Investigators who used DNA from a toothbrush to link a former prisoner to a string of cold-case killings should have had a sample from him eight years earlier and before the last killing, but police say they couldn't find one.
Corrections officials were required to take DNA from Walter E. Ellis — and all other inmates with felony convictions — under a 2000 state law. Two state agencies now dispute whether Ellis' DNA was obtained while he was in prison and, if so, what happened to it.
The police chief has suggested that if authorities had a DNA sample, they may have identified a suspect more quickly and possibly prevented at least one death, but because police could not find a sample in the state's database, they had to execute a high-risk warrant to obtain the DNA that linked Ellis to the killings.
Police said Ellis, 49, of Milwaukee, was arrested Saturday after a state crime lab matched his DNA to samples taken from nine women killed between 1986 and 2007.
The state agency responsible for collecting samples from inmates insists it obtained DNA from Ellis, who was in prison from 1998 to 2001. But the state Department of Justice said it has no record that it ever received the sample, which would have been processed before the 2007 slaying.
In some cases, a person's sample yields an unusable profile, but the state Justice Department records of those people to ensure proper follow-up. Ellis didn't show up on that list either, Justice Department spokesman Kevin St. John added.
Wisconsin's Department of Corrections, which is responsible for obtaining samples, said it complied with the law.
"The only information we have is an indication in our system that the specimen was collected on Feb. 4, 2001," said John Dipko, a corrections spokesman. He said the sample would have been sent to the state crime lab, which is under the jurisdiction of the state DOJ.
Police Chief Edward Flynn said authorities couldn't find Ellis' DNA profile in a statewide database, forcing them to take the high-risk step of obtaining a sample directly by executing a search warrant Aug. 29, even if doing so tipped off Ellis that police were investigating him.
Ellis was charged in the deaths of two of the nine women, and more charges are expected this week, prosecutors said. The state public defender's office said Tuesday that no attorney had been assigned to him. He could make an initial court appearance Wednesday.
"It's certainly speculative but a plausible speculation that if his DNA had been collected in 2001 that certainly the pattern would have been discerned perhaps more quickly," Flynn told CNN. "Certainly we would have identified a suspect more quickly."
A message left with Flynn's office Tuesday was not returned.
Ellis served his previous prison sentence after pleading no contest to a reduced charge of second-degree reckless injury. He was released from prison in 2001 and from state supervision in 2003, when corrections officials would have verified that his DNA sample was in the system, Dipko said.
Police said Ellis' DNA was found on the bodies of nine women ages 16 to 41 who were killed on the city's north side. Investigators believe eight of the women were prostitutes and one was a runaway.
Authorities previously have speculated that the person whose DNA they recovered on the runaway had sex with that girl but that someone else killed her. But Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm would not say Monday whether anyone else would be charged in the killings.
Associated Press Writer Carrie Antlfinger contributed to this report.