It was October 2010. A man in a Halloween mask used a realistic-looking toy shotgun to rob a Family Dollar near Cavalier Manor.

He broke in through the roof, forced an employee into a restroom and stole $500 from the safe before running out a back door, according to court documents. A moment later, the robber tossed the gun and mask into a nearby dumpster and disappeared.

The only real hope police had of identifying the culprit came in the form of a little DNA recovered from the mask. They say it may have been enough.

Investigators using the state’s DNA database linked Thomas Winston Jones, 23, of Portsmouth, to the stickup, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in Chesapeake Circuit Court. No charges have been filed while police continue to investigate, but the affidavit indicates Jones’ DNA matches a sample recovered from the mask.

DNA also linked Jones to a sweatshirt left behind after an unrelated residential burglary in December 2011 in Portsmouth, the affidavit said.

“The database doesn’t always let us solve a case, but it’s a great start,” said Detective Larry Gibbs, the investigator handling the Family Dollar robbery. “Sometimes DNA is the only thing you’ve got.”

Jones – who is serving a five-year sentence for a pair of 2012 burglary convictions – declined an interview request.

Jones would not be the first suspect charged because of the state’s DNA database.

Police in Virginia have been using DNA since 1989, when the state became the first in the nation to adopt the technology for criminal investigations, according to Brad Jenkins, biology program manager for the state’s Department of Forensic Science. The following year, the state became the first to establish a DNA database investigators could use to identify criminal suspects.

Although civil libertarians raise objections to the database, DNA has since played an integral role in solving more than 9,000 crimes in Virginia, according to state statistics.

“It’s used all the time now,” Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Earle Mobley said. “And not just for murders and rape.”

Only about one-fifth of the solved cases involved those types of crimes, Jenkins said. The bulk – two-thirds – involved robberies, burglaries and other thefts.

Jenkins attributed much of the database’s success to its growth. It has more than tripled in size in the past 15 years. More than 14,000 samples were added between 2012 and 2013.

“The larger the database, the more hits you are going to get,” Jenkins said, noting it contains more than 372,000 DNA profiles – some from unidentified suspects and others from convicted criminals.

Most of the database’s growth is due to stringent state laws that mandate the collection of DNA from felons. Jenkins said all adults and most juveniles convicted of a felony and some misdemeanor sex crimes since July 1990 have been required to give the state a sample. He added that anyone arrested and charged with murder or sexual assault also must submit a sample. Those samples, however, will be removed if the suspects later win their cases, he said.

It is unclear why police started to probe Jones’ role in the Family Dollar robbery and residential burglary only this year.

Jones was sentenced in February 2010 in Portsmouth Circuit Court on three felonies, meaning his DNA should have been entered into the database before the October 2010 robbery. The search warrant affidavit, which sought a fresh sample of Jones’ DNA so police could confirm their initial findings, indicates the lab linked Jones to the mask in December 2010 and to the sweatshirt in March 2012.

Jones pleaded guilty to two additional felonies in June 2012 and was sentenced to five years in prison.

Civil libertarians oppose the state’s use of the DNA database, arguing the government should not be collecting anything as personal as a person’s genetic information.

“DNA is fundamentally different from fingerprints,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

She noted the government can learn nothing from a fingerprint but what a person’s finger looks like. DNA, however, can reveal much about who people are and where they come from.

“It is our genetic blueprint and can be used to determine private medical issues,” she said.

ACLU talking points provided by Gastañaga also said bigger DNA databases can hinder law enforcement by overwhelming crime labs and diverting resources from other investigative techniques.

She opposed the expansion of Virginia’s database this year when legislators tried unsuccessfully to require people to submit samples when arrested on several additional misdemeanor charges, including indecent exposure, sexual battery and peeping into a dwelling.

“Our Constitution makes clear that people are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law; being charged with a crime is not the same as being convicted,” Gastañaga said.

Mobley had only one complaint about the state’s DNA lab: turnaround time.

He said it can take weeks, if not months, for the lab to confirm a DNA match.

“I wish there was more funding in the state,” Mobley said. “Our only problem is the wait.”

©2014 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)