DNA advancements offer some hope in unsolved 2006 killing of Sacramento sheriff’s deputy

As the anniversary of Jeff Mitchell’s mysterious slaying came and went last week for the seventh time, detectives still trying to solve the crime harbor hope that new technology might finally bring answers in the case.

Mitchell, a Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy, was fatally shot with his own service weapon during a traffic stop in the early morning hours of Oct. 27, 2006. Evidence from the scene yielded a partial DNA profile of his unknown killer, but the sample was not enough to upload into national DNA databases that could hold a match.

That could change, however, as the result of advancements in the field of DNA extraction, said Sgt. Jim Barnes, who supervises the sheriff’s homicide unit.

Barnes said his team has resubmitted all evidence in the case for new testing in light of the recent advances. A criminalist in the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Crime Lab has been assigned to the case full time until the retesting is complete, he said.

Detectives and criminalists hope a new profile can be derived that will be strong enough to enter into the databases.

“We’ve never put (the case) on the shelf, but getting buy-in from the crime lab (was critical),” Barnes said.

Jill Spriggs, crime lab director, said she could not discuss specifics of the case. But she said modern DNA kits are extremely sensitive compared to those used in years past.

In the 1980s, she said, a DNA sample might have to have been the size of a dime for a profile to be extracted. Then, as the result of advancements in the field, the sample needed to be the size of a pea.

“Now, you don’t even have to see it,” Spriggs said.

The morning of his death, Mitchell – a 37-year-old husband and father of a then-6-year-old boy – had typed a note to dispatchers that he was on a traffic stop in rural Sloughhouse involving a white Chevrolet van with no visible plates and one person inside. As time passed and he didn't respond to welfare checks from dispatchers, deputies raced to his aid and found him shot in the head.

That day, a white van with bent license plates was found stalled in the Cosumnes River in El Dorado County, not far from the shooting scene. Inside were the bodies of Allan Shubert and Nicole Welch, who, it was later determined, died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Deputies have long suspected a connection, though what that might be remains elusive. Detectives have said they do not believe Shubert or Welch were responsible for Mitchell’s death, but have theorized that their bodies were in the van when Mitchell made the stop.

“There’s no coincidence that that van ended up in the river right after the incident with Jeff,” Barnes said.

Homicide detectives have fielded thousands of tips in the case, but the killing remains unsolved. Hundreds of new homicide cases have come in since Mitchell’s, but this one haunts his colleagues.

“We understand there’s an inherent risk and danger in our job,” Barnes said. When a fellow cop is killed, it’s a staggering reminder of that danger, and “when one goes unsolved, it makes it even worse.”

Anyone with information about Mitchell’s death is asked to call the sheriff’s tip line at (916) 874-TIPS. Callers can remain anonymous and could be eligible for a reward.