.

Years later, testing showed that the hair in Mrs. Groot's hand was not linked to her husband. "Based on this and the totality of the investigation, David Groot has been ruled out as a suspect in this case," police wrote in the arrest affidavit for Mr. Minch.

In the same affidavit, police portrayed Mr. Minch as someone who harbored anger over the breakup of his marriage. After 11 years as husband and wife, the Minches divorced in March 1998. A month later, the Groots wed.

Detectives wrote that Mr. Minch had assaulted Mrs. Groot in 1992.

And Mr. Minch had ongoing issues with Mrs. Groot's mother over visitation with the couple's daughter, who was 4 at the time of her mother's death. Although Mrs. Groot had custody, she and her parents had agreed that the girl would live with her grandparents because they had "bonded," court documents show.

The girl was removed from Mr. Minch's care in 1997 because he had been arrested for striking her. He pleaded guilty to simple assault in 1998 and lost custody to Mrs. Groot.

On the night of the slaying, detectives traveled to California, Pa., to interview Mr. Minch. He told them he did not know where Mrs. Groot lived and was unaware she was dead until they broke the news. Detectives searched his apartment, his car and a laundry basket to no avail.

In the arrest affidavit, police wrote that Mr. Minch was stoic upon being told of the slaying and that he "immediately began to deny any involvement without first being questioned." That reaction is not reflected in the police report documenting detectives' initial interview.

The case unfolds

During the months that followed the slaying, Allegheny County Police gathered evidence. Detectives obtained video from a bank surveillance camera that they said they believed shows Mr. Minch's car, a red-and-white 1970 Chevrolet Blazer, near the crime scene around the time of the murder.

Police asked the FBI and the Secret Service to enhance the video. They did, producing a total of 32 still images.

Investigators indicated in reports that they were troubled by Mr. Minch's account of that day. They said he gave two different times for leaving his home -- he said 8:30 a.m. on May 6 and 8:50 a.m. on May 18.

Detectives were skeptical of the route Mr. Minch said he took to South Hills Village, where he took the T Downtown. Mr. Minch told them he saw Mrs. Groot's parents exiting the Eat'n Park Restaurant near the mall before parking his car. But police wrote that he would not have had to drive past the restaurant unless he were coming from Mrs. Groot's house.

They also indicated in reports that Mr. Minch was trying to create an alibi by arriving for a court hearing three hours earlier than scheduled on the day of the homicide.

On May 18, 1999, Mr. Minch took a lie-detector test. Pointed questions to which Mr. Minch answered "no" included:

"Did you help to plan Melissa's death?"

"Did you, yourself, stab Melissa?"

"Did you know where Melissa lived before you heard she was dead?"

The examiner concluded that "Minch was lying when he answered these questions in the negative."

"I don't believe it was conducted in any fair manner," Mr. Minch said in an interview.

A jury will never hear about the exam because it is not admissible in state court in Pennsylvania. Police tend to use polygraphs to rule out suspects rather than to establish guilt.

The bulk of police efforts relied on gathering circumstantial evidence, establishing motive and trying to poke holes in Mr. Minch's alibi. Investigators had no fingerprints, eyewitnesses or nuclear DNA evidence, the kind that can come from body fluids, for instance, with only an infinitesimal margin of error.

But they had the hairs. The importance of that physical evidence was underscored in a conversation police had with Mr. Groot about the case.

"The reporting detectives advised David that John Minch had stated that he didn't even know where Missy was living. Even if Minch did know where she lived, there would be no reason for his hair to be at the scene and even more specifically, not on Missy's body," according to a police report. "Thus, if the hair were to be identified as belonging to Minch, it would be very incriminating."

That discussion did not take place until August 2008.

Belated testing

At some point during a review of the case file, investigators realized that the hair evidence had never been tested.

In March 2008, police executed a search warrant in West Virginia, where Mr. Minch was living, for hair samples and swabs from his cheek. The affidavit, which was unsealed by a judge at the newspaper's request, sheds no light on why investigators were suddenly interested in the sample after so many years. It simply states: "Recently, the lab was asked to examine the hairs."

Neither police nor prosecutors would discuss how or when they made the catch, but once it happened, things moved quickly.

Microscopic and genetic tests were conducted between December 2007 and September 2008. The analysis that led to Mr. Minch was a process of elimination.

One of the 10 hairs found on Mrs. Groot came from an animal. Three were traced to the victim herself. Two likely came from Mr. Groot. Three were unidentified as of this summer.

The final hair -- really a hair fragment, meaning it lacked a root -- was the key. Originally described as a white hair, the prosecution divulged late last year that it actually was a hair with a "white fiber wrapped around it."

The hair samples obtained from Mr. Minch yielded positive results when microscopically checked against the fragment. That led to the next step: genetic testing.

Although the nuclear DNA typically stored in the root was not present, scientists were able to analyze a different kind of genetic material called mitochondrial DNA.

Mitochondrial analysis, however, cannot identify someone with as much certainty as nuclear DNA analysis.

Dr. Terry Melton, president of the company that did the testing, testified at Mr. Minch's May 2009 preliminary hearing that 99.67 percent of North Americans are excluded from having the kind of mitochondrial DNA retrieved from Mrs. Groot's hand.

"Are you saying to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that John Minch is in fact the contributor of the sample you examined?" Mr. Foreman, the former defense attorney, asked Dr. Melton on the stand.

"I cannot say that," Dr. Melton answered.

Unclear protocol

Statements by police, prosecutors and crime lab personnel point to a clash over who is responsible for directing when evidence is analyzed.

Dr. Fochtman, who ran the crime lab, put the onus on investigators, saying the laboratory analyzes evidence at the request of police.

He did acknowledge, though, that the crime lab has a "corresponding responsibility" to apprise investigators about technology.

Police or prosecutors might say, "'Hey what's available for me to look at this evidence?' And then the lab could say, 'There's mitochondrial DNA,' " Dr. Fochtman said.

Dr. Fochtman also noted that at the time of the homicide, there was a "considerable" backlog in all areas of testing at the lab.

A case was "primarily worked when it was needed for court," Dr. Fochtman said.

"It's not the lab's fault. I mean we just didn't have personnel," said Pamela M. Woods, the crime lab scientist who conducted the microscopic analysis on the hairs.

Testimony at the preliminary hearing indicated that the crime lab did not have anyone in 1999 who could perform the microscopic analysis of hair evidence that can be an initial step before genetic analysis.

On the stand, Ms. Woods discussed the time lag between obtaining the hair samples from the crime scene and analyzing them.

"Now here's a question. From May of 1999 to May of 2007, where were those hairs?" Mr. Foreman asked Ms. Woods.

"Stored," she replied. "At the time in 1999 there were no -- there was no hair, there was no one to examine hair at the laboratory. I started doing trace evidence about a year later, and so the case sat until someone was available to work it. That just so happened to be me."

Robert Huston, director of the forensic services branch of the medical examiner's office, said that in 1999, any hairs that needed to be tested would be sent to an outside lab, such as an FBI facility. But there is no indication that hairs in the Minch case were farmed out to anyone until 2008, when the in-house microscopic examination led to a recommendation for outside DNA testing.

In a recent interview, county police homicide Lieutenant Andrew Schurman said he understood that "the level of DNA testing was not available" in 1999.

Dr. Melton dispelled that notion. She noted that mitochondrial DNA technology had its courtroom debut during a homicide trial in Tennessee in 1996. Her business, Mitotyping Technologies LLC, opened its doors in State College in 1999.

And while she would not address the Minch case specifically, Dr. Melton confirmed that there have been no noteworthy advances in mitochondrial DNA analysis in the past decade that would have affected results on hair testing. Ms. Woods said the same is true for microscopic analysis.

Re-examining the evidence

Mr. Minch has not presented to the court his claim that the hair linking him to the crime scene was planted by police.

Without providing proof, he told the Post-Gazette, "I knew from day one that I was framed."

In the fall, more than 11 years later, investigators still had not finished testing all the hairs from the crime scene.

At a September proceeding, Assistant District Attorney Lisa M. Pellegrini said hairs retrieved from the victim's nightgown that had never been examined were being analyzed.

Following an Aug. 2 hearing, the prosecution "went through every piece of evidence in this case," Ms. Pellegrini said, "and when I determined that there were additional hairs on the back of the nightgown collected at autopsy, I asked for those to be examined as well."

Ms. Woods said the hairs were among those originally found on the nightgown but were not among the eight previously mentioned in various lab reports. She would not elaborate.

Mr. Brennan, the defense attorney, clearly is focused on discrediting the key evidence against his client. A motion he filed last month seeks details from prosecutors about how the crucial hair and others were handled during the years they lay dormant before being tested. Mr. Brennan also asked for notes from crime lab scientists about the hairs and protocols for evidence storage at the medical examiner's office.

In addition, Mr. Brennan requested "Any and all evidence/reports pertaining to David Groot and his possible involvement in the death of Melissa Groot."

Bethel Park police Chief John Mackey, who took over the department several months after the slaying, could not explain the delay in analyzing the hairs.

"I was probably as shocked as anybody to hear about the hair evidence, and thank God it came out the way it did because it clearly identified a suspect. Why did it take so long? I don't know," Mr. Mackey said.

Ms. Woods said the only problem with the case is that it took a decade to solve.

"Who failed? You're looking at it as a point of view. In my opinion, if the case comes to a conclusion and the jury sees it one way versus another, then nothing fails. It just took a long time to get to the end," Ms. Woods said. "To me it has just failed in the length of time it has taken."


Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.


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