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The Somerton Man Case. The body of a man found on an Australian beach close to a major Atomic Testing ground, he was probably poisoned, a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and an unbroken Code page found and associated to him. Set against a Cold War background in 1948, was this man a spy? We think so and this blog focuses on the evidence that was left behind and in some cases missed, the Code page, Dry Cleaning numbers, A Poem and a small, torn piece of paper bearing the words TAMAM SHUD.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Somerton Man: DNA On Fingerprints Card & The Torn TAMAM SHUD Piece

The Torn Piece Could Provide The DNA Needed..

"...many cold cases whose samples were too small or degraded to prove useful are now resubmitting evidence to labs for Touch DNA analysis."

Much has been said in the press regarding Professor Abbott's desire to have the body of the Somerton Man exhumed for DNA identification purposes.

I understand that the Professor has already taken DNA samples from members of Jestyn's family in an effort to prove whether or not the Somerton Man was in some way related to them.

Exhumation is one way of accessing his DNA but is there another one or maybe 2 ways that DNA could be examined and without exhuming the body of the man? I think the answer is Yes.

Touch DNA

This science deals with the ability of Forensic officers to extract usable DNA samples from extraordinarily small samples, 5 to 30 skin cells is all that is required..

The image of the torn piece is to all accounts of the original taken from the copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam which had been thrown into the Hillman Minx car and on the back of which was written the now famous 'code'.

The torn piece was recovered during the autopsy, it was extracted, using tweezers, from a hard to find waistband fob pocket of the Somerton Man's trousers, the ones he was wearing on that fateful day. According to the surgeon, Cleland, the paper was tightly rolled up and quite small.

Somerton Man's DNA on The Torn Piece

When you think about how the words were carefully torn from the book and then equally as carefully handled, folded and then rolled up, how long do you think his fingers would have been in contact with that paper? 2 minutes? 90 seconds? All it takes, according to the Forensic DNA center, is 60 seconds and in that time the surface DNA is transferred to the article being touched, the DNA cells are sloughed off. In the UK all that is needed is between 5 and 20 nucleated cells in order for sufficient low copy DNA to be identified. 

It certainly appears to be that DNA samples could be extracted from the Torn Piece.

The argument will be that over the years a number of people would have handled this piece. My response would be 'And?' If there are 20 samples on the piece then all that you would be looking for is one of those, the one which had probably the most number of cells given the handling it had, and see whether it matched one or more from Jestyn's family.

Interestingly this torn piece still exists and it is in safe hands. To my knowledge neither Professor Abbott nor anyone else has ever mentioned or attempted to obtain DNA samples from the torn piece, the question would be would the person who has the piece hand it over? Perhaps they would hand it over to an independent party.

DNA from Fingerprints

It stands to reason that if you can obtain DNA samples from a piece of paper or other surface, then you should also be able to obtain it from fingerprints. That turns out to be true as well, the same techniques are used, Touch DNA, to collect DNA samples from fingerprints. In the case of Somerton Man, what we have is a reasonably clear set of 10 fingerprints taken using the type of fingerprint ink used at the time. It is highly likely that by default, DNA cells from the man's hand were deposited into the ink and on to the fingerprint card where they will still be. I believe the original fingerprint card is still in existence.

Here's a table showing the various types of crime cleared up by the use of Touch DNA:

You can download a detailed PDF document that discusses Touch DNA methods and techniques.

In this video clip you can see how one US Police Department cleared up 38% of Burglaries using Touch DNA

It could be that there is a reasonable explanation why the extraction of DNA from the torn piece or the fingerprint card has never been mentioned, that is as far as I am aware, and why apparently no efforts were made to examine the torn piece and the fingerprint card for DNA. 

How Touch DNA Works & Why it Matters

This technology has been called a breakthrough by many in law-enforcement for its ability to derive evidence where there is a lack of visible DNA (such as blood, semen, hair, or saliva). It can also be used on fingerprints that are too smudged or incomplete for fingerprint analysis.

Finally, many cold cases whose samples were too small or degraded to prove useful are now resubmitting evidence to labs for Touch DNA analysis.

The process of extracting Touch DNA for forensic analysis involves swabbing, taping, or scraping for trace amounts of epithelial cell-tissue from surfaces like doorknobs, countertops, windows, and even clothing and food. This starter DNA is then amplified using Polymerase Chain Reaction technology to create identical copies that are large enough for proper analysis. 

According to Ryan Forensic DNA Consulting, “the amount of DNA needed to yield a full DNA profile with most commercially available amplification kits is approximately 1 nanogram (ng) of DNA and partial profiles can be obtained with even less starting material."

That comes out to about to the infinitesimally small number of about 5-30 skin cells. With those numbers in mind, it's easy to see why Touch DNA has been embraced by police departments across the country. Of course, if you want Touch DNA evidence to work for you, it's essential you adhere to specimen collection best practices to avoid compromising a sample.

Please feel free to comment I will answer all questions if I am able to.


Anonymous said...

If there was DNA deposited on a given surface, how much time has to elapse before it decomposes to the point of being useless for identification?

Gordon332 said...

