Synthetic DNA used to catch alleged jewelry thief in Albany

Synthetic DNA used to catch alleged jewelry thief in Albany

ALBANY – Back in April, a local man made off with more than $4,000 in jewelry he allegedly stole from a downtown Albany store.

The evidence was right there for all to see. The suspect, who lives in Albany County and has previous arrests, was filmed by a security camera reaching over the counter at Truman Jewelers on North Pearl Street and taking items out of the glass case while a store employee was in the back.

A month later, Albany police nabbed the suspect, whose identity is being withheld by the Times Union so as not to unfairly influence his pending criminal case.

But it was not just the video that led to the suspect being arrested and charged with larceny. It was also synthetic DNA that helped police nab him.

Synthetic DNA? 

It’s not Frankenstein. And it’s not human DNA.

A Florida company called CSI Protect makes the product, called SelectaDNA, using the components that comprise DNA: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. By putting those substances in special combinations, CSI Protect is able to create unique DNA codes that can be encased in liquid “micro-dots” that are either sprayed on or made to stick to a burglar when a crime happens.

The DNA-filled micro-dots identify a particular store or high-value item,  making them highly effective in helping police match a suspect with a particular crime. The technology has been used in the United Kingdom for years, but is only recently being adopted in the United States, mostly by jewelry stores and high-end retailers.

The store can “mark” suspects either through a special mist that can be sprayed on a suspect or intruder – or it can be applied to items in the store with a special adhesive so it sticks to a suspect.

The micro-dots contain a tracer material that allows them to be detected with an ultra-violet light. They also contain a special DNA strand that gives them a unique identification.

Potential criminals are also warned with signs that if they try to steal something, they will be tagged for police, just like bank robbers who can be are sprayed with a special dye pack that explodes when they open a wad of stolen bills.

Truman Jewelers participated in a pilot program to test SelectaDNA that had the support of several law enforcement organizations, including the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, which believes the technology could lead to more arrests and prosecutions of thieves.

SelectaDNA says stores that use the DNA marking system have been able to reduce thefts by 40 to 86 percent as criminals are deterred when seeing a sign that says the system is in use. The spray is water-based and non-toxic. The special code can remain on a suspect’s skin and clothing for a month-and-a-half, giving police and prosecutors plenty of time to investigate and arrest them.

Although some retailers have used the technology in the New York City area, company officials say this is the first time that a suspect has been arrested and charged after getting sprayed with the DNA. The system was installed at Truman Jewelers last year as part of a program used to test its effectiveness.

“This pilot project was designed to demonstrate the value of forensic marking technology in combating and deterring crime, and assisting with the apprehension of criminals,” said Patrick Phelan, executive director of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police. “Today, we can say definitively that it works.” 

Video of the theft provided to the news media shows the suspect, whose face is blurred to protect his identity, quickly reaching into a glass case at Truman Jewelers while the employee in charge is in the back. Although the theft appears to be aided by an extreme lack of attention by the employee running the store, Albany police insisted that the theft was not encouraged or set up by CSI Project hoping to prove its product’s effectiveness.

The suspect was charged with third-degree grand larceny, Albany Police spokesman Steve Smith said. Conviction on such a felony can result in a sentence of several years in prison if the accused has a history of criminal activity.

In this case, when Albany Police nabbed the suspect, they were easily able to identify that he was sprayed with the SelectaDNA using a UV light.

Although the use of such DNA markers to gain convictions has not yet gained traction in U.S. courts, it provides store owners like Paul Crabbe, who owns Truman Jewelers, with a sophisticated way to track alleged thieves without disrupting the store’s operations.

“As a downtown business owner for over three decades, I’m committed to creating a safe and secure environment in which my customers can shop and my staff can work with peace of mind,” Crabbe said. “This technology provides an added layer of protection, and combined with our proactive policies and the professional work of our law enforcement agencies, ensures we can focus on doing business and contributing to our community.”

Shepherd Communication & Security of Albany installed the system at Truman Jewelers about a year ago.

“Forensic marking technology is poised to revolutionize the way business owners protect their employees, customers, workplaces and assets,” said Richard Ruzzo, managing partner of Shepherd Communication & Security.