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DNA testing delays frustrate family

August 08, 2009|By TRISH RUDDER

Sheriffs: W.Va. forensic lab results slow

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Charleston, W.Va., had the body of Stephen J. Tamburo Jr. for 13 weeks before he was identified through a DNA sample. 

Tamburo, 62, of Berkeley Springs, went missing in December 2008. A body found in the Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management area on April 25, 2009, was identified as Tamburo on July 24.  

The medical examiner's office found evidence that suggested foul play in his death, which is now being investigated as a homicide.  

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Tamburo's sister, Rosemarie Martin, said chief medical examiner Dr. James Kaplan called her the afternoon of July 24. 

She called the office several times that week to try to find information about the status of her brother, but she was told Kaplan could not talk to her, she said.  

In early July, Donald Tamburo, the deceased's brother, said the family was frustrated with the delays at the medical examiner's office. They believed all along the found body was their brother. 

Donald Tamburo said the medical examiner's office had not treated his brother with respect by keeping his body so long.  

"It should not take that long," he said. 

Martin said when the body was found in April, the family requested DNA testing be performed at a private lab at their expense to get the results quicker. She said the medical examiner's office would not allow it. 

Morgan County Sheriff Vince Shambaugh said unattended death autopsies that are performed in the medical examiner's office take too long. In a case in which he was involved, Shambaugh said it took three months before a man could be buried.  

The man died of a heart attack, Shambaugh said. 

About 5,000 of the 20,000 deaths per year in West Virginia are investigated by the medical examiner's office, Kaplan said. The office looks at all deaths other than natural deaths.  

Kaplan said the medical examiner's office has a staff of five forensic pathologists, who each perform about 300 autopsies a year.  

There are more toxicology or drug-related deaths than in the past, he said. 

Kaplan said the process is slow because before a death certificate can be released, the cause and manner of death must be determined by autopsy, and a review of all medical and other available records must be complete "to do a competent death investigation." 

He said it requires a number of documents sometimes provided by other labs and investigative agencies.  

Kaplan said he believes the office does as "good a job as we can with what we have," but that it could use more toxicologists, pathologists and investigative members.

Dr. Terry Fenger, director of the Marshall University Forensic Science Center, which performs DNA testing for the medical examiner's office, said such testing is "not a one-day deal."

Because of its high standards and accreditation by Forensic Quality Services International, it also performs DNA testing for law enforcement around the country from Miami-Dade, Fla., to the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office, he said.

Fenger said the lab has many projects and prioritization plays a role in how quickly a DNA sample can be tested. The sample is taken from the body at the medical examiner's office and sent to the DNA lab for testing.  

Fenger said there is a lot of paperwork, and before the results are released in the DNA lab, everything is reviewed three times to meet quality standards.

He said in about a month the DNA lab is expanding into an annex that should help speed the process. The staff will have additional workspace, and more staff members might be added, he said. 

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