Depends on the surface and the environment. For example on an external surface like a wall, DNA may only last for 20 days. In the Somerton Man case we have two different 'surfaces' one is a tightly rolled up piece of fibrous paper and the other comprises of ink.

In the first case, the rolled up paper, the DNA cells could be trapped within the fibres having arrived there by virtue of body fluid as in sweat. In the second case the cells could well have been trapped and suspended within the ink itself. In both of those cases my advice is that the survival time could be years.

There would be nothing to lose by at least attempting to extract some samples.

I would be interested to hear what information you have on this subject, there is not that much in the way of research.

Nick Pelling said...

I've just asked Derek Abbott about this, and he says that - unless anyone knows better - we now only have photographs of the fingerprint chart, and that the original has (like just about everything else to do with the case) probably been jettisoned overboard along the way.

Which would seem to leave the Tamam Shud scrap of paper, which may be worth a go... but as with the hair samples, this seems very likely to produce only very marginally usable DNA samples. But given how little we have to go on, perhaps it's still worth a try.

Gordon332 said...

Thanks for the comment Nick,
I have my doubts that the fingerprint cards (plural, there should have been two of them one for the fingers and the other for the full hands), have been thrown out. I can see how the suitcase and contents would have gone but the fingerprints are the only evidence left above ground that could be used to prove an ID. In my experience, original fingerprints were always archived.

If you recall, prints were sent to Sydney for checking and Sydney was the central archive. Were the originals sent or photographs? It would be well worth while looking in that direction if it does nothing more than eliminate it from the process.

Another point regarding the fingerprint card, if you look to the top right you'll see a square area where the details have been typed in. This appears to have been typed on a white page beneath the card and that corner of the card appears to have been cut off to allow for that. I offer no explanation for it but I would suggest that getting hold of an original set of fingerprint cards from SAPOL museum and of the right era could clarify why that has happened as well as prove the likely existence of 2 cards.

With regards to the torn piece, I wholeheartedly agree that it should be examined, there's nothing to lose and everything to gain. Having said that I certainly would advocate that the work involved should be given to a professional forensics firm with first hand knowledge and experience of carrying out this kind of examination. With great respect to those involved I certainly wouldn't advocate handing this over to 3rd year university students, this is after all a potential murder case and it is still open, it would be wrong to place so much responsibility on young and relatively inexperienced shoulders. It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that one of the companies mentioned in the post or another would do the analysis Pro Bono? If it has to be paid for and you want to start a fund I will certainly chip in, a crowd funding effort.

For the record, when I first suggested to Professor Abbott that the bust should be examined for DNA he dismissed it. I then explained to him how DNA could be transferred first from the body to the mold and then via the mold to to the plaster bust. I learnt later that he had his students take the samples and carry out the examination. Sadly it was only the hair sample that was taken, I am not aware of any reason why a sample of the plaster bust itself should not be used. In this day and age it would be relatively straightforward to create a 3D model to replace the original. In fact I think the 3D source code exists for the bust.

In summary, we have the fingerprint cards, the torn piece and the plaster bust that could be subjected to a thorough DNA examination. As you quite rightly say, it's worth a try.

Seems that, if not all, on some things at least we do agree :)

Anonymous said...

If all that works: the DNA on the slip matches the DNA on the bust, and they match the DNA of a person two generations distant - what do we have?

Gordon332 said...

As usual, a good question. My understanding is that the DNA could show us where he came from and then if a match was found to samples already taken from the family, theoretically we should be far closer to finding his identity.

It's the DNA on the fingerprints that would interest me, they should also match. I understand that Derek has dismissed the fingerprints as 'probably, been thrown out' I would like to know where he got that information or is it just another assumption. Should the fingerprint DNA not match either one of the other two specimens then we would have a most interesting scenario. For example, the torn piece and fingerprint DNA matching but not the bust would tell us that there was indeed another body as per the words written by Lawson.

I wonder how it would affect the push for an exhumation?

Anonymous said...

Well then, that makes the slip a valuable little item, don't it?

Gordon332 said...

I think it does.

Anonymous said...

what about DNA from the clothing - surely any item would hold a vast amount of DNA .. strange people are even bothering with the piece of paper.

Gordon332 said...

Sadly all of the clothing was destroyed many years ago hence, 1978 I think? As a result we are left with very little of the original evidence with the torn piece, hopefully the fingerprint card and just possibly the original plaster mold and the bust being about it.

Anonymous said...

Gordon, I'm looking at page 81 in GF's book and seeing an entirely different image of the Tamam Shud slip, where does yours come from?

Gordon332 said...

Pete, The image I have is of the original torn piece that was provided to Prof Abbott by Gerry. Derek then took a series of very high resolution pics of the piece and the one I have is from that series. The image on page 81 of Gerry's book looks to be one of the straight edge versions that the Police created to hand out to the media. Gerry is confident that the piece he has is genuine.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Gordon, I've since found out, by re-reading Gerry's book, that the slip was rolled into a cylinder and was in good condition. I'm going to experiment with a slip from a book of similar vintage - take some pics - should be interesting.

Gordon332 said...

No problems Pete, I will publish some hitherto unpublished high resolution images of what is meant to be the torn piece as soon as I can, just a bit snowed under at the moment. Blog is looking good, congratulations!