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THE BETTY CLOER MURDER CASE
IS THE DNA QUESTIONABLE?

by Virginia McCullough

On June 19, 1971 the body of 21-year-old Betty Marie Cloer was discovered in Cameron Park, California. The pretty young woman was found 30 yards off the east side of Cambridge Road approximately one-half mile on the south side of Highway 50, the main thoroughfare from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe. El Dorado County Sheriff’s deputies responded to the scene to find her laying face up clad only in a bra. She had suffered three gun shot wounds. One empty .32 cartridge and one loaded .32 cartridge were found at the scene. Her face had been bludgeoned so severely she was unrecognizable. It was speculated that she had been beaten with a rock. Blood was found on the bra found on Cloer’s body. It was later determined that the blood corresponded with a bullet wound to Cloer’s chest. Authorities found no evidence of sexual assault despite the condition of her body.

Law enforcement interviewed witnesses at Cloer's apartment complex in Sacramento, California immediately after her murder. They said that the last time anyone saw Betty Cloer alive was in the early morning hours of June 19, 1971 when she returned to her apartment to borrow a jacket and arrange for a friend to baby-sit her young son. She told them that she was on the way to Lake Tahoe with a man she had met that evening. She seemed happy and excited about the trip.

Many young women were murdered under mysterious circumstances similar to those which befell Betty Cloer in the ten year period between the late 1960s through the late 1970’s. The rash of killings of beautiful women in their early twenties baffled authorities throughout Northern California, Oregon and Washington.

Many murders similar to Ms. Cloer’s went unsolved and went “cold”. Task forces were formed and reports generated listing cases considered related in locations, methods of operation and opportunity.

Decades passed. Then in October 2000, Governor Grey Davis obtained a $50 million grant from the federal government to establish California’s Cold Hit program to process backlogged evidence for DNA profiles and to attempt to match them against profiles contained in CODIS, the national DNA database. (Convicted Offender DNA Index System or Combined DNA Index System, USFBI).

In April 2002 El Dorado County Investigator Hal Lamb began investigating the 1971 homicide of Betty Cloer in the hope of discovering biological evidence. Such evidence could be explored using the rapidly developing DNA science now supported by a well funded DNA database. The technology had received world wide publicity in the infamous murder trial of O.J. Simpson. Defendant Simpson’s “Dream Team” also educated the public about the fallibility of DNA science during daily television coverage.

Deputy Hal Lamb was a seasoned detective who had been employed by the El Dorado County Sheriff’s office since 1979. Like the majority of law enforcement personnel nationwide Lamb did not have a great deal of experience in the requirements of collecting and properly maintaining biological samples for the new science of DNA testing.  Nevertheless he knew how to conduct a thorough investigation and he did not want to leave unsolved homicides on the books when he retired. He pursued a solution to the brutal murder of Betty Cloer.

In January 2003 Detective Sgt. Hal Lamb confirmed that investigators did get a “cold hit” in the state’s DNA database but said that the match was just the first step in an investigation that would take months to compete. The name of the suspect was not released at that time.

On April 8, 2003 Sgt. Lamp traveled 75 miles from his office in Placerville, California to Solano State Prison in Vacaville. He went there to visit a prisoner named Philip Arthur Thompson and deliver a search warrant requiring Thompson to allow his buccal saliva) to be taken. Lamb told Thompson that his name had come up in the investigation of the murder of Betty Cloer in 1971 . Investigator Lamb did not tell Philip Arthur Thompson that he had already been notified by the California State Department of Justice lab that there was a tentative match from bodily fluids allegedly obtained from panties Hal Lamb had identified as belonging to murder victim Betty Cloer.

Lamb swabbed the inside of Thompson’s check to get the sample and he placed in into the buccal kit envelope. The two men talked and Thompson offered to submit to a polygraph to clear himself of suspicion. Lamb never arranged any lie detector test for Thompson.

Instead, in October 2003 Thompson was served with an arrest warrant and he was transferred to the El Dorado County Jail. He has been in custody there ever since.

Thompson’s Preliminary Hearing was not held until November 2005. At that hearing Thompson’s defense attorney Dain Weiner found that on April 8, 2003 when Detective Lamb obtained Thompson’s DNA he put the sample in his car. Then, instead of continuing on an additional 35 miles to the DOJ lab in Richmond to deliver Thompson’s buccal sample to be tested, he took it back to his office in Placerville and placed it in the unlocked file cabinet in his office. In that same file cabinet was also the biological evidence on the bra and panties found at the crime scene in 1971.

Thompson’s Preliminary Hearing was held in November 2005. A Preliminary Hearing is held to determine whether or not there is sufficient evidence to hold a defendant over for trial. At this hearing defense attorney Dain Weiner cross-examined detective Hal Lamb. The PX numbers refer to the Preliminary Hearing transcript page numbers.

Q. (WEINER) Is that standard procedure, to keep that type of evidence in your office rather than the evidence room?

A. (LAMB) It was my procedure. (PX 169)

Lamb also explained the almost two week delay between the time he took the buccal sample and the time he delivered it to the DOJ lab.

Q. (WEINER) Is there a particular reason that the sample was not taken down to Richmond until 15 days after it was collected?

A. (LAMB) There was some other things I wanted to submit to the Richmond laboratory, and I wanted to make an appointment with Angie Moore to meet with her. As to why it took that long, I don’t recall. (PX 369)

Following the fifteen-day delay, on April 24, 2003, Lamb testified he delivered the buccal sample to Angelynn Renee Moore, a criminalist with the ‘Department of justice DNA laboratory in Richmond, California on April 24, 2003. (PX 367).

This particular buccal sample that Lamb delivered to the Richmond lab was a reference sample (i.e. a sample that came from a known source). A known reference sample is taken so that it can be compared to an unknown DNA source from a crime scene.

The unknown DNA source in this case was a bra and a pair of yellow panties, allegedly connected to Betty Cloer. The bloodied bra was found on her body. The bra's color is variously referred to as blue, or pale blue, or white. The yellow panties were found 90 yards away from the body. Law enforcement at the time referred to the area where the body and clothing were discovered as a "lover's lane". Cold case investigator Hal Lamb had delivered the bra and panties to the Richmond crime lab in 2002. It was almost a year later when Lamb met with Thompson and obtained the buccal sample.

The lab received the bra and panties on July 10, 2002. At the preliminary hearing, criminologist Angelynn Moore noted that she had obtained the panties and the bra from the evidence vault refrigerator at the Richmond lab.  What condition were these two items in when Ms. Moore received them?  Ms. Moore testified that when she took them out of the vault refrigerator, the panties were in a gold 6-by-9 inch manila envelope which was inside a larger manila envelope that also contained the bra. (PX 429-430)

At the Preliminary Hearing the DNA expert for the defense was Robert Blasier. Blasier had cemented his reputation as a member of defendant O. J. Simpson’s “Dream Team”. Together with attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, Blasier pointed out serious problems in the handling of Simpson’s blood after it was drawn by a medical technician and placed into the hands of detective Philip Vannatter.

Primary defense attorney Johnny Cochran said it best when he asked the question: “For what purpose was Vannatter carrying Mr. Simpson’s blood in his pocket for three hours and a distance of 25 miles instead of booking it down the hall at Parker Center?”

The answer to that open ended question led many to believe that Simpson’s blood, discovered much later on his socks and on the gate to his wife’s home, and then containing preservatives might well have been planted.

Now ten years after the jury brought back a not guilty verdict in the O.J. Simpson case, Robert Blasier would question DOJ criminalist Angelynn Moore about DNA evidence in the Betty Cloer murder case. This evidence had been held in Detective Hal Lamb’s unlocked file cabinet for almost two weeks before delivery to the DOJ lab.

Questioned by Blasier, Ms. Moore testified as follows:

Q. (BLASIER) And the panties, which is the main item of evidence in this case, that was in an envelope that was – there were no initials, and there was no date whatsoever on that envelope, indicating who sealed it and when they sealed it. Isn’t that correct?

A. (MOORE) There’s nothing on the seal itself.

Q. (BLASIER) And that’s not correct scientific procedure?

A. (MOORE) I agree. (PX 430)

Next, Blasier addressed the issue of the use of plastic to store evidence.

Q. (BLASIER) The plastic that the panties were wrapped in, could you tell whether or not – was that a plastic bag that somebody had sealed them in? Could you tell?

A. (MOORE) I couldn’t tell that the bag wasn’t sealed or the plastic wasn’t sealed in any way.

Q. (BLASIER) But was it a bag?

A. (MOORE) Let me refer to – I have a picture of it. It appears to be a bag. I don’t recall for sure whether it was actually formed in the bag or just wrapped in plastic.

Q. (BLASIER) So this was from the envelope that did not have a date, did not have initials on it, and inside there was not only the panties but some sort of a plastic bag that was – that you couldn’t really tell what it was in terms of whether it was a container within a container or something else.

A. (MOORE) It was.. must be plastic that was – that the panties were contained in.

Ms. Moore acknowledged that it was improper procedure to collect an item that might have biological evidence on it, such as the pair of panties, in a plastic bag. (PX 431)

Then on recross-examination Defense Attorney Dain Weiner, elicited the following testimony from Lamb:

Q. (WEINER) So you removed them (referring to the bra and panties) from evidence on May 2, 2002, but you didn’t deliver them – you didn’t deliver them down to the Department of Justice until 13 days later? (PX 372)

A. (LAMB) That’s correct.

Q. (WEINER) Where were they from the time you removed them from evidence to the time you took them down to the Department of Justice?

