DNA analyst says police can request directed comparisons; early opportunity missed in Messel case

Daniel Messel's mug shots from the 1990s through 2015.
Bloomington killer: new questions
13 Investigates: DNA Evidence
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13 Investigates first told you about a convicted killer being linked to reports of harassment and attempted rape years before IU student Hannah Wilson was murdered.

That story raised questions about DNA samples and whether Daniel Messel could have been matched years before Hannah's death.

Daniel Messel's progression of crime is marked by several mugshots taken between the 1990s and 2015.

According to the Indiana Department of Correction, his DNA profile has been available and searchable since 1997 within the Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS. Simply put, CODIS is the State's combined DNA database that includes DNA profiles from both Indiana and the FBI.

Daniel Messel's DNA Searchable for 20 Years

Images provided by the Indiana State Police show how meticulously samples from crime scenes and collected from inmates are processed by the state forensic lab. Messel's DNA was entered on July 11, 1997, about 20 years ago, following a conviction for battery with a deadly weapon. In 1995, he was convicted of hitting Debbie and Wayne Thompson in the head with a two by four plank of wood. Debbie Thompson suffered a severed artery, her husband Wayne lost part of his ear.

Messel was sentenced to eight years in prison but only served three years of that sentence.

13 Investigates has now discovered police missed a critical opportunity to compare Messel's DNA to evidence in an attempted rape case reported years before he was convicted of killing Hannah. The attempted rape happened September 1, 2012. Messel was arrested and charged in Hannah's death in April 2015.

Hannah Wilson
Hannah Wilson

"It was clear how violent he was; his violent past," said Ted Adams, the Brown County Prosecutor who convicted Messel of Hannah's murder. Adams also discovered a disturbing pattern of behavior by Messel, described by six women who were prepared to testify during the murder trial.

Questions Swirl Around History and DNA of Convicted Killer

Messel, an habitual offender since the 1990s, was also identified in 2012 as the suspect targeting young women in Bloomington.

13 Investigates uncovered the details in an exclusive story on October 30.

One victim, who asked not to be identified told 13 Investigates Bloomington Police allowed Messel to get away with the harassment and possibly more serious crimes until he was arrested for murder.

"They basically just treated me like I was an hysterical woman who had no reason to be calling the police," the victim said, noting that the reports were just a year after the disappearance of IU student Lauren Spierer.

Within a nine-week period between August 29, 2012 and December 2, 2012, police in Bloomington received multiple reports of a suspicious man trying to get women into his SUV. There were also reports of a sexual battery and an attempted rape. The cases appeared to have similarities involving a man who either tried to get women into a silver SUV or who women fought to get away from a man after a night of drinking.

Police questioned Messel after a victim memorized his license plate, but later released him. Bloomington Police actually brought in the sexual battery victim to view a line-up. But the victim could not identify Messel. Still, 13 Investigates learned there was no clear effort to rule Messel out in the attempted rape case, despite the lab identifying suspect DNA under the victim's fingernails.

Indiana Forensic DNA Analyst Discusses Handling DNA Evidence

Melanie Wagner, a forensic DNA analyst with the state, told 13 Investigates the lab works to turn around DNA samples collected from crime scenes within 90 days. According to Indiana University Police, the DNA from the attempted rape case was sent to the lab September 9, 2012. Bloomington Police reports show Messel was brought in for questioning on December 2, 2012, almost 90 days later.

According to University Police, the state lab did not run that suspect DNA through the database because there wasn't "sufficient quantity" for comparison. So the DNA collected from the victim's fingernails sat in the case file.

Wagner said identifying suspect DNA is critical, but no guarantee it will go into the database.

"There might be a circumstance where there's enough DNA to determine there is a foreign person. However it is still too vague to search through the database because it would be like entering the name 'John,' in Google," she explained.

Kristine Crouch, the administrator for Indiana's DNA database, decides which profiles are added or denied. She told 13 Investigates there are strict guidelines. She says Indiana's cut-off points are based on a formula used by the FBI.

"These are policy driven numerical thresholds," Crouch said. "The second thing we consider is the quality of the DNA profile itself. If it's very, very little information, it's not going to provide a useful database search," she added.

Police Can Find DNA Matches Without Using Database

Crouch and Wagner could not talk specifics about the attempted rape case against Messel. However, they told 13 Investigates matching a particular suspect's DNA standard directly with evidence from a victim's case is another effective option police can always ask the lab to perform. Comparing one standard against another does not necessarily require the use of the database.

Analysts at the state DNA lab say they try to run tests on DNA evidence within 90 days. (Photo: Indiana State Police)
Analysts at the state DNA lab say they try to run tests on DNA evidence within 90 days. (Photo: Indiana State Police)
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"Old fashioned police work still very much has it's place in solving crimes," said Crouch. "It is their investigation. It's not the lab's investigation. It's not the state police's investigation. The investigation is run by the submitting agency. If they need us to do something they can let us know," she said, drawing the line to clarify the role of the lab and that of police.

IU Police did eventually run Messel's DNA directly against the DNA found underneath the victim's fingernails, but not until 2016.

The day after Messel was convicted of killing Hannah Wilson, the attempted rape victim called IU Police to say Messel could be her attacker, too.

Court records show the lab compared that DNA from when she scratcher her attacker against a new sample of Messel's DNA. The judge in the murder trial had ordered the collection of a new DNA sample for Messel during his sentencing.

The comparison done by the lab came back a match of one-in-1.17 million.

IU Police Confirms Messel Was Not On Radar As Suspect in 2012 Case

Captain Craig Munroe, a spokesman for University Police, told 13 Investigates the agency had no suspect in the attempted rape case back in 2012 and therefore no one to compare the DNA sample found underneath the victim's fingernails.

Munroe said University Police routinely works very closely with Bloomington Police, by sharing information. And while Bloomington was not involved in the attempted rape investigation, he believes BPD would have known about the attempted rape case.

Bloomington Police declined to speak about Messel's DNA and timeline because of the pending charges against Messel. Currently, Messel's attorneys are seeking to move his case out of Monroe County, citing "public hostility" against Messel.

Accuracy of DNA Matches

Wagner, the state DNA analyst, is expected to testify about the DNA in Messel's upcoming trial. She said DNA match statistics generally have a range of accuracy that swings ten times less or more.

That means for example, in Messel's case, the match of one-in- 1.17 million, could mean a range between 100,000 and 10 million.

"We try our best to get the best sample," said Wagner.

"DNA can't solve every crime. It's just a tool in the tool box, and we love to be helpful when we can," added Crouch.