Cold cases,  Crimes,  Forensics,  Genetic Genealogy

Unraveling the Past: 10 Cold Cases Solved by Genetic Genealogy

In the world of criminal justice, the use of genetic genealogy has revolutionized the way cold cases are being solved. By leveraging DNA evidence and family trees, law enforcement agencies have successfully unraveled mysteries that have remained unsolved for decades. From identifying unidentified individuals to solving long-standing murder cases, forensic genetic genealogy has emerged as a powerful tool in solving violent crimes and providing closure to families. This article delves into 10 compelling cold cases that were cracked open by the innovative application of genetic genealogy, shedding light on the remarkable impact of this cutting-edge technique in unraveling the past and bringing justice to the victims and their loved ones.


Unmasking the Golden State Killer: A Four Decade-Long Pursuit of Justice

The Golden State Killer, also known as the East Area Rapist, is a notorious criminal who committed a series of burglaries, rapes, and murders in California from 1974 to 1986. He is known to have murdered 12 victims and raped over 50 others across California. The case remained unsolved for decades until the dramatic arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. in 2018. DeAngelo served as a police officer in Auburn, California, from 1976 to 1979. His last known crime was in 1986.

Joseph DeAngelo killed 12 people and committed more than 50 rapes

Genetic genealogy played a crucial role in solving the case of the Golden State Killer, Joseph DeAngelo. Investigators used DNA databases and family trees to identify potential suspects through a method known as genetic genealogy. They uploaded the perpetrator’s DNA sequence to public databases like GEDmatch, which contains DNA profiles of individuals who have taken consumer DNA tests.

By studying third cousins in the database, investigators were able to narrow down potential suspects. This approach led to the identification and subsequent arrest of Joseph DeAngelo in April 2018, after over 40 years of evading justice. The use of genetic genealogy in the Golden State Killer case involved covert searches of private DNA housed by for-profit companies, despite privacy policies. This extensive DNA-matching effort, which included the analysis of DNA from sealed rape kits, ultimately led to the arrest of the elusive serial killer.

How Genetic Genealogy Solved the Susan Berman Case

The murder of Susan Berman in 2000 was solved through genetic genealogy. Robert Durst, a multimillionaire, was charged with Berman’s fatal shooting. Prosecutors alleged that Durst killed Berman to prevent her from talking to the police about the 1982 disappearance of his wife, Kathleen “Kathie” Durst. The case lacked physical evidence, such as fingerprints, DNA, or a murder weapon, but a slip of paper with the word “CADAVER” written on it, which Durst mailed to authorities, was a key piece of evidence.

Robert Durst was sentenced to life in prison in 2021

Robert Durst, a real estate heir, was accused of multiple murders but was acquitted in one case. In 2003, Durst was acquitted of the murder of his neighbor, Morris Black, after his legal team argued self-defense, claiming that he killed Black in a panic and dismembered the body to escape the investigation of his wife’s disappearance. Despite admitting to dismembering the body, the jury accepted his self-defense assertion and acquitted him of murder. In 2021, Durst admitted in court that he found the body of Susan Berman, a woman he was charged with killing, and wrote a “cadaver note” after discovering her body.

His defense team argued that the dismemberment helps prove his innocence, claiming there is no evidence that he killed his wife or that Berman helped him cover his tracks. Robert Durst was convicted of first-degree murder for the killing of his friend Susan Berman and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Robert Durst died of natural causes at the San Joaquin General Hospital in Stockton, California, on January 10, 2022.

Unveiling Injustice: The Sherri Rasmussen Murder Case

The murder of Sherri Rasmussen, a 29-year-old nurse, occurred on February 24, 1986, in her Van Nuys, California, apartment. Initially considered a botched burglary, the case remained unsolved for over two decades. In 2009, detectives re-examining the cold case files were led to Stephanie Lazarus, a fellow detective, whose DNA was matched to a bite mark on Rasmussen’s body. Stephanie Lazarus was eventually charged with the first-degree murder of Sherri Rasmussen.

Stephanie Lazarus killed Sherri Rassmusen and was convicted 26 years afterwads thanks to genetic genealogy

Stephanie Lazarus killed Sherri Rasmussen out of jealousy over Rasmussen’s relationship with her ex-boyfriend, John Ruetten. Lazarus, an LAPD officer, was involved in an on-again-off-again relationship with Ruetten. When Ruetten ended their relationship for good and married Rasmussen, Lazarus became jealous and harbored a grudge. This jealousy ultimately led her to murder Rasmussen in a fit of rage.

The breakthrough in solving the case came from the use of genetic genealogy, which revealed that the bite mark on the victim was made by a woman, contradicting the initial theory of a botched burglary by male suspects. The DNA testing pointed to a female suspect. Stephanie Lazarus was sentenced to 27 years to life in prison.

