Chicken Massacre: Did Dog Do It? Court Will Hear DNA Evidence
By CHRIS BURRELL
The DNA results are in, the trial is Wednesday, and if you ask Joan Jenkinson, she'll tell you she has the mass murderer dead to rights.
But this is no ordinary murder case. The 11 victims are all chickens. The defendant is a four-year-old dog from West Tisbury named Serena and Ms. Jenkinson is the town's animal control officer-turned-forensics expert.
"You're innocent until proven guilty," said Ms. Jenkinson, "but the DNA showed pretty well who did it."
Turns out that Serena is the top suspect because she allegedly left some damning evidence at the scene: hairs in the chicken coop.
The killings took place on March 20 at Mal Jones' place on Deep Bottom Cove. It wasn't the first time dogs have invaded the 180-acre compound and left dead chickens in their wake.
"In the last year and a half, three times we've had dog attacks," said Mr. Jones.
He was not only fed up, but determined to find the culprit in the latest attack.
"The dogs went right in the chicken coop, and I found hair stuck in the splinters in the plywood, stuck right in tight," said Mr. Jones. "It was the only evidence I had unless you wanted to try footprints, but those are hard to match."
The hair color was a yellowish-white, and he suspected dogs belonging to his neighbor, Karin Magid. The entire Jones compound is fenced, but dogs, he said, "They can just go down in the marsh."
At first, Mr. Jones wasn't thinking of the DNA lab. He tried - on his own - a little old-fashioned detective work. Ms. Magid, he said, admitted her dogs had in fact killed a Rhode Island Red rooster that she found on her property; she had dumped it in the trash.
Mr. Jones called up the guys at the BFI dump and asked them to watch out for a dead rooster in the trash. Meanwhile, he decided to exhume the victims left on his property. Through this means, he determined any rooster carcass found on Ms. Magid's property wasn't his.
"I could account for all my Rhode Island Reds. I dug ‘em up. I had all whole Rhode Island Reds," he said.
And that's when he thought of the hair wedged in the splinters of his plywood coop. "There are no witnesses, right? You've got to use other methods," he said.
Mr. Jones is renowned on the Island as something of a scientist and inventor himself, but this time, he turned to experts. He would foot the bill for DNA testing, and Ms. Jenkinson was game.
But entering the high-tech world of modern-day forensics doesn't come cheap. "First I went to the FBI hair and fibers office, and they wanted $1,300 a hair," he said.
Undeterred, he started calling around until he found a lab in California that could do the testing for a few hundred dollars. Ms. Jenkinson had the green light and set out to collect samples, and she also agreed that the Magid dogs were prime suspects.
"They're the closest dogs that live in the area that have been known to chase livestock," she said.
In a short time, Ms. Jenkinson felt like one of those characters in the popular television crime drama, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. She was pulling hairs from three dogs: Serena, Tigger and Trucker. Ms. Magid consented to the procedure.
"You have to get the root, the shaft," said Ms. Jenkinson.
When QuestGen Forensics in Davis, Calif. tested the hair samples from the chicken coop and the three dogs, Tigger and Trucker were quickly excluded as suspects.
The samples from Serena lacked enough root material to make a conclusive test, a letter from the California lab stated. Ms. Jenkinson went back to pluck more hair from Serena.
This time, the match was clear: "The DNA profile from Serena matched that of chicken hair at all loci," wrote Dr. Joy Halverson, a veterinarian and the senior scientist at the California lab. "If this were a courtroom, the prosecutor's explanation is that the evidence (ChickenHouseHair) and the reference sample (Serena) match because they originated from the same source, in this case, the same dog . . . . From my experience, I would estimate that the likelihood ratio for this case is well over a million," she continued in her letter to Mr. Jones dated May 29.
Dr. Halverson will not be coming to West Tisbury to testify, a chore she is accustomed to in many other - human - criminal cases.
Providing DNA results for a dog-killing-chickens case is a first for her and the lab, which specializes in DNA testing for criminal investigations and trials.
"I don't get a lot of calls about livestock," she said, admitting that she did lower her fee when she heard Mr. Jones' story.
Indeed, Mr. Jones and his 20-year-old daughter, Carina, are very fond of their chickens. They have the rooster feathers from an earlier massacre resting on the sill of the window looking out over the Tisbury Great Pond.
Carina Jones has at least two chicken cemeteries out on the property that she said are too private to show to just anyone.
One of the hens killed in the March attack had just been nursed back to health by Carina. "I hand-fed her with a syringe," she said. "The next day was the attack, and she was dead."
Mr. Jones has learned how to keep raccoons at bay. He traps one, then shoots it and leaves the carcass out for the vultures to send a message to other raccoons. "For hawks, snakes and cats, there's nothin' like chicken dinner," he said. "But raccoons are smart."
They see the carcass picked clean by a vulture, and they steer clear of the Jones chicken coop.
With dogs, it's different. Mr. Jones holds the dog owner responsible. "I don't want to shoot the dogs," he said. "I shoot the owners' pocketbook."
At Wednesday's trial, justice would come in the form of cash reimbursement for the lost chickens and the $400 for the DNA tests.
Ms. Magid told the Gazette yesterday that she's willing to pay for the chickens, but not the lab tests. "I've written Mal Jones, and I'm more than happy to replace chickens at a fair market value," she said. "The DNA would not have been necessary."
Necessary or not, the modern age of DNA technology will make its first appearance Wednesday at a dog hearing in Howes House.
Conviction rates usually depend heavily on a eyewitness, someone who caught the dog with blood on its paws. "Nobody actually saw the dogs do it, but it's like O.J. Simpson." said Ms. Jenkinson. " I just had a feeling it was that dog."
Now, she will come to the hearing armed with colorful lab results that put Serena in that coop on March 20. She's happy to have the edge.