Shedding Light on Invisible Evidence
Visitors to the industrial office building might confuse the comfortable waiting room for a doctor’s office, with its chairs, magazines and receptionist window. But if the double helix sculpture in front of the building didn’t give it away, this is no doctor’s office. Trinity DNA was the state’s first private DNA testing laboratory. Behind that waiting room are labs built to study the human body’s basic building blocks, which offer a unique biological signature. White-coated scientists examine blood or saliva samples with microscopes, extracting DNA to be analyzed in special machines. Trinity DNA is the brainchild of Pensacola native Candy Zuleger, who used to work as a forensic DNA scientist for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. With no background in business, Zuleger sought the advice of the University of West Florida’s Small Business Development Center before striking out on her own.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt Trinity DNA is one of only a handful of private laboratories in the country that test DNA samples for law enforcement agencies, suspicious spouses and others with a need to know By Lilly Rockwell Originally published in the Apr/May 2010 issue of 850 Business Magazine
Visitors to the industrial office building might confuse the comfortable waiting room for a doctor’s office, with its chairs, magazines and receptionist window. But if the double helix sculpture in front of the building didn’t give it away, this is no doctor’s office.
Trinity DNA was the state’s first private DNA testing laboratory. Behind that waiting room are labs built to study the human body’s basic building blocks, which offer a unique biological signature. White-coated scientists examine blood or saliva samples with microscopes, extracting DNA to be analyzed in special machines.
Trinity DNA is the brainchild of Pensacola native Candy Zuleger, who used to work as a forensic DNA scientist for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. With no background in business, Zuleger sought the advice of the University of West Florida’s Small Business Development Center before striking out on her own.
Though her private lab was the first in the state, opening in 2004, others quickly followed. Law enforcement agencies use the private labs to outsource DNA testing that they can’t handle. Private individuals sometimes hire them to learn the true identity of a child’s biological parent or even to discover whether a spouse is cheating.
“It was scary,” said Zuleger, who used her own funds and a bank loan to start the company. “First of all, we couldn’t just open our doors and say ‘Hey, we do DNA testing.’ You have to get accredited.” That meant months of validating equipment, writing down procedures and then passing inspection before being able to bill a single customer. In the end, Trinity did pass inspection, and the five-person company, based in Milton, 20 miles east of Pensacola, has thrived for six years.
Zuleger said that when she decided to start her own business, she could have opened it anywhere. Since DNA is sent in through Fed-Ex, it didn’t matter where she was located. After scouring several Florida counties, Zuleger said economic development officials for Santa Rosa County lured her with an attractive package of tax incentives, cheap land and refunds for money spent on expensive office equipment.
“A lot of people drive up and say, ‘What are you doing at an industrial park?’” Zuleger said. “I have another acre behind me to expand the business if I need to.”
TEAM Santa Rosa Economic Development Council spokeswoman Ildi Hosman said Trinity was an attractive company for the region because of its high-paying jobs and scientific focus.
Trinity’s prices range from $150 just to determine if there is DNA to $1,150 to extract DNA from difficult material, such as bone or teeth.
Zuleger also testifies regularly as an expert witness at criminal trials, brought in to explain what DNA evidence was found at the scene and how it relates to the case.
After receiving her master’s degree in cellular and molecular biology from the University of West Florida, Zuleger went directly from there to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, where she was a member of a six-person team that performed forensic DNA analysis. She left that job in 2004 to start Trinity DNA.
Now there are at least a dozen other private DNA firms across the country. As the accuracy of DNA testing improved, and more law enforcement agencies relied on it to pinpoint suspects, the demand for testing exploded. Not only was more DNA collected from crime scenes, but old cases with preserved DNA were reopened and examined.
In 2005, the last year the U.S. Department of Justice polled publicly funded crime labs, there was a 37-percent increase from 2002 in the number of DNA cases submitted and a 77-percent increase in their backlogs from just the year before. A case is backlogged if it remains in a lab for 30 days without a report or additional analysis.
Increasingly, these law enforcement agencies are farming out some of their work to private laboratories such as Trinity DNA. Physical proximity isn’t a requirement — Zuleger’s first client was in Miami Valley, Ohio. She also has worked for the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and recently took on a law enforcement agency in Bermuda. Most of her work — she estimates 90 percent — comes from law enforcement agencies.
The majority of Trinity DNA’s competitors are located out of state. One, called DNA Diagnostic Center, boasts on its Web site that it provided DNA testing to determine the father of now-deceased Playboy Playmate and reality television star Anna Nicole Smith’s baby, saying that it has experience working with high-profile paternity cases.
Trinity DNA doesn’t mention specific cases on its Web site, choosing instead to emphasize that it is a “serious business” that provides “expert, high-quality DNA analysis.”
When Zuleger first got into the DNA testing business in 1996, it was a new field that was still in its infancy. The chances of a certain DNA sample being seen again in another person were 1 in 50,000 then. Now there’s better accuracy — if two DNA samples match, there’s a 1-in-a-quintillion (that’s a 1 followed by 18 zeros) chance of it being seen again.
“You’re not expected to see that profile again,” Zuleger said.
Normally, DNA is sent to Trinity DNA through Fed-Ex in a sealed box. A typical sample involves blood, saliva or other bodily fluids.
Zuleger said DNA testing is nothing like how it is depicted on television shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” For starters, she doesn’t go out to crime scenes, the samples come to her in the laboratory. Zuleger said those shows make it seem as if the DNA can be determined in “an hour.” In reality, it takes days to appropriately analyze DNA and determine if there is a match.
“That’s the biggest misconception we fight against,” she said. It’s rare she knows many of the details of a case she’s working on, other than it’s a sexual assault or a homicide.
“I’m lucky if I get a paragraph,” Zuleger said.
“It’s good you don’t get too emotionally involved, especially with the child cases. Those are the most horrible.”
She has worked on several high-profile cases, Zuleger says, but isn’t allowed to discuss them. An Internet search reveals Zuleger was involved in testing DNA for a high-profile 2005 Bay County murder involving a mother and her three young sons, who were between the ages of 3 years and 3 weeks old. At a trial for Wesley Williams, the father of two of the children, Zuleger testified for the defense, saying that DNA found on tape used to suffocate the children didn’t contain DNA from Williams. Nevertheless, Williams was found guilty in 2009 and sentenced to life in prison.
Zuleger said Trinity gets new clients after being notified of requests for proposals sent out by law enforcement agencies looking for private labs. Since there are only a dozen other private labs that can do forensic DNA, Zuleger has a 1-in-13 shot of getting the work. She currently works with agencies in Arizona, Louisiana and Bermuda.
Private individuals will also provide samples, either by using Trinity’s own DNA collection kit, by coming in and getting someone at the lab to take a mouth swab, or by going to a collection agency. Zuleger said she has seen some surprising cases, such as women testing multiple men to determine the father of their child, or a suspicious husband bringing in panties dug out of a wife’s laundry to be tested for semen.
“All of this is kept confidential,” she said.