When it comes to crime fighting and in general, dogs have always stolen the limelight as police dogs and more so the old adage: “Dogs are a man’s best friend.” I can’t refute the fact that dogs are loyal companions but I do feel Snowball the cat deserves a whole lot of recognition for solving a murder – even if she did not know it.
The year was 1994, October 3d, Canada. Shirley Duguay, a 32-year-old mother of five children, simply vanished.
On the 7th of October Shirley’s car was found a few kilometres from her home. The interior of the car contained blood splatters, which was sent for forensic testing. The tests came back and confirmed the suspicion that the blood belonged to Shirley.
In a case where a woman goes missing, it is natural to look at relationships for motive. Douglas Beamish, Shirley’s common-law husband, was a likely suspect from the start.
Douglas Beamish had an unsavory reputation with women and more than one of his past relationships attested to being physically harmed by Beamish. If that was not enough, neighbors said they heard a loud argument between the couple on the evening that she disappeared.
However, when they questioned Beamish at the home of his parents where he had lived for the past two years since he and Shirley split; he claimed he did not know where she had gone. The police had no evidence to link him to Shirley’s disappearance despite their suspicions.
Three days into the investigation, the search for the truth had finally turned up a clue. They had found a bag containing shoes and a leather jacket, both of which were stained with Shirley’s blood.
The shoes looked to be about the size Douglas would wear but that was not enough to make an arrest. On the jacket, they found 20 hairs in the lining of it and test results revealed them to be from a cat. The hair might not have meant a great deal if one of the investigators had not noticed a white cat roaming the house of Douglas’ parents. Snowball, the family’s pet.
It was reckoned that if the hair on the jacket belonged to Snowball, they would have a real connection between Beamish and the murder. Using DNA evidence though was a fairly new science and animal DNA had never before been used in a case.
It proved to be quite difficult to get someone to test the cat hairs. It elicited only chuckles from many and no results. Phone calls to scientists all over the world yielded nothing but refusals and disappointment until they phoned Stephen O’Brien. A geneticist with the U.S National Cancer Institute. In a book O’Brien later wrote – he said about the case that his first thought was,
Now this is really interesting!
O’Brien gathered his lab team, while a detective got permission to draw blood from Snowball. Which he personally delivered to O’Brien to ensure the integrity of his evidence.
One of Snowball’s hairs still had a bit of flesh attached to it and testing it, it yielded the same DNA as the blood that was drawn from Snowball. He estimated that the odds of another cat having the same DNA was 45 million to 1.
Not long after the testing was concluded, on May 6th, 1995, a fisherman found a shallow grave about 15km away from where Shirley’s car had been found. It contained her horribly beaten body.
Douglas Beamish was arrested for first-degree murder and after an eight-week long trial, a jury found him guilty of second-degree murder and Beamish was sent to prison for 18 years to life.
Albeit other evidence was presented at the trial, the case would not have been nearly as convincing without Snowball’s DNA.
It was the first time ever in a murder trial that nonhuman DNA was presented as evidence and it set a new bar for legal cases.
Britain and the US now have databases containing DNA from cats and dogs.
Douglas Beamish is still behind bars after his parole application was denied at a hearing with the National Parole Board in 2013.
It was the first but certainly not the last time a pet will have cracked or strengthened a case. In this regard, Snowball was not Douglas’ best friend, but she certainly was to Duguay’s family and the public. Snowball is regarded as a hero for the feline world, and rightfully so.
(Credit to NYDailynews, cattime.com and The Guardian)