Mistaken Identity

The use of DNA in criminal cases has become as ubiquitous as fingerprints and photo lineups, sometimes to the detriment of the prosecution.
 
The “CSI Effect,” named for the terribly popular television show that plays fast and loose with the work that real criminalists do, is a recognized phenomenon that has had an impact on some trials where juries have disregarded other evidence and complained about the lack of scientific forensic evidence.
 
There was a time when the average juror knew next to nothing about DNA evidence and courts were forced to decide whether or not to allow this advanced crime-fighting tool that combines statistical methodology and complex organic chemistry.
 
Scientific evidence is not simply admitted willy-nilly in criminal cases. Until 1993, when the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Daubert v. Merrill Dow, courts used a method called the “Frye Test.” Named for the case Frye v. United States (1923), the Frye Test required a “general acceptance” in the scientific community of any theory before it could be used in court. Daubert changed that when the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to the dueling experts by giving judges more authority to decide whether or not a scientific claim had validity. Simply put, Daubert requires a judge to look at whether a scientific test has been subjected to a rigorous review by the scientific community.
 
But enough legal mumbo-jumbo. Let’s get to the facts of the case that led the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to apply the Daubert test to DNA evidence for the first time. Oddly, the case isn’t a sexual homicide — perhaps the most common type of case involving a defendant’s DNA. Instead it involves a couple of rival motorcycle gangs and a sad case of mistaken identity.
 
There has never been much love lost between the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club and the Outlaws Motorcycle Club, two of the four largest motorcycle clubs (the others are the Pagans and the Bandidos) in the world. For much of their existence the Hell’s Angels (along with their allies, the Warlocks) and the Outlaws have been engaged in a guerrilla war with various attacks over territories occurring sporadically across the United States over the years.
 
The two clubs play for keeps. These are not people who simply ride big Harleys and wear leather. The Hell’s Angels, formed in the 1940s in California, and the Outlaws, a Chicago-based association, are organized, generally criminal groups that engage in drug trafficking, murder, and other types of mayhem. They consider themselves to be the 1 percent of the population that cannot or will not live by society’s rules, and because of this much of the violence they are involved in is internecine warfare among various clubs.
 
Occasionally, as the family and friends of David Hartlaub, a Sandusky, Ohio, record store employee, found out, their violence spills over into the other 99 percent’s world.
 
The mistake happened in 1988, but the event that precipitated Hartlaub’s tragic death occurred six months earlier when the Outlaws allegedly shot and wounded Hell’s Angel Cleveland Chapter President Kenneth Yates and stole his patched jacket, which, short of murder, is one of the most serious insults one gang can inflict on the other.
 
That incident occurred outside Joliet, Ill., Reportedly, Yates and another Hell’s Angel had planned an attack against the Outlaws using automatic weapons and other heavy artillery. The attack either never came off or was thwarted and blew back in Yates’s face. As a result, the Outlaws counterattacked and Yates was shot in the foot.
 
Bikers do not simply show up at the clubhouse and ask to join. Like fraternities, there is a certain amount of pledging involved. Fraternities, generally, do not require pledges to plant bombs or kill people to get a patch. The Hell’s Angels and the Outlaws require their probates and associates to prove their worth before they attain full membership, and that’s why Steven Yee, John Ray Bonds and Mark Verdi were in Sandusky on February 27, 1988.
 
Yee, an Ohio native, was a full-fledged member of the Hell’s Angels, and Bonds and Verdi were associates who were working their way through the probationary period. They had come to Sandusky to avenge the attack on Yates and had targeted a yellow van that they believed belonged to a member of the Outlaws MC. Bonds had been present at Yates’s shooting.
 
In fact, the van belonged to Hartlaub, who had absolutely no connection with the Outlaws or any other motorcycle club.
 
Hartlaub closed down the record store where he was employed in Sandusky in February 1988 and headed to a nearby bank to place the day’s deposit into a night drop box. Little did he know that the Hell’s Angels hit squad had been watching his van and followed him to the bank.
 
No one actually saw the hit, but a co-worker who followed Hartlaub to the bank came upon the scene moments later and saw Hartlaub lying on the ground. As he tried to exit the vehicle to investigate, a man described as having a “Hispanic appearance” came up to his car, pointed a handgun at his head and told him to stay put.
 
A second late-arriving witness was able to get a description of the shooter’s car — which she described to the police as a cream or tan color Buick, four door, dirty but in good condition.
 
The Hispanic man ran off in the direction of a nearby hotel. At the same time, someone in Hartlaub’s van roared away in the same direction.
 
Police later found the van abandoned behind the hotel with its engine running and lights on. The gun used in the shooting, a MAC-11 9-mm semi-automatic pistol fitted with a homemade silencer and a multi-round clip with a plastic garbage bag taped on to catch the spent cartridges, lay on the floor between the seats. The gun’s serial number had been obliterated; however, the FBI was later able to “raise” the serial number. The gun turned out to have been owned by a former roommate of Yee, who had owned two such guns and testified that they had been stolen from his car when it was parked outside their apartment.
 
Police found that the gun and the van’s carpet were splattered with blood. However, tests eliminated Hartlaub as the source of the blood. That’s where the DNA testing would eventually come into play because an analysis using DNA tests linked the blood to Bonds.
 
When the Buick containing Yee, Bonds, and Verdi was several blocks away from the crime scene, Verdi, who was driving, made an illegal turn and was stopped by Sandusky police. The probate, who did not have his driver’s license with him at the time, was placed in the back of the cruiser while officers determined if, in fact, he was a licensed driver. The Buick belonged to Yee.
 
The trio was allowed to continue on after the cops determined that Verdi was licensed. They did not talk to Bonds, who was in the back seat of the car.
 
Had they done so, they might have noticed that Bonds was bleeding heavily from a wound caused by a bullet that ricocheted off the van and struck him in the arm.
 
Thanks to an informant, federal officials learned that the Hell’s Angels were planning a retaliatory strike for Yates’s shooting. They knew Yee was a member of the biker club and that Bonds and Verdi were probates.
 
Putting together that tip with the traffic stop of Yee and Verdi near the scene of the crime, authorities targeted Yee and Verdi. They eventually came to believe that Bonds was the third man.
 
On March 9, 1988, local police, along with agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms executed a search warrant on Verdi’s house in connection with an unrelated crime. During the search, officers found evidence of a “hit kit” linking Verdi to the shooting of Hartlaub.
 
The agents subsequently conducted a second search of Verdi’s home. They seized the items they had seen there before, as well as a MAC-11 of the same type as the murder weapon, with its serial number obliterated, a switchblade, a .45 caliber pistol, and a shirt matching the description of one worn at the crime scene by one of the gunmen.
 
In Yee’s car, which the agents tracked down a few days later, the agents found, among other things, spent shell casings which experts later determined came from the murder weapon, and blood in the back seat which the FBI eventually matched with John Bonds’s blood sample by DNA identification.
 
Agents prepared an affidavit seeking to obtain a search warrant for blood and hair samples from Bonds. These samples were the basis for evidence introduced at trial, including evidence that the DNA in Bonds’s blood matched the DNA from the blood found in the back seat of Yee’s car. Bonds was subsequently indicted, but fled before he could be brought to trial; he was a fugitive for several months before being discovered in Kentucky.
 
The men were eventually convicted of federal weapons charges, using the DNA evidence. They appealed the conviction and the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld the use of DNA evidence in the case, marking the first appeals court decision to allow the use of such evidence in federal courts.
 
All three men later pleaded guilty in state court to Hartlaub’s murder and received lengthy prison terms.