DNA evidence analyzed by two experts inconclusive; male DNA on cigarette butt found near the murder scene may or may not have been from deputy
In the Susan Van Note double-homicide trial, a Kansas City area private investigator called by the defense testified that a man who was in debt to William Van Note consistently contacted William on several days prior to the attack, including a phone call at 6:38 p.m. that night.
There have been several references to a “shady character,” though not enough to identify until Saturday, in the trial expected to last into mid-week. On Saturday, day 6 of the trial, that man’s identity, Ronald J. Vobornik, and correspondences with William Van Note were introduced as evidence by defense attorney Tom Bath.
According to documents, including phone records and legal correspondences, presented to the jury, Vobornik of Kansas City was given a $600,000 loan through a check at a 10 percent interest rate by Van Note in 2005. Vobornik listed several rental properties as well as his residence in Kansas City as collateral.
An official letter sent by Van Note in February 2009 said that Vobornik was behind on his monthly installments of roughly $5,200 and he now owed William $622,000, despite paying some $122,000. Private investigator Andy Alvey, a former FBI agent, testified that a document seen on Van Note’s desk in the crime scene video played earlier in the week and reintroduced to the jury was the same one he uncovered to have been a lease agreement with Vobornik.
After Vobornik was unable to repay his debt, Van Note moved to foreclose on Vobornik’s collateral, securing a judgement of $327,000 and 11 properties, including the man’s main residence in Kansas City. The two of them worked out a lease agreement so Vobornik could continue to live at the residence, but legal correspondences as well as correspondences with city and utility officials showed the man was not maintaining the property to the point of potential prosecution.
Van Note appeared to become aware that utility bills hadn’t been paid on Sept. 24, 2010, evidenced by a correspondence between the two. Four days days later, another correspondence showed the water had been turned off at the property.
Alvey testified that the cell phone records of William Van Note collected from T-Mobile showed six phone calls with Vobornik in the ten days leading up the attacks that left long-time girlfriend Sharon Dickson dead and Van Note dead days later at University Hospital in Columbia.
The last phone call between the two occurred at 6:38 p.m. Oct. 4, 2010. Alvey attempted to locate Vobornik on several occasions, but never could, he testified.
Sgt. Matthew Brown of the Lebanon Police Department was a detective at the time of the murders who visited a neighbor’s house near Sunrise Acres, where Van Note and Dickson lived at the time. Brown said a couple, friends of the neighbors, who had just left to go home for the night told him they’d seen a fast-moving car at the intersection around 11 p.m. that kicked up dust on the gravel road.
However, no other information was provided in regards to the make, model or color, so there was little investigators could do. Brown testified he was unsure if any other detectives had followed up on the tidbit of information, concluding it “could have been anything.”
John McFarland, a former Camden County Sheriff’s deputy, testified that he responded to the Van Note residence the night of the attacks around 11:30 p.m. while on patrol in Camdenton. McFarland was essentially tasked with enforcing security of the crime scene, mainly the immediate surroundings of the house. As the investigators stayed on scene until the sun rose, McFarland was looking for anything detectives may have missed in the dark.
McFarland was the deputy who identified the cigarette butt collected as evidence near a tree mid-way up the property. He testified he did not find any other cigarette butts around the property or any visible evidence of blood. There was also the potential that one of the dozens of law enforcement officers who had been at the scene could have left it there. One deputy in particular had made the mistake more than once, and there was a comment made by a superior, something along the lines of ‘hope it wasn’t one of our guys.’
DNA evidence simple, yet complicated
The defense called two expert witnesses to the stand on Saturday that may have confused the jury more than proved the point they were attempting to make.
Shena Latcham, a forensic DNA analyst with over 10 years of experience with the Missouri State Highway Patrol Crime Lab, performed the DNA testing on the case and produced various reports of her findings.
All the evidence collected at the scene was “consistent with” William Van Note and Sharon Dickson’s DNA, which is not to say it was a “complete match,” which attorneys always want, she said. There were several items of evidence not tested including bloodstained fibers from Dickson’s elbow and chest, as well as internal swabs obtained from her abdomen and breasts, Latcham testified. Susan Van Note’s DNA was never tested or submitted by investigators.
The cigarette butt was determined to have been a “male” but there was not enough DNA to conduct further analysis and complete a genetic profile, though Van Note was essentially eliminated from that evidence. And that’s where the jury may have gotten confused.
Defense attorney Trisha Bath and Latcham spent over an hour attempting to explain the complex science of DNA and current evidence testing standards, including the 16 specific allele locations on the millions and millions long single strand of DNA used in the industry-approved testing kit.
Though trying to break down complex terms, the science of microbiology and nuances of genetic testing in the simplest possible terms for the average person, it was a painstaking walk-through without any hard drawn conclusions.
Gina Pineda Murphy, a president for one of the leading DNA consulting firms and microbiologist who has testified in over 100 forensic evidence cases for both prosecutors and defense counsels around the United States and even Australia, was the second expert called by the defense.
Murphy testified that she was receiving a fee of $250 an hour and would probably make a couple of thousand dollars for her testimony that essentially backed the conclusions made by Latcham in her official reports.
Murphy testified that she agreed with Latcham in that the cigarette butt was a male donor, but lacked enough evidence to complete a DNA profile. The scientists concluded David Ayers’ blood, William’s Van Note’s longtime friend and handyman, was the blood found on the lower-level back door, as investigators testified to earlier in the week. Both Ayers’ and Desre Dory’s, a false witness to a forged document by Susan Van Note, DNA profiles could be eliminated from the cigarette butt, she confirmed.
The fingernail scrapings collected under the nails of Sharon Dickson was consistent with her own DNA profile. There was potential for another donor, however Dickson could not be eliminated as the donor and there was not enough other DNA present to complete a full profile or to even complete elimination testing in this case.
The murder weapons, including the gun that fired the ultimately fatal .25 caliber gunshot wound to William Van Note’s brain or the knife used to stab Sharon Dickson 18 times including a fatal gash to her aortic valve, have never been recovered.