Cattle-killers, be warned: DNA testing isn’t just for humans anymore. When Blaine County Sheriff’s Deputy Pay Pyette investigated the shooting of four cows on Ken and Dawn Overcast’s property in Chinook in February 2003, he had a brainstorm that led to Chinook resident Wesley Anderson’s conviction, and his sentencing on July 13:
“[DNA testing] works on humans,” says Pyette. “Why not on anything else?”
Pyette didn’t wait for an answer. Rather, he found a lab at the University of California, Davis, that would test DNA samples from two of the cows’ hides. Through a series of interviews, Pyette then identified Anderson as a suspect in the shootings and obtained a search warrant, taking a knife, a jacket and a pair of boots from Anderson.
“We found cow DNA on his boots,” recalls Pyette. “Well, this is Chinook, Montana. Everyone’s got cow DNA on their boots.” But when the lab tested the DNA on Anderson’s boot, it came back an exact match with the killed cows. The UC Davis lab was surprised and excited, says Pyette, to play a part in solving the case. No such DNA testing has been done in Montana before, he says, nor at the UC Davis lab.
For his crime, Anderson was sentenced to a deferred six years in jail (he served 75 days behind bars), as well as paying a series of charges, including $4,000 to the Overcasts in restitution, $1,000 for criminal mischief, and the cost of the DNA testing: about $2,000, says Pyette.
The case remains open because some weapon forensics suggest that Anderson did not act alone, Pyette says.
But while Pyette and his colleagues continue to work on the Overcast case, the question arises: Will DNA testing now be done retroactively to solve other domestic animal crimes?
Pyette isn’t sure. But he says, “We did have four sheep that were also shot [a few] weeks prior to this [Overcast shooting]. But the problem there,” he says, “was that the rancher threw the sheep in a pit of other dead sheep, and so by the time we thought about this [DNA testing], the sheep were so badly decayed, we didn’t know which ones were which.”