The Boston Strangler: How DNA Solved A Long-standing Mystery

Genetic genealogy solved The Boston Strangler case by using DNA evidence to link Albert DeSalvo to the crime. The Boston Police Department’s cold case squad used funding from the National Institute of Justice to test DNA from a nephew of DeSalvo’s, seeking a match with seminal fluid found on one of the victims, Mary Sullivan. The DNA testing focused on Y-chromosome DNA, which is passed from fathers to their male offspring, allowing for a match between DNA from the crime scene and DeSalvo’s nephew.

Albert DeSalvo was identified as the Boston Strangler through genetic genealogy

The Boston Strangler was an American serial killer who murdered at least 11 women in the Boston area between 1962 and 1964. The case was the subject of numerous books and a film. Albert DeSalvo, an inmate at a state mental hospital, confessed to the murders but was never charged. Albert DeSalvo died on November 25, 1973, at the age of 42. He was serving a life sentence at Walpole State Prison in Massachusetts when he was found stabbed to death in the prison infirmary. The motive behind his murder was reportedly related to a dispute over drug dealing in the prison. DeSalvo had a history of criminal activities, including battery, robbery, and sexual assault, and was convicted for the latter in 1967, leading to his life sentence.

The match implicated DeSalvo and excluded 99.9% of the male population, leading to the exhumation of DeSalvo’s body for a confirmatory test, which yielded a match with the crime scene evidence. This DNA evidence provided closure to a case that had remained a mystery for nearly 50 years. Albert DeSalvo was initially attributed to the murders based on his confession, but doubts persisted about whether he was the sole perpetrator. Some people who knew him personally did not believe he was capable of such vicious crimes. The solving of the case brought closure to the long-standing mystery surrounding the identity of the perpetrator.

How Genetic Genealogy Cracked The Murder of George and Catherine Peacock

Genetic genealogy played a crucial role in solving the 1989 murder of George and Catherine Peacock in Danby, Vermont. The case remained unsolved for 33 years until a drop of blood found inside Louise’s car was subjected to modern DNA testing, which led to the arrest of Michael Anthony Louise.

Michael Anthony Louise, 79, was arrested in Syracuse, New York, on charges of second-degree murder in the deaths of George Peacock, 76, and Catherine Peacock, 73, in 1989 with the aid of genetic genealogy

In 1989, George and Catherine Peacock were found stabbed to death in their home in Danby, Vermont. The couple, aged 76 and 73 respectively, were discovered by a neighbor. Vermont State Police utilized genetic genealogy to analyze the DNA from the blood droplet, ultimately leading to the identification of the suspect. Forensic testing in May 2020 confirmed a DNA match to George Peacock in the blood found inside Louise’s car in October 1989.

Louise, who was married to one of the Peacocks’ daughters, had been identified as a suspect shortly after the killings, but investigators initially couldn’t establish a conclusive link to the crime. Louise is being held in New York pending extradition to Vermont. The motive for the murders has not been disclosed by the police.

The Reuben J. Smith Case: Decades-Old Murders Solved Through DNA Match

Shannon Lloyd, 23, was found deceased in her bedroom in Garden Grove in 1987. The case went cold until 2003 when it was linked to the 1989 cold case homicide of Renee Cuevas, 27, whose body was found near the El Toro Marine base. Shannon Lloyd and Renée Cuevas were sexually assaulted and strangled to death.

Reuben J. Smith was linked to killings of two women, Shannon Rose Lloyd and Renee Cuevas through the use of investigative genetic genealogy

However, it wasn’t until 2021 that the Orange County District Attorney’s Investigative Genetic Genealogy team identified a possible suspect – Reuben J. Smith. Smith, who lived in Orange County in the 1980s, had been arrested in Las Vegas in 1998 for sexual assault and attempted murder. DNA evidence from Smith’s arrest in 1998 was a positive match with the DNA profile found at the crime scenes of Lloyd and Cuevas’ homicides. Smith had committed suicide in 1999.

1983 Cold Case Of 15-Year-Old John A. Muncy Solved 36 years Afterward

On October 15, 1983, John A. Muncy, 15, asked his father for bus fare to visit his new girlfriend. Muncy’s family reported him missing to the police after he didn’t return home, and an “unidentifiable young boy’s body” was found. John A. Muncy’s body was found on October 16, 1983, in northern Delaware County. His body had been mutilated and dumped in a rural area. Two main suspects were presented at the time: 18-year-old Timothy Edward Hall and another individual. Hall was sent to prison for murdering a blind man, and investigators suspected him due to his schizophrenia and conversations with a “person” named John. Witnesses placed Hall with Muncy on the day he was killed, and a shirt believed to be Hall’s was found with the body. Additionally, Hall bore injuries after Muncy was killed. But doubts about his guilt persisted.

