DNA testing so crucial in solving crimes

Officially, the crime that took place behind a house in Martins Ferry, Ohio, Sept. 20, 1997, may have been listed as a “cold case.” The victim likely did not view it that way for more than two decades.

She was 5 years old when she was raped. The harm her assailant caused is virtually unimaginable for most of us.

Now, she may get some justice though, of course, she carries scars that can never be healed.

Last week, a man named Stephen L. Vargo Jr. was in court in Belmont County, pleading innocent to the 1997 rape. He already was in prison in Pennsylvania, as a result of a 2000 guilty plea in another rape/kidnapping case.

How, after all these years, did Belmont County authorities track down Vargo? He was not listed as a suspect in 1997. “Not even on our radar,” is how Chief Assistant Prosecutor Kevin Flanagan put it.

DNA led to Vargo being charged with the Martins Ferry rape. It had been collected from the little girl in 1997, and taken to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Somehow, in 2016, the FBI matched that DNA sample with Vargo.

Why it took so many years for the match to be made is unclear.

It is known, however, that for many years, “rape kits” containing DNA evidence were left in storage, untested, in Ohio and some other states.

Not long after he became Ohio’s attorney general in 2011, Mike DeWine became aware of that outrageous problem and initiated a program of getting the old sets of evidence tested. Arrests were made in many old, unsolved assaults as a result of DeWine’s efforts. Though he has moved on to become Ohio’s governor, his action on the rape kits will be remembered as one of the best things he ever did as a public official.

Was the Martins Ferry case tied up in that mess? We don’t know. We do know that it was not until 2016, nearly 20 years after the little girl was raped, that a DNA match ensnaring Vargo — who remains innocent until proven guilty — was made.

The case is a reminder of the critical importance of initiatives such as DeWine’s, as well as ongoing efforts to speed DNA testing in criminal cases and cross-check results against databases.

That is something that ought to concern officials in every state — including legislators who appropriate funds for such work.


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