Bogus lawsuit leads to murder charge

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NOT long ago, John Nicholas Athan received an official- looking letter about a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of people who had been overcharged on parking tickets.

He was told if he wanted to take part in the case, he had to sign and return an enclosed form. Athan licked the self-addressed envelope, sent it back and waited to hear if he would get any money.

In truth, there was no lawsuit - but there was DNA.

The letter was part of a ruse devised by detectives to get a sample of Athan’s DNA and connect him to a killing that had remained unsolved for nearly 21 years.

Less than two months after the letter was returned to the Seattle police, saliva on the flap of the envelope was matched genetically to semen taken from the body of 13-year-old Kristen Sumstad, who was raped and strangled in 1982.

Athan, 35, was arrested on murder charges ten days ago.

"Money is the curse of all evil," Detective Richard Gagnon said. "And this guy - we said, ‘There’s a form, sign it’." Athan was 14 at the time of the killing. He was seen pushing a hand truck and a large brown box down a street in Seattle’s Magnolia neighbourhood the night before Kristen’s body was found in a television box, behind a shop about four streets away.

When questioned, Athan told investigators he had used the hand truck to steal firewood from his neighbours.

He remained on a list of suspects, but there was not enough evidence to prosecute him.

Ten years later, scientists at the Washington State Patrol crime laboratory tried and failed to extract a DNA profile from the semen. By last year, however, DNA technology had advanced enough that a second attempt succeeded.

Det Gagnon and his partner, Det Gregg Mixsell, ran the results through state and federal crime databases, but did not find a match.

They needed a sample of Athan’s DNA. However, with some 300 "cold cases" on file, the detectives had to work on a shoestring budget.

"I can’t say, ‘Hey, chief. Give me a week to follow this guy around and see if he spits out a cigarette’," Det Gagnon said.

A colleague suggested the bogus lawsuit, and another detective drafted the letter.

John Muenster, Athan’s lawyer, said he will try to get the evidence thrown out.

He said: "My opinion is that evidence was illegally seized."

Professor John Junker, who teaches criminal procedure at the University of Washington School of Law, compared the trick to the use of undercover officers.

He said: "The courts have said you have no expectation of privacy when you are sharing information willingly with someone who turns out to be an undercover agent."

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