The John A. Muncy case was solved with genetic genealogy

In 2020, detectives confirmed that the DNA of Daniel Alan Anderson, who had a violent criminal history involving teenage boys, matched that found at the crime scene. The investigation narrowed down the suspect pool to Daniel or one of his two brothers. The case was solved with the assistance of Parabon Nanolabs, a DNA/genealogical database, and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. However, Anderson had died in 2013, so he was never brought to justice for the crime. The case was cleared by exception due to Anderson’s death. John Muncy’s younger brother expressed relief that Anderson would never hurt another person, but also acknowledged the pain caused to both families involved. This case was one of the oldest unsolved cases for the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office.

DNA Breakthrough: The Resolution of Christine Jessop’s 1984 Murder Case

Christine Jessop, a nine-year-old girl, was abducted from Queensville, Ontario, on October 3, 1984. Her body was found about three months later in a wooded area of Sunderland, Ontario, on December 31, 1984. She had been raped and stabbed to death. After years without a solid lead, Toronto Police sent the DNA sample from Jessop’s underwear to an American lab.

After 36 years, the perpetrator of the murder of nine-year-old Christine Jessop in Toronto, Canada, was revealed to be Calvin Hoover.

After 36 years, the killer of nine-year-old Christine Jessop in Toronto, Canada, was identified as Calvin Hoover, who died in 2015. DNA evidence found on Jessop’s clothing was matched to Hoover, providing closure to the Jessop family and Guy Paul Morin, who was wrongfully convicted of the crime in 1992 and later exonerated by DNA evidence. The identification of the killer was a result of advancements in DNA technology and genealogy. The case was solved by Toronto Police Chief James Ramer, and the news brought a mix of emotions to the Jessop family, including feelings of relief and grief. The identification of the killer allowed the family to take a major step forward in their efforts to bring justice to Christine’s family.

A 34 Year Old And Highly Degraded DNA Sample Leading To the Perpetrator

The Roxanne Wood murder case, which went cold for over three decades, was solved through the use of genetic genealogy. Roxanne Wood was found murdered in 1987, and despite DNA evidence being preserved from the crime scene, technological limitations at the time prevented the identification of any suspects. However, in 2021, investigative genetic genealogist Gabriella Vargas took on the case and was determined to solve it, despite it being deemed unsolvable by many due to the scant amount of DNA left at the crime scene.

Patrick Wayne Gilham Was Convicted of Killing Roxanne Wood #$ Years Later

Vargas, working with Identifinders International, used advanced DNA matching techniques and genealogical research to identify the perpetrator. She received the DNA of the unknown suspect and used his family relatives to build out their family trees, ultimately leading to the identification of the suspect within the family tree. This breakthrough allowed law enforcement to identify 67-year-old Patrick Wayne Gilham as the assailant using forensic genetic genealogy.

The case represents a landmark in the use of forensic genetic genealogy, as the decades-old DNA sample used to identify Roxanne’s assailant was very low level and highly degraded, representing the contents of only a few cells of his body. Patrick Wayne Gilham has pleaded No Contest to Second Degree Murder and agreed to a minimum sentence of 23 years in prison.

The 33-Year Quest for Justice in the Stacey Lyn Chahorski Cold Case

Fredrick Hoss Wise killed Stacey Lyn Chahorski in 1988 and was found guilty through genetic genealogy in 2022

The case of Stacey Lyn Chahorski, a Michigan woman missing for 33 years, was also solved through genetic genealogy. Chahorski’s body was found in Dade County, Georgia, in December 1988, but it wasn’t until 2022 that authorities confirmed her identity and identified her killer, Henry Fredrick “Hoss” Wise, a truck driver, using this technology. The case is historic as it marks the first time in the country when both the victim and the killer have been identified by forensic genealogy

Othram, a Texas-based laboratory, conducted genealogy DNA analysis and produced a DNA profile for the unknown male suspect. This profile was then used to identify potential family members of the suspect, leading to the identification of Henry Fredrick Wise as the killer.


The successful resolution of these cases demonstrates the potential of genetic genealogy in solving long-standing mysteries and bringing closure to families affected by such tragedies.

As the field continually evolves, new tools are regularly introduced to enhance the interpretation of available data, requiring forensic genetic genealogy investigators to regularly update their knowledge and education of these tools. Additionally, citizen science is seen as the future of forensic genetic genealogy, drawing on publicly available interviews with key figures and emphasizing the importance of genetic privacy. This evolving field is also challenging traditional family historians to adapt to the new data generated through DNA sequencing.

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