DNA from Suspected Milwaukee Serial Killer Lost in 2001

By Caleb Groos on September 10, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

DNA recently helped identify the suspect in a string of serial killings in Milwaukee. However, a sample of the suspect's DNA should have been on file since 2001. Though Milwaukee corrections officials have records indicating that they sent the sample to Wisconsin's Department of Justice for inclusion in the state's database, there is no record of it ever being received.

As reported by the AP, Walter E. Ellis is now suspected of being Milwaukee's "Northside Strangler" after his DNA has been connected to nine murders spanning two decades. Police arrested him Saturday after matching DNA from his toothbrush to genetic material found on the nine murder victims, most of who worked as prostitutes in Milwaukee. DNA samples from 20 other strangled prostitutes are still being analyzed for connections to Ellis.

If collection of DNA samples had worked as planned, after 2001, authorities should have been able to connect Ellis to many of the murders. At that point, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that he was in jail on a reckless injury charge. A sample of his DNA was taken under a Wisconsin law passed in 2000 mandating collection of DNA from all convicted felons.

Unfortunately, records show the DNA sample being taken at Oshkosh Correctional Center and sent to Wisconsin's Department of Justice, but after that it appears lost. No records show the sample was received. In 2008, Ellis' file with the corrections department was destroyed because he had been out of the system for more than 5 years.

Though the case illustrates a DNA screw up from the past, it also exemplifies cross-border cooperation. As the Times Online reports, Ellis was finally identified through a collaboration between the Milwaukee chief of police and Britain's National Policing Improvement Agency, which runs Britain's DNA database. One of the British collaborators stated that "[m]y team certainly helped. What they have done is to say, 'This is what we would do in the UK.' There is no question that the UK DNA work is significantly ahead of the US in many respects."

At least one of Ellis' alleged victims was killed after 2001 -- Ouithreaun Stokes, whom Ellis has been charged with murdering in 2007.

In addition to those whom Ellis may have killed after his DNA should have been linked to previous murder victims, Chaunte Ott paid a high price for the loss of Ellis' DNA sample. Mr. Ott was convicted and served 13 years for the murder of teenage runaway, Jessica Payne. As reported by the Times, he was released last January after DNA evidence showed that someone other than Ott left genetic material on Jessica Payne. Now authorities have connected DNA from Walter Ellis and another individual to what was found on Ms. Payne.

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