Did Missing DNA Thwart Hunt For Serial Killer?

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Police in Milwaukee say they have caught up with a serial killer who terrorized the city for more than two decades.

Authorities filed seven murder charges Thursday against 49-year-old Walter E. Ellis, who has been linked to the killings of at least nine women. While police are proud of their work in the case, some in Milwaukee are asking why the alleged killer's DNA sample went missing and why a different man may have been wrongly convicted and imprisoned.

Deputies lead alleged serial killer Walter E. Ellis into court on Sept. 9, 2009. i

Deputies lead alleged serial killer Walter E. Ellis into court Wednesday. hide caption

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Deputies lead alleged serial killer Walter E. Ellis into court on Sept. 9, 2009.

Deputies lead alleged serial killer Walter E. Ellis into court Wednesday.

Prostitutes Targeted

In October 1986, Milwaukee police found two prostitutes strangled to death just one day apart. Six years later, another prostitute was killed; over two decades, 20 prostitutes were found strangled.

It wasn't until May, however, that police confirmed suspicions that a serial killer had been on the loose. Ellis' name kept popping up in crime reports, so police went to his home, got a DNA sample from his toothbrush and arrested him Saturday at a hotel.

"We're announcing today the culmination of the labors of many people, in many agencies, today with the arrest of a person we've linked to the homicides of nine women over a 21-year period," Police Chief Ed Flynn said Monday.

Ellis has been charged in the murders of seven women so far, and that number could grow as investigators review the cases of another 20 strangled prostitutes.

Allegations Of Neglect

Why did it take so long to find a suspect? Flynn says prostitute homicides are hard to solve. He says his detectives recently began reviewing the women's murders.

"We looked at every sexual assault investigation over the course of 23 years," he said. "There were 16,000 of them. They looked at 6,000 prostitution-related arrests over that period of time. They submitted hundreds of names for DNA profiles for people that were in the system."

Flynn says though the cases might have gone cold, they were never put on the back burner, as some critics are charging.

LaVerne McCoy, who retired from the Milwaukee Police Department in January, says the prostitute murders were not a high priority.

She says the victims may have been seen as a "disposable portion of society, that who gives a crap about them?"

One of the women was 37-year-old Sheila Farrior, who was killed in 1995.

Her father, Sandy Farrior, lives in a small house less than a mile from where his daughter's body was found.

"[The police] don't have a very good track record," he says. "They lose things. They make mistakes."

Misplaced DNA

Police say they could have arrested Ellis sooner if his DNA had been on file.

A sample was taken in 2001 when he was in prison for a different felony, but nobody can find it, and officials say that may have cost at least one woman her life.

Stan Stojkovic, who teaches criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says he is not surprised by the missing DNA.

"If you look at these kinds of murders and cases that involve multiple victims over multiple years, it is not unusual to find lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies, loss of evidence, poor investigative techniques, poor evidence collection," he says.

Although missteps may be common in these kinds of cases, one man says he was the victim of bad police work.

Chaunte Ott, who spent 13 years in prison for murder, is suing Milwaukee for wrongful conviction.

Ott was released in January after DNA testing connected the victim to a different man: Walter Ellis.

Erin Toner reports from WUWM in Milwaukee.

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