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Long IslandNassau

Law enforcement missed chances to collect suspect's DNA

A file photo of cops leading Joey Bethea

A file photo of cops leading Joey Bethea out of police headquarters in Mineola. (September 30, 2009) Credit: Howard Schnapp

It was a long-shot connection: DNA found in semen on a woman raped and killed in Hempstead 20 years ago matched that of a lumberyard worker and petty criminal collected after an arrest this summer upstate for stealing a can of coins.

But the unlikely arrest of Joey Bethea, 38, who lived in Hempstead at the time of the killing and once attended Hempstead High School where the victim's body was found - he was never a suspect - was made even more improbable by missed chances to get his DNA into the state database.

On three occasions since 2006, law enforcement officials had the opportunity to collect Bethea's DNA but failed to do so, raising the already long odds that the 1989 murder of 22-year-old Dorothy LeConte would permanently remain a cold case.

Though Bethea spent time in prison as a young man for attempted armed robbery, a series of less serious offenses eventually led to his DNA being filed among the 330,000 others in the DNA database in Albany.

In May 2005, State Police arrested Bethea in Johnson City; he later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor trespassing, second degree. At the time of his conviction - Bethea got a year of conditional discharge, a kind of "no condition" probation - he was not required to provide DNA.

On June 23, 2006 - five weeks before Bethea was to complete the sentence - a modified law expanded the list of convictions requiring DNA submission to include misdemeanor trespassing.

John Caher, of the state Department of Criminal Justice Services, which oversees the DNA database, said the law obligated anyone in jail for a qualifying crime, or under supervision for such a conviction, to submit a DNA sample. With new samples needed from a hodgepodge of agencies, many were delayed or slipped through the cracks.

"It is very possible that with that backlog, a sample might not have been collected for a year or more," Caher said, adding he had no access to criminal histories and could not confirm that Bethea eventually got a DNA "flag" for the 2005 conviction.

In March 2007, authorities again did not collect Bethea's DNA when he was arrested.

"At the time of that arrest there was no notification, and no sample was taken," said State Police Lt. William McEvon.

On June 23, State Police again arrested Bethea after he stole a donation can from a gas station in Bainbridge while buying beer; he pleaded guilty to petty larceny on Aug. 9.

McEvoy said Bethea's criminal history carrying the DNA request was delayed during processing. The result: Bethea was again released from custody without being asked for a swab.

Troopers reached Bethea at his upstate home within a few days this summer, where he agreed to be swabbed, McEvoy said. The sample was analyzed in a state crime lab and entered into the DNA database. The DNA data from Bethea matched the DNA in semen found on LeConte's body, officials said. Nassau police were notified of a DNA match with the LeConte case on Sept 16.