MENOMINEE — Forensic scientists and technical staff presented testimony and explained procedures throughout the day Thursday, laying the foundation for the prosecution's scientific evidence in the open murder trial of Gregory Ihander, 49, of Birch Creek Road.
Those witnesses appeared in person and via videoconferencing in Courtroom A of the Menominee County Courthouse, where a jury will deliberate if Ihander killed Jolene Eichhorn, 43, of Carney, in September 2015.
Eichhorn's body was found the morning of Sept. 9, 2015, in the trunk of her white-and-green Saturn vehicle, after it had been abandoned at the Cedar River Marina sometime Sept. 8 or 9.
As Menominee County Prosecuting Attorney William Merkel builds his case for finding Ihander guilty in the stabbing death of Eichhorn, he continued to bring forensic experts and lab staff forward to explain the handling of the evidence collected at two different crime scenes and handled by several different Michigan State Police crime laboratories.
The day started with two witnesses testifying from the MSP Grand Rapids Forensic Laboratory, where samples collected by MSP crime scene team members were sent for DNA analysis. They were followed by Dr. Karla Walker, director of the MedToxLaboratories in St. Paul, Minn., where testing was done of Eichhorn's body fluids for the presence of chemicals; Menominee Police Officer Darrin Kudwa, and MSP Detective Chris Bracket also testified about their involvement at Ihander's residence the day of his arrest. Later in the day, several other MSU crime lab employees traced their involvement in the case.
But the longest time was given to Lisa Oravetz, who works with evidence collection and testing for the MSP Marquette Forensic Laboratory Biological Unit.
Oravetz worked with the crime scene team to collect evidence at both the Cedar River Marina crime scene and at Ihander's mobile home. She testified that she started with the team at the marina in the afternoon Sept. 9, where they worked for two to three hours before being called to the second location.
Oravetz said she helped identify areas at Ihander's home where there might be potential blood evidence and assisted in removing “16 different items in the garbage bag” found in the bathroom of the main bedroom.
Those items were laid out on an emergency blanket set on the floor of the attached garage, photographed and marked, and placed back into the original bag, which was placed inside a biohazard bag, sealed and sent to the Marquette lab, Oravetz said.
That bag, along with other material collected from the two crime scenes; during Eichhorn's Sept. 10, 2015, autopsy in Marquette; and from Ihander, who was being held at the Menominee County Jail, was all sent to the MSP Marquette Crime Lab, where Oravetz was personally involved in examining the items for blood evidence.
She said she used several chemical tests to identify whether spots or stains contained blood and took samples. Among the items she tested for DNA and blood was a pair of sandals found inside the garbage bag in the tub at Ihander's residence. Those sandals were tested for the DNA of the wearer and DNA of the apparent blood stains.
Oravetz was also responsible to see that the known DNA swabs done on Ihander and Eichhorn were separately submitted to the Grand Rapids lab for analysis.
She looked at Eichhorn's clothing, which she said she “examined for suspicious blood traces.”
She also examined a Green Bay Packers' baseball cap, a blue T-shirt, black Nike shorts, moccasins, a hooded sweatshirt and several pieces of jewelry worn by Ihander the day of his arrest.
Using the chemicals to determine if there was any blood on those items, Oravetz said she determined the possibility of blood on the shorts, the hat and the shirt, along with some inclusive results on other items.
Oravetz said she took a swab from the piece of linoleum flooring removed from under Ihander's stove, and sent the sample to the lab in Grand Rapids for DNA testing.
“DNA is a genetic footprint in all of your cells,” she told the jury, saying the crime lab needed to establish the analysis of the known DNA taken from Ihander and Eichhorn to compare it to other samples.
While the crime lab technicians took many samples, Oravetz listed the seven items she sent as: Samples of the suspected blood on the sandals, as well as a “clean” area to possible identify the DNA of the wearer; a portion of the stain found on the flooring under the stove in Ihander's home as well as a possible blood stain on the frame of the kitchen door; a vaginal swab from Eichhorn's body; a cutting from Ihander's shirt; and a cutting from Ihander's shorts.
Both Eichhorn's and Ihander's known DNA samples were “packaged separately because it prevents cross contamination,” she said.
Oravetz said those samples were sent Oct. 15, 2015. On Nov. 9, 2015, she sent a sample of possible blood evidence taken from a hunting knife found on Ihander's property by someone moving the mobile home off the site. Merkel asked Oravetz if she could identify the hunting knife entered into evidence as the one she examined and tested. Wearing gloves before removing the knife from a box and the sheath, Oravetz said it was the same knife.
Defense Attorney Karen Groenhout asked how Oravetz made the decision to send what she did for DNR analysis. “I don't make the decisions until I've examined all of the evidence and talked to investigators,” Oravetz said.
They discussed the blood evidence collected at the marina, and the possibility that other people's DNA could have been involved, but Oravetz told her the choice of not sending DNA samples from the vehicle was because investigators knew Ihander had worked on Eichhorn's car. “We can't pinpoint the time,” Oravetz said. “(Just because) his DNA is in the vehicle, doesn't mean he drove it to the marina.”
Groenhout pointed to all the items found in the bag in the house and asked, “How did you decide what was going to be sent to Grand Rapids? You really only sent a handful.”
Oravetz said she was only allowed to send seven samples to the MSU crime lab for analysis at one time, given the backlog of cases the labs handle. “I was capped on what I could send.”
Groenhout said it appeared only a trace amount of blood was on the shirt and shorts sent for analysis. “Were those the shirt and shorts my client was wearing at the time of his arrest?” she asked. Oravetz said she did not take the evidence, but was told they were.
Groenhout asked if it was unlikely those were clothes worn at the time of a murder, and Oravetz concurred, saying there would have been a large amount of blood present.
Groenhout asked why the lab didn't submit several known DNA samples after it was determined that the blood found on the kitchen doorway was from an unknown person.
She shared copies of emails between Oravetz and another lab employee, Ann Hunt; as well as emails between Oravetz and MSP Det. Sgt. Jean Belanger regarding the unknown DNA and taking other tests.
Oravetz said it was discussed, but never materialized.
Groenhout asked if Oravetz had called Belanger and asked if she thought someone else was involved, “and she said 'absolutely not'?” Oravetz agreed that occurred.
Groenhout also asked why samples were never taken from the handle of the knife. “Don't you agree who is holding the knife is important” she asked. Oravetz said it was important, and to that end, she took swabs of the knife handle and kept them, but said she had exceeded her submission limit and needed a request through the prosecutor's office.
Groenhout then asked about emails regarding procuring an “elimination sample” from Ihander's brother. Oravetz confirmed the emails between her, another lab employee and Belanger, and said the samples were not taken because Belanger said she was unable to get the brother's permission.
Merkel asked Oravetz if it is unusual for forensic lab employees to “play devil's advocate” in discussing possible outcomes to questions in a case.
She said it was not, and agreed it is because the staff is looking for scientific answers to answer those questions.
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