DNA machine promises to catch killers, identify bodies, assist rape victims

Family gets closure after Orange County Sheriff’s Office uses new technology

ORLANDO, Fla. – In the early morning hours of May 19, 2019, bystanders scrambled to pull a driver out a red Kia SUV that had crashed on Narcoosee Road in Orange County.

The intense flames, though, made it impossible. The driver was burned to death beyond recognition.

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Later that morning, Brenda Pedroza said her older sister, Janna Lee Snelling, didn’t show up for a family gathering.

“We don’t miss family events,” Pedroza said. “She didn’t show up. And I knew already that when she wasn’t picking up the phone that something was wrong.”

Snelling, a phlebotomist, was a much-loved key member of the family.

“She was the purest form of kind and love,” Pedroza said. “She worked at the same job since she was 16 years old as a volunteer. While her time here on Earth, she enjoyed helping people and save lives. She was a phlebotomist for the Florida’s Blood Center, now renamed OneBlood. She was a true advocate for life missions and saving lives.”

Pedroza began calling hospitals, jails, and eventually the Orange-Osceola County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“At that moment, I knew if she isn’t responding to anything, the last thing on my list, the one thing I didn’t want to do, was contact the ME’s office because that makes it too real,” Pedroza said. “I felt her, I felt her on my chest, almost like screaming, ‘Something’s wrong.’”

The medical examiner told Pedroza that a “Jane Doe” had been brought into the morgue the same day her sister disappeared, but the body was unidentifiable.

“They needed dental records,” Pedroza said.

But the only dental records Pedroza was able to obtain weren’t sufficient.

Pedroza suspected the body was that of her sister because troopers confirmed the crash victim had been riding in a red Kia SUV. But she needed to know for sure.

“They could not release her,” Pedroza said. “And that did not sit well with us. We could not find any closure in that.”

Pedroza and her family could have waited up to six months for DNA results to come back from the state FDLE crime lab, comparing her mother’s DNA to a sample taken from the body, but Pedroza, desperate for an immediate answer, discovered a better, quicker way -- ANDE Rapid DNA.

Pedroza, through her internet research, learned that some law enforcement agencies were testing a device called ANDE, a DNA-analyzing machine that could compare a sample to another and deliver results in about 90 minutes.

Pedroza asked the Orange County Sheriff’s Office if, by chance, it might have the machine and was surprised to find out it did.

“However, it had not been tested,” Pedroza said.

She insisted that the Crime Lab at the Sheriff’s Office take a DNA sample from her mother and compare it to a sample from the body, since her mother would share half of her DNA with Snelling.

The Sheriff’s Office agreed and within an hour announced it had a match.

“From something like no guarantees, it’ll take five months, to an hour,” Pedroza said. “They were able to identify that that was Janna in the ME’s office and right then and there we were able to do funeral arrangements.”

Forensic biologist and Orange County Sheriff’s Office Crime Scene Investigator Sarah Koerber did the testing.

“ANDE gives full closure,” Koerber said. “It gives the families what they need to move on and actually grieve their loss.”

Koerber said the Sheriff’s Office is currently using ANDE to compare DNA samples from crime scenes and obtain almost immediate results.

“With CSIs out there, detectives can be interviewing people and while they’re doing that we can start running some of those blood samples,” Koerber said.

ANDE is also being used to identify buried or decomposing bodies.

“It’s a big deal as we can get DNA in under two hours by using the ANDE system in comparison to conventional DNA testing, which takes weeks, months, possibly even years,” Koerber said. “We’re able to use it in criminal investigations or identifying unidentifiable remains or decomposed bodies or skeletons that we find in our crime scenes in the woods.”

Koerber said getting results in minutes instead of months means swift justice for families.

“With traditional DNA testing, we would have to get back to the office, package our swabs, submit our evidence, write a laboratory submission, and we have to courier it to the [state FDLE] crime lab,” Koerber said. “They would have to prioritize it and run their samples the way they do and that would take weeks at best. And meanwhile the killer is long gone.”

Snelling’s case was the first successful use of ANDE by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.

“It should not stop with her, they have this technology that can do so much more,” Pedroza said. “We should not be the only family to find that closure comfort. Other families deserve that same respect, they deserve to know. And there’s a way to do it. So why no utilize it?”

While the Orange County Sheriff’s Office is working to obtain accreditation for its forensic lab by the ANSI National Accreditation Board before charging cases based on ANDE, Pedroza has been working with the state to honor her sister by creating a “Drive Safely” sign at the spot where her sister was killed.

“On her birthday, which was a month after the fatal accident, we decided to have a celebration of life versus a funeral and it was beautiful.,” Pedroza said. “More than 130-plus people showed up to the point that we did not have enough chairs or tables for them to sit, so they stood. A close friend of ours did a video tribute in her honor that had everyone in tears. I’ve inserted the link so you can take look and see how truly she was loved and beautiful she was in and out.”

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.