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Suspect's DNA sat in lab as rapes multiplied
The San Francisco police evidence lab failed to process DNA samples from the 2007 slaying of a transgender prostitute for two years, leaving the suspect free allegedly to rape and brutalize at least three other transgender women before being arrested, The Chronicle has learned.
Donzell Francis, 41, of San Francisco, is now in custody and awaiting trial on kidnapping and sex assault charges stemming from an attack that happened six months after Ruby Ordenana was raped and strangled.
Court records show that Francis has a long history of drug crimes, brutality and violence. In 2001, he used a razor to slash a woman's face in San Francisco and was imprisoned for five years. His DNA was placed in a state databank in 2004.
After being paroled and finding work with a South San Francisco mechanical contractor, authorities say, Francis allegedly embarked on a string of savage attacks, mostly on transgender prostitutes, beginning with the slaying of Ordenana on March 16, 2007.
Even though police recovered DNA evidence after finding Ordenana's naked body near Interstate 280 in the Potrero Hill area, it took more than two years for crime lab technicians to process it. The lab didn't match the sample to Francis' DNA from the state databank until this past September.
Assistant Police Chief Kevin Cashman was reluctant to discuss details of the Ordenana investigation, citing Francis' upcoming trial on the separate kidnapping and rape charges.
But he acknowledged that the case "could have been handled better" by the crime lab. "This should have been given a much higher priority," Cashman said.
The lab, he said, suffers from a perpetual backlog and used to give priority to DNA samples in crimes where a suspect had already been identified.
"The protocol has since been revised," Cashman said. DNA testing decisions now are made after conferences among homicide investigators and crime lab officials, he said.
Francis still has not been charged with the killing, despite the DNA match. A spokesman for District Attorney Kamala Harris said prosecutors may file a homicide case after Francis' upcoming trial for the other attack.
"We have grave concerns about the failure to test this evidence in 2007," the spokesman, Brian Buckelew, said Friday. "We understand that the Police Department is working to fix the problem, and we encourage that effort."
DNA from 2007 victims
As the DNA sample from Ordenana's killing sat in storage awaiting processing, at least three more transgender people were attacked.
On Sept. 10, 2007, a prostitute from the Tenderloin was choked and raped before being dumped naked across town. The 32-year-old victim survived, and police were able to obtain DNA evidence.
Two weeks later, on Sept. 24, another transgender prostitute was raped and pistol-whipped after being picked up in the South of Market. The 39-year-old victim was found naked after she escaped from her attacker in the Western Addition. Once again, police obtained DNA samples.
On Feb. 5, 2008, a 28-year-old transgender woman was picked up in the Tenderloin, severely beaten and dumped naked in the Potrero Hill neighborhood. She spent 15 days at San Francisco General Hospital.
That same month, police made a "cold hit" in the state's DNA database linking Francis to the Sept. 24, 2007, attack, authorities say.
Francis was arrested a short time later, but prosecutors had to drop the charges when the victim left the city without testifying.
He was still being held for a parole violation, however, when crime lab officials linked his DNA in January to evidence from the other September 2007 attack. Prosecutors soon filed charges against him.
In September, the crime lab finally made the match to the Ordenana slaying.
Jury selection is under way in the kidnapping and rape case. Francis' lawyer, Erwin Fredrich, declined to comment.
Alexandra Byerly with the El/La Program para Trans Latinas, a nonprofit that works with the transgender community in San Francisco, said the rash of attacks terrorized transgender people. "I'm just so happy this predator is off the streets," she said.
'It's a shame'
Police had reached out to transgender advocates at first, she said. But Byerly said she had not heard from investigators until recently, when she was called upon to help locate one of the rape victims.
"They were offering a reward (in the killing). But they had the answers, the evidence, right there in front of them," Byerly said.
"More than just an unsolved murder, this really hit hard in the (transgender) community in San Francisco," Byerly said. "It's a shame. Shame on the San Francisco PD."