Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. To learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column, click here.

Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: In Holyk case, scientist’s testimony doesn’t square with investigators’ statements

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

On Sept. 3, 2014, a forensic scientist with the Washington State Patrol spoke to a Spokane Police corporal to report the results of DNA testing in the case of a 15-year-old boy who died after being either hit or nearly hit by a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy who was speeding without lights or sirens.

The scientist, Anna Wilson, told the corporal, Michael Carr, that the boy’s DNA was on the bumper of the deputy’s car.

“A lot of DNA,” she said in a deposition later.

This did not fit the explanation that the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office had been making publicly that the deputy did not hit the boy. The Sheriff’s Office had maintained that the boy swerved and stopped abruptly, went over the handlebars, and was fatally injured when his head struck the pavement.

Wilson recounted the ensuing conversation in a deposition taken by the lawyer representing the boy’s family:

“I did tell him there was a lot of DNA there. He then was shocked. And I explained that those are the results. And he questioned my methods. And then – ”

Q: “He questioned your methods?”

A: “Yes.”

Q: “In what way?”

A: “He just wanted to know if there is any way there could have been a sample switch. And I said, ‘No, there isn’t.’ ”

Q: “Are you used to questions like that from police officers?”

A: “No, I’m not.”

Q: “Have you ever had a conversation like that with a law enforcement officer?”

A: “No. … My opinion was that he did not believe, believe the results, or could not explain.”

That might be a good motto for the way investigators handled the DNA evidence in the Holyk investigation: Did not believe. Could not explain.

Ryan Holyk died the night of May 23, 2014, after an encounter with Deputy Joe Bodman’s SUV in Spokane Valley. Bodman was speeding without lights and sirens at the time, and he was later disciplined for this. Bodman reported initially that he had hit the boy, and that was the assumption until January 2015, when investigators announced that three reviews of the evidence indicated he had not.

No one mentioned that there had been DNA on the bumper, though it is touched on briefly in the investigative report filed by Carr. The DNA evidence became widely public last September, and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich repeatedly said publicly what Carr had said in his report: The boy’s DNA must have been transferred by someone who brushed up against the boy and then the bumper.

(Wilson said that is not consistent with the evidence; more on this later.)

Then last week came the news that the imprint of Holyk’s baseball cap is visible on the bumper of Bodman’s vehicle. This turned the tide again. “The evidence is that there had to be some kind of contact,” Knezovich said this week.

Knezovich said focusing on a single piece of evidence among many does not give the complete picture. He cites the numerous reports that other evidence pointed toward no contact between the bumper and the boy, and said that when contradictory information appeared, his investigators pursued it in good faith. They were baffled by the presence of the DNA, he said, and tried to figure out how to explain it against all the other evidence.

The Holyk family’s attorney, Mike Maurer, disputes many of the investigative conclusions and argues that investigators ignored evidence of what they call a “direct strike.”

There’s a lot to the case, and some of the evidence seems to conflict. But the chain of communications on the DNA evidence – the way information moved or did not move from the forensic scientist to the investigative reports to public pronouncements – raises questions that are hard to square.

In sticking to their narrative of no contact, investigators overspent their credibility on forensics analyst Grant Fredericks. Fredericks was the “expert” who notoriously seemed unable to see baton strikes that everyone else could see in the video of the beating death of Otto Zehm. You wouldn’t stake a case on him if you cared much about credibility. Knezovich and former Spokane police Chief Frank Straub said they recognized this during the investigation and ordered additional reviews for just that reason.

But Fredericks’ analysis of surveillance video in this case remains a baseline of the investigation’s assumptions; Carr, the corporal, cited it repeatedly in his own deposition with Maurer.

Knezovich notes that the DNA and hat evidence were discovered and made public by investigators. “Every bit of evidence has been brought forward by the good work” of the investigators, he said.

When I told him it seemed as if the DNA evidence had been not brought forward so much as dismissed, Knezovich said, “That’s totally wrong.” He said investigators tried hard to reconcile that information with contradictory evidence, and that Wilson had told his investigators they could not rule out a secondary transfer.

“The DNA was taken hugely seriously,” he said. “Hugely seriously.”

After the September 2014 conversation that Wilson discussed in her deposition, Carr filed a new report in the case. His report does not detail any evaluation or discussion from Wilson about the likelihood of a secondary transfer, but concludes, “The more likely, and probable scenario, is that someone at the scene who attempted to help Ryan and had direct contact with him, also touched the bumper of the deputy’s vehicle and deposited Ryan’s DNA.”

Knezovich has gone on to make this assertion many times in public.

But Wilson said no such thing. In her deposition, she said that the DNA on the bumper “is not consistent with being a secondary touch transfer from skin.”

She says she told investigators this in September 2014.

“They did ask me to consider if somebody … touched something and then touched the bumper, would I get a profile like this,” Wilson said. “I said no.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

More from this author