On what would have been Mackenzie Branham’s 20th birthday, new questions and accusations surfaced Wednesday as Mackenzie’s father, Donald Branham, expressed frustration with the investigation into his daughter’s death.
Branham, who protested Wednesday outside of the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office annex building, claims that the sheriff’s office botched the investigation by allowing key evidence to be destroyed. Eight-year-old Mackenzie was killed in a fire inside her Jeffersonville home April 27, 2006. Investigators say the fire was intentionally set, essentially making the investigation a homicide case.
Donald Branham said he recently discovered that the clothing Mackenzie was wearing the night she died was destroyed Aug. 15, 2006 at the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office at the behest of Fayette County Coroner Dr. Albert Gay, who is now deceased.
“Just a few months ago, I was watching a TV program on the murder of JonBenet Ramsey when something came to my attention,” said Branham. Ramsey was killed in her family’s home in Boulder, Colo. the night of Dec. 25-26 at the age of 6. The case still remains an open investigation.
“During this show, they brought up touch DNA,” Branham said. “Touch DNA” is a forensic method used for analyzing DNA left at the scene of a crime which requires very small samples, such as skin cells left on an object after it’s been touched.
“So I told (Fayette County Sheriff Vernon Stanforth) that I wanted the touch DNA from my child’s clothing,” Branham said. “And he asked me why. Another time they told me that they lost the clothes. My question is, ‘Who destroys the clothing from a body during an ongoing investigation?’”
During an interview Wednesday, Stanforth said his office never had possession of Mackenzie’s clothing.
“I don’t have any reason to believe that the clothing had evidentiary value and plus they would have been looked at before the autopsy at the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office,” Stanforth said. “I understand that Donald is upset and that he would be frustrated with the status of the investigation. But this case has been the highest priority for us for 11 years. I have great sympathy for the Branham family, but it’s disappointing that he has taken this position.”
Mackenzie died in her upstairs corner bedroom during the early morning hours of April 27, 2006 when the fire swept through the two-story home at 7 E. Walnut St. Her mother, Mary Branham, and another resident escaped the home without injury. By the time firefighters from the Jefferson Township and Washington C.H. fire departments arrived and were able to search the upstairs, Mackenzie was dead.
Branham said Wednesday he believes that a former Fayette County Sheriff’s Office deputy was involved in Mackenzie’s death before the fire was set and that the fire was set to “cover their tracks.” He’s also accusing the sheriff’s office of “covering up” for the former deputy, who is now deceased.
“You can’t tell me that Vernon or anyone else didn’t know that the clothes were going to be destroyed,” said Branham. “And now they blame it on the coroner who isn’t here anymore.”
Investigators say the cause of Mackenzie’s death was smoke inhalation.
“The flames never engulfed her, her body just reacted from the intense heat,” Stanforth said. “She was alive when the smoke got to her, which means she was alive when the fire was set. Until recently, I’ve had almost daily conversations with Donald and we would look into his theories and keep him updated. We certainly were not trying to destroy any evidence or cover up anything.”
Other than the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office, several other agencies have investigated this case, including the Ohio Fire Marshal’s Office and the Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
“This has not been done in a vacuum,” said Stanforth. “We hired a special investigator who worked on this case because we wanted a fresh perspective in case we were missing something. We’re still working with arson investigators from the Fire Marshal’s Office, BCI has been involved throughout the entire investigation. We had a special prosecutor from the Major Crimes Unit at the Attorney General’s Office as part of the BCI team. We consulted the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) and the FBI Behavior Science section. So when we ask for help from these agencies, everything is fair game.”
Branham insisted that despite the resources utilized in this investigation, the destruction of potential DNA evidence is unexplainable.
“DNA lasts for 521 years. Water does not destroy DNA, neither does bleach or a lot of these household products. You’re telling me all these years that this has been their number one priority case and they brought all of these people in. But there was not one single person who asked where are the clothes? Come on, man. Every piece of evidence is a key in this and you destroy it? I’m going to have to get an attorney. Because what else has been destroyed? What else is missing?”
Stanforth said it would have been inappropriate for his office to take the clothing since the body was turned over to the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office.
“The Montgomery County Coroner’s Office is one of the most professional coroner’s offices in the state of Ohio,” said Stanforth. “If there was anything suspicious about the clothing, they would have informed us.”
Stanforth said the case continues to be top priority and the investigation will continue.
“Again, I feel such sympathy for the family. No one can imagine exactly what they’re going through with the loss of that little girl,” said Stanforth. “I can’t guarantee that this case will be solved. Currently, there is no person of interest but we’re hopeful that someone comes forward with a key piece of the puzzle that we need to put it all together. There have been so many different entities that have investigated this case independently. We’re not going to investigate or try this case on Facebook.”
Reach Ryan Carter at 740-313-0352 or on Twitter @rywica