On Oct. 1 of last year, police in Copperas Cove, Texas, responded to a call about a house fire. After extinguishing the fire, investigators found the incinerated body of a 71-year-old man inside.
What looked like an accident turned out to be a murder. And when the case went cold in Texas, it appeared unsolvable – until forensic scientists in Montana turned up DNA information allowing Texas authorities to identify the alleged murderer as Stephan Dean Hogankamp, originally from Kalispell.
“We had no leads whatsoever,” said Detective Michael Oakes of the Copperas Cove Police Department. “That was the key element that we needed.”
After the fire and the discovery of the body, the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Science in Dallas performed an autopsy and determined the victim, Kenneth Eugene Smith, a registered sex offender, had been killed by blunt force injury. Investigators believed the murderer had sustained serious cuts and, due to the fire’s high intensity, was badly burned.
But no one subsequently turned up in any area hospitals with those injuries. Believing the murderer might be avoiding hospitals for that very reason, police put out an alert to the community, offering a $1,000 reward for information on anyone who might have recently sustained severe cuts or burns.
Still, no one came forward, and the case gradually grew stale.
Eight months later, the case ramped up once again when forensic scientists at the Montana state crime lab in Missoula found a DNA match on June 14 for the arson and homicide, in what is known as a “cold hit.”
State crime lab workers are currently plowing through a DNA sample backlog from a staffing shortage that resulted in a lab shutdown in 2005.
The state crime lab receives about 2,500 DNA samples a year from Montana prisons and can currently process about 200 per month, according to Bill Unger, administrator of the Forensic Science Division. To make up the backlog, the state lab has received a federal backlog reduction grant to purchase new equipment and send some of the samples out of state for processing.
“We have the capability of doing DNA, but we’re just having a hard time keeping up with the case work,” Unger said.
In the case of the Texas murder, the lab uploaded about 1,000 samples into the National DNA Index system June 14. The samples are provided by Montana prisons, which take “buccal swabs” of inmates convicted of certain felonies. A buccal swab is basically a Q-tip to the inside of the cheek to collect skin cells.
Four days later, the Montana lab found out one of its samples, Hogankamp’s, matched DNA taken from blood at the crime scene of a murder in Copperas Cove, Texas – blood that did not match the victim’s.
“Texas did not have a clue who this guy was, who the suspect was,” Unger said.
Hogankamp, 23, was convicted of two counts of burglary in Flathead County stemming from a January 2002 offense and of criminal endangerment in 2003, according to the Department of Corrections. He is currently wanted in Montana for breaking probation.
Hogankamp then surfaced in central Texas when he was arrested in Coryell County, June 16, on a misdemeanor drug charge for marijuana.
When the DNA match popped up, Montana crime lab workers set about re-checking its work, mainly to ensure that the original buccal swab sample was collected for a qualifying offense. Occasionally, Unger said, state prisons collect DNA from inmates convicted of less severe charges, in which case the data would not be admissible in court.
But Hogankamp’s DNA was collected properly and the cold hit led to his arrest.
June 21, Texas authorities charged Hogankamp, already in custody, with capital murder and intent to commit robbery. A Coryell County justice of the peace set Hogankemp’s bond at $1 million.
Unger estimates the state crime lab has scored about 25 cold hits over the last six years, “anywhere from sexual assaults to homicides to burglaries.”
“That was a great find for them to be able to solve that homicide,” Unger said.
According to Oates, Hogankamp’s mother has hired a private investigator to dispute some of the data-collection methods used by the Copperas Cove Police Department in the case, so he could not discuss it in much detail yet – though he did reserve praise for the Montana crime lab.
“That lead shed the light on what we needed,” Oates said. “I wish Texas did the same thing that Montana did.”