A. (LAMB) Secured in my office.

Q. (WEINER) Locked in a file cabinet?

A. (LAMB) Yes.

Q. (BLASIER) Any particular reason that you removed them from the evidence room on the 2nd but didn’t actually deliver them for another 13 days?

A. (LAMB) I don’t recall. Something was going on, obviously.

Q. (WEINER) Is that standard procedure, to remove items from evidence and keep them in your office until you transport them somewhere else?

A. (LAMB) That’s my procedure, yes.

Q. (WEINER) that standard procedure?

A. (LAMB) It’s my procedure.

Q. (WEINER) Once again, your file cabinet is not refrigerated?

A. (LAMB) No, it’s not.

Q. (WEINER) Anybody else have access to your office?

A. (LAMB) No.

Further testimony revealed details of how the evidence was stored within the file cabinet.

Q. (WEINER) Can you tell us how they were stored in your file cabinet? Were they placed in a paper bag – or, I mean how were they stored? (PX 373)

A. (LAMB) They were placed in – I think they were initially packaged in a plastic bag, and then I put them inside of an evidence envelope.

Q. (WEINER) Okay. Let me back up a little bit. When you say they were in a plastic bag, were they both in one plastic bag?

A. (LAMB) The panties were separate from the bra. Is that what you’re asking?

Q. (WEINER) Yes.

A. (LAMB) They were separate.

Q. (WEINER) They were separate, but they were both enclosed in plastic?

A. (LAMB) The panties were. The bra, I don’t recall if it was packaged separately in plastic or not.

The testimony at Thompson’s Preliminary Hearing clearly established when Lamb decided to submit evidence from Betty Cloer’s murder file to the DOJ’s Richmond lab, he pulled the panties and bra out of the El Dorado County Sheriff’s evidence room to examine it. Sometime during a 13-day period commencing May 2, 2002, Lamb noticed a crusty substance on the inside crotch area of the blood-stained panties. He decided to submit them for analysis to determine if the evidence contained DNA that could be compared to that found in the CODIS system.

When retrieved for testing by Ms. Moore at the Richmond lab, the panties were in a small manila envelope that was inside a larger manila envelope that also contained the bra. The envelopes contained no signatures and no dates documenting the information necessary to establish a chain of evidence.

Most evidence rooms maintain a strict chain of custody and storage practices to guard against the contamination or degradation of biological evidence. Standard procedures usually require individuals checking evidence out to sign and record the date and time of removal. It is also required to sign and date the evidence container to record the same information, thus clearly documenting a chain of evidence. In addition biological samples may require refrigeration or other special handling such as strict storage procedures to prevent the cross contamination of DNA samples.

In the case of victim Betty Cloer and defendant Philip Arthur Thompson, were these procedures adhered to by Investigator Hal Lamb?

Once again defense attorney Robert Blasier questioned criminalist Moore.

Q. (BLASIER) On page 23 of 110, you describe Item 11, the panties – the sperm fraction of the panties, as – and I’m referring to your microscopic examination in the middle of the page there.

A. (MOORE) Okay.

Q. (BLASIER) You say you identify some sperm, microscopically, but you say it’s surrounded by spongy green debris. Do you see that note?

A. (MOORE) Yes.

Q. (BLASIER) Were you able to determine what the spongy green debris was?

A. (MOORE) No. (PX 432)

Further cross-examination revealed:

Q. (BLASIER) Okay. And, then, ultimately in the testing process, did you do anything to remove that spongy green debris from that sample?

A. (MOORE) No, because I don’t even know what it was.

Q. (BLASIER) You can’t rule that out that that – that the DNA that is consistent with my client came from this spongy green debris as opposed to sperm, can you?

A. (MOORE) No. (PX 433)

An excerpt from a 1996 article by Christopher B. Mueller from the Hasting Law Review points out how Lamb’s treatment of the DNA samples may weaken the case against Philip Arthur Thompson. It is virtually a model that illustrates how Los Angeles Police Detective Philip Vannatter, a veteran officer like Lamb, delayed delivering O. J. Simpson’s DNA blood sample to the evidence room. His actions failed to adhere to the chain of evidence rules and it allowed the “Dream Team” to infer that crucial DNA evidence could have been planted. [Christopher B. Mueller, Introduction: O.J. Simpson and the Criminal Justice System on Trial, 67 U. Colo. L. Rev. 727 (1996):

At the close of the preliminary hearing El Dorado Superior Court Judge Daniel B. Proud found sufficient evidence to hold Philip Arthur Thompson over for trial on one count of murder in the death of Betty Elizabeth Cloer. He commented that the charges would have been dismissed except for the DNA evidence.

It was later stipulated by both the prosecution and the defense that the DNA evidence would be re-tested.

The trial is currently scheduled to begin February 19, 2008.

Virginia McCullough © January 22, 2008