This ex-sheriff used DNA to snare a serial killer. His new target? Human traffickers.

Dave Reichert became a national celebrity in 2001 when, as a county sheriff in Washington, he used DNA analysis to help capture the nation’s most elusive serial murderer, the Green River Killer.

That high-profile arrest vaulted Reichert into politics and the U.S. House, where he just completed seven terms representing Washington’s 8th Congressional District. Now, in another life transition, Reichert is joining a firm that is assisting Central American countries in developing DNA databases, which they could use to reunite separated families and combat human trafficking.

“This is something that, it seemed to me, brought me back full circle,” Reichert said in a recent interview with McClatchy. Expanding DNA forensics in Central America “will bring me back to the law enforcement realm, but in an entirely different way.”

Reichert is joining Gordon Thomas Honeywell Governmental Affairs as a vice president, the firm announced Monday. The firm, which has offices in Tacoma and D.C., is a subcontractor for the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth. In 2017, the State Department awarded the north Texas science center a $3.3 million federal grant to assist Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in expanding their DNA forensics and sharing information.

Under the terms of the grant, the science center is tasked “to establish a DNA database of known samples from parents or family members with missing or abducted children in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, or enhance any existing database which can provide this service.”

Reichert’s role will be to meet with Central American officials at the highest levels, and help with passage of laws and data-sharing agreements among the three countries, said Tim Schellberg, president of Gordon Thomas Honeywell Governmental Affairs.

“Dave has always had a passion for this (DNA forensics),” said Schellberg. “He’s the ideal match for this project.”

The U.S. push on genetic forensics comes as U.S.-Mexico border security has become the most high-profile issue at the White House, prompting a partial government shutdown. While there’s been a drop in migrants illegally crossing the U.S. border from Mexico in recent years, there still are hundreds who die every year making the attempt, some of them victims of human trafficking.

Migrant remains.crop.jpg
Irma Carrillo of Phoenix holds up a heart with two holes in it for her two children who have been missing since 1999, as she speaks during a hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, on Oct. 5, 2018, at the University Colorado in Boulder, Colo. Human rights groups have been calling for greater use of DNA analysis to help families find missing loved ones in the U.S.-Mexico border region. David Zalubowski AP

When bodies are found near the border, they often are examined by experts such as Bruce Budowle, a internationally known forensics scientist at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, who is heading up the Central America database project. He has the unpleasant task of using DNA to try and identify human remains found in Texas.

“Sometimes they are murdered, sometimes they die of dehydration,” said Budowle, noting that many of the migrants cannot easily be identified. Some hail from distant countries, such as Guatemala, Honduras and beyond. Without “family reference samples” — DNA from the victim’s close relatives in those countries — scientists such as Budowle cannot make a solid “match.”

More expansive DNA databases, he said, would also help in identifying children in the border region who are alive but get separated from their parents, or who are being trafficked across the border by criminals.

“We want to develop capabilities, and take the capabilities we have, so the governments can demonstrate to the people they care about them, and can solve some of these cases,” he said.

Developing effective databases across multiple countries, however, will not be easy. Programs have to be set up to encourage families — especially those with missing family members — to submit their DNA for analysis. Before that occurs, each country must establish laws and protocols for protecting the privacy of participants, a key step for winning public trust.

While Guatemala last year passed regulations for creating a “genetic data bank,” similar regulations and data-sharing agreements must be negotiated among the three countries.

“That is the challenge,” said Reichert, referring to the need to win widespread public support. “As I begin to meet with folks in that region, I hope we could just focus on missing persons, and then construct laws that put us in that space, so that people in those countries feel comfortable with this new technology.”

Border Deaths DNA crop.jpg
A tube of extracted DNA. Jacquelyn Martin Associated Press

Reichert used DNA forensics in the Green River case, but that only came after two decades of often-vexing sleuthing. Reichert, who joined the King County sheriff’s department in 1972, was the first detective assigned to the case, in 1982. It was the start of gruesome series of killings that would eventually claim the lives of at least 49 young women, many of them prostitutes and runaways.

After Reichert became sheriff in 1997, he reopened the investigation, and caught a break because of a saliva sample taken in 1987 from one of the possible suspects, Gary Leon Ridgway. Genetic analysis wasn’t an option in the mid-1980s, but in 2001, investigators were able to match Ridgway’s DNA to evidence taken from some of the murder scenes. Ridgway was arrested in November of that year, and his confession ended one of the most confounding serial killer investigations in U.S. history.

“Although I had looked forward to this day for almost 20 years, nothing could have prepared me for the emotion I felt,” Reichert stated in a 2004 book, “Chasing the Devil,” which he co-authored with a ghost writer. “Like others on the task force, I had been frustrated and angry over our past failures. Now those feelings had disappeared.”

During his 14 years in Congress, Reichert established himself as a moderate Republican who grew increasingly popular in his district, winning his last reelection, in 2016, with 60 percent of the vote. Part of his focus in Congress was improving foster care and combating sex trafficking, priorities rooted in his years investigating the Green River case.

In the fall of 2017, Reichert announced he would not again seek office, creating an open seat in a congressional district — made up of growing suburbs and rural areas east of Seattle and Tacoma — that was trending more blue. Reichert’s decision came after he had called Donald Trump “a joke” during his presidential campaign and talked openly about his frustrations with an increasingly partisan Congress.

Reichert said he has few regrets about leaving Congress, even though his retirement created an opportunity for Democrats to take the 8th District seat, which they did, with Kim Schrier defeating the GOP’s Dino Rossi. In his new job, Reichert will need to travel regularly, but not as often as when he was shuttling from D.C. to his home state.

“It is a little bittersweet, but I think this transition will make it easier,” he said.

Reichert’s new job will go beyond the Central America project. Although he is barred from lobbying for one year, he will advising Gordon Thomas Honeywell’s clients on certain issues, particularly trade matters, said Schellberg. He will also be helping one of the firm’s clients, Thermo Fisher Scientific, which is working to sell state and local agencies on its “Rapid DNA” technology.

Rapid DNA would allow police departments to immediately test people arrested, to see if they were involved with other crimes, such as ongoing serial rapes. But the practice is controversial, because it would require about 20 states to change their laws, allowing DNA analysis of people arrested, not just convicted, for crimes. It also would take DNA analysis out of hands of established labs, separate from police departments, and put it directly in police hands.

Most of Reichert’s immediate focus, said Schellberg, will be on the human trafficking project. If that effort proves successful in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the State Department plans to expand it to other Central American countries.

Related stories from McClatchy DC

Stuart Leavenworth is a national correspondent for McClatchy, covering the environment, science, energy and other assignments. He landed in DC in 2017 after three years in China, as McClatchy’s Beijing Bureau Chief. Previously he worked at The Sacramento Bee and (Raleigh) News & Observer. His work has been recognized by the National Press Foundation, Best of the West and other journalism groups.