Suzi Dodt’s on a mission to return the nameless dead to their loved ones

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Four years passed.

Then, in 2002, Phoenix detective Don Newcomer, who investigates unsolved sexual assault cases, asked the state crime laboratory to examine a rape kit from an October 1995 case for presence of DNA evidence.

Then 20 years old, the alleged victim in that case had gone to the county hospital after two young men allegedly assaulted her in her bedroom.

The two suspects at the time were 15-year-old Jonathan Soto and his 17-year-old pal Alfredo Rivera, both of whom denied wrongdoing.

The woman insisted that she wouldn't cooperate in a police investigation, and the case died.

The rape kit sat inside a frozen police storage room for years, until Newcomer decided to revisit the case.

But because of a backlog at the state crime lab, Newcomer's request for examination of the kit wasn't completed until late 2004.

The lab then reported it had found sperm from both vaginal and rectal swabs taken from the woman, but no names associated with the samples immediately emerged from the police computer.

Then, in late 2006, according to Newcomer's police report, the lab matched DNA taken from a prisoner with the vaginal swabs of the alleged rape victim back in 1995.

The prisoner's name was Alfredo Rivera, one of the original investigative leads in the long-forgotten case.

In July 2005, a county judge had sentenced Rivera to 17 years for armed robbery. By law, he had been forced to give a DNA sample to authorities after his conviction.

Rivera's sample had been entered into CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), an FBI-funded computer system that holds and searches millions of genetic profiles submitted by crime labs around the nation.

Rivera's DNA did not turn up on the rectal swabs taken from the woman, but those of an unknown male did.

In November 2006, the state lab contacted Newcomer with some more unexpected news: It now had matched DNA taken from a femur bone of that skeleton found near Fountain Hills in 1998 to the rectal DNA swab taken from the woman in 1995.

"I was just following the leads, and it backtracked to the rape situation," says the veteran detective. "It was just wild."

Suzi Dodt knew all about the Fountain Hills case, which she referred to as 98-1033. It was one of the cases she had put on the new Web page she started in August 2006.

Newcomer soon noted that a Jonathan Soto had been the other investigative lead in the 1995 assault case. He also learned that Soto's mother had filed a missing-persons report in 1998, before the remains had been found near Fountain Hills.

Newcomer contacted the victim, now married with children, about the decade-old assaults. She told him she wanted to be left alone.

Authorities located Soto's biological parents, and his mother provided her DNA as a means of verifying his identity by way of comparing their genetic material.

In March 2007, the testing revealed that the skeleton out in Fountain Hills was Jonathan Soto, onetime rape suspect and possible murder victim.

Suzi Dodt soon went on her Web page and marked 98-1033 in big, red letters: SOLVED.

Most violent-crimes and missing-persons detectives devote their time to recent cases, and investigations of older crimes often fall by the wayside.

"Some agencies, like Phoenix's, are way into it," Suzi Dodt says. "But others don't even have a missing-persons unit, and that makes things so much harder."

Mike Thorley, a Phoenix police detective who worked the missing-persons detail for years, says Dodt is providing an invaluable service.

"Sometimes, we literally have to start from nowhere," he says. "We have nothing at all to work with. That's where Suzi and her site come in."

One of Detective Thorley's cases concerned Jack Myrick, a 20-year-old Phoenix man whose mother reported him missing in 2003.

Nothing of substance concerning Myrick's whereabouts surfaced until last year. Then, Thorley went to Dodt's site and compared a photo of his missing subject with an artist's sketch of a young man, medical examiner's file 03-2838.

That case involved an unidentified murder victim whose body had been found in the desert, also in 2003.

The detective asked Myrick's mother to provide a DNA sample, which a crime lab successfully matched last November to DNA from 03-2838's body.

Another person identified.

Then there's the exceedingly sad case of 15-year-old Victor Rodriguez.

The talented young artist died in April 1999, after getting crushed by a drunken hit-and-run driver whose car jumped a curb near a west Phoenix bus stop.

The driver fled on foot, but police soon found and arrested him.

Not knowing anything about the accident, Victor's mother and stepfather filed a missing-persons report with Phoenix police within a day after their son went missing.

His disappearance followed a verbal spat with his folks about a girl with whom he was spending a lot of time.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin