Richmond County criminal DNA matches can take months

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July 7, 2006

The man investigators believe raped two women in Aiken is in jail--and that's where he'll stay for now. 46-year-old Atheanis Elliott was arrested Thursday night near his trailer park home after officers say DNA from Tuesday's attack identified him as the suspect.

News 12 spoke with the victim of Tuesday's attack.

She told News 12 that Sheriff Michael Hunt came to her home to hold her hand and tell her he's sorry the attack happened to her on his watch.

He also told he wanted to be the first to tell her they'd found a DNA match.

In fact, seven minutes after Elliott left her home, investigators arrested him for her rape.

Thanks to DNA and forensic science, this suspect was apprehended quickly. But investigations in Richmond County have a history of delays...and the wait for evidence is impacting current cases.

Unlike several other cities, Augusta does have its own crime lab...but unfortunately, doctors there don't do DNA.

A mere 48 hours is all it took to arrest Atheanis Elliott after the felon's DNA was matched in a database.

What investigators across the river wouldn't give for a speedy turnaround like that...

"I know that they would love to get us evidence as quick as we would love to have it back," says Inv. Scott Peebles of the Richmond County Sheriff's Office. "They are just not able to."

Inv. Peebles is used to waiting.

As a violent crimes investigator, he relies on DNA evidence, but due to backlogs and understaffing throughout Georgia's crime labs, he's waited as long as one whole year for results.

"A lot of times you just have to rely on good old fashioned police work," he says.

Case in point: Sherry Murphy was raped and severely beaten last January. DNA evidence was submitted within days, but conclusive results weren't returned for three months.

"If you have a named suspect, you get your tests back a lot faster," says coroner Grover Tuten.

Tuten guesses Aiken County retrieved its results so quickly after having pegged Elliott a suspect. Also, a full DNA test takes at least ten days; Tuten says a rapid test was likely used in this case.

But Tuten isn't slamming Georgia's crime labs.

In fact, he credits the state for planning ahead by providing more funding for more forensic scientists: "The state crime lab was so backed up as of last year that Governor Perdue put $5 million in the GBI's budget to outsource the specimens for testing."

That's a move investigators hope will fast track their cases so they can "tag and bag" more criminals.

We've been hearing rumors that Governor Perdue could be adding even more forensic scientists to crime labs across the state...maybe one even here in Augusta.

News 12 has learned more about the DNA officers used to match Elliott to the crime in Aiken County.

According to officers, Elliott was arrested in March 2001 for assault and battery high and aggravated nature. He was convicted and sentenced to one year.

In March 2002, Anderson officers arrested him again, this time for strong-arm robbery. He was convicted and sentenced to seven years.

Officers believe this was the charge that had him put into the DNA database.