Monday, February 18, 2019

DNA forensics

The murder suspect eluded police for decades, until he got a hankering for a hot dog at a hockey game.

Jerry Westrom, 52, ate the hot dog while watching his daughter play hockey, then he wiped his face with a napkin and threw it away.

Westrom did not know that while he watched the hockey game, police were watching him.

Police retrieved the napkin Westrom discarded and found his DNA matched that collected at the scene of the 1993 cold-case murder of 35-year-old Jeanne Ann "Jeanie" Childs. Westrom, who was charged with second-degree murder last week, posted $500,000 bail and was released from jail following a court hearing where his wife, children and 20 other supporters looked on from the gallery.

Westrom, who denies involvement in the murder, got onto the radar of investigators after they took advantage of advances in DNA technology in 2015 to take another look at the unsolved murder.

A search on an online ancestry website turned up Westrom as a possible suspect. The FBI assisted in the case.

After he was arrested last week, police got more DNA and found further evidence – sperm matching found on a comforter and towel in the victim’s bathroom – tying him to the murder scene, according to The New York Times.

Several members of Childs' family were at the hearing in Hennepin County District Court.

“We all hope Jeanne’s family can finally find peace as a result of this tenacious effort by officers and agents,” Jill Sanborn, the special agent in charge of the Minneapolis division of the F.B.I., said in a statement.

Westrom's lawyer, Steven Meshbesher, told the court that his client, a businessman, had lived in Minnesota his entire life and wasn't a flight risk.

"What we've got is a very unsolved case and it was charged, in my opinion, prematurely," Meshbesher said.

According to court documents, Childs' naked body was found in her apartment in an area known for prostitution. She had been stabbed multiple times all over her body, and blood covered the walls of her bedroom, living room and bathroom, according to a warrant.

The bathroom was flooding because the shower had been left turned on. Finger, palm and foot prints were discovered at the scene, investigators said.

After scoring a DNA match on the ancestry website, investigators looked at Westrom’s social media accounts and learned that he would be at the hockey game last week.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman told reporters last week that investigators used “a genealogy company you see advertised on TV.”

It is unclear if a relative of Westrom or the businessman himself put the genetic data on the site.

Westrom’s next court is scheduled for March 13.



  1. The strategy was popularized last year after the authorities used an online genealogy database to make an arrest in the case of the Golden State Killer, who had burglarized, raped and murdered people across California over decades. Since then, genealogical sleuthing techniques have led to arrests in cases in Washington State, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

    But the tactic has also raised ethical concerns about using genetic information from people who might have uploaded their DNA to find information about their heritage, without knowing it could help law enforcement officials track down family members.

    GEDmatch, an open-source ancestry site used in the Golden State Killer case, updated its privacy policy after that case to make explicitly clear that law enforcement may access a person’s profile to solve murder and sexual assault cases. And FamilyTreeDNA, one of the country’s largest at-home genetic testing companies, recently apologized to its users for failing to disclose that it was sharing DNA data with federal investigators.

    More than 15 million people have offered up their DNA to online genealogy services in recent years. While they represent a small fraction of all people, the pool of profiles is large enough to allow 60 percent of white Americans — the primary users of DNA sites in the United States — to be identified through the databases, according to researchers. Researchers believe that in the coming years, 90 percent of Americans of European descent will be identifiable, even if they have not submitted their own DNA.

  2. It had been 45 years since the day 11-year-old Linda O’Keefe left school bound for home — and never made it.

    She was found strangled, her body tossed in a ditch, the next day.

    Now, cops in Newport Beach, California have announced what they've long been waiting for: the arrest of Linda’s suspected killer.

    On Wednesday, authorities identified James Alan Neal, 72, of Monument, Colorado as the suspected killer.

    Like many cold-case arrests, this one came about with the help of more advanced DNA technology and checking evidence against information investigators found on a genealogical website.

    Police zeroed in on Neal in January, said Todd Spitzer, the Orange County district attorney, and then kept him under surveillance until they were able to retrieve DNA he left behind. Authorities did not disclose any further details at a press conference.

    “We have never forgotten Linda,” Newport Beach Police Chief Jon Lewis said at the news conference. "Her face and her memory have been with us since it happened."

    Neal faces charges of murder, and kidnapping with the intent of lewd and lascivious acts with a child, officials said...

    Witnesses at the time reported seeing the little girl speak to a man who appeared to be in his 20s or 30s and was in a turquoise van and, last year, the Newport Beach police department scored a lead in the case that had frustrated them for so long. They used DNA evidence that the killer left on Linda’s dress to figure out what he might look like decades later. That evidence allowed officials to home in on suspects.

  3. “Our detectives worked years trying to find the killer in this case,” Acting Delray Beach Police Chief Javaro Sims said in a news conference Wednesday. “We had fingerprints, we had blood, we even had a possible description from a witness. But the person responsible for this heinous case seemed to just disappear.”

    But in January, Barket underwent a background check while applying for a job with a fire and water cleanup company. He submitted his fingerprints that match those taken from the 1998 crime scene and placed in a national database.

    Detectives and Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents then tracked him down and began monitoring him. Police later obtained Barket's DNA — through unclear methods — and it was matched on Tuesday with DNA from the crime scene.

    Barket was 29 years old at the time of the murder and matched the description witnesses gave after the slaying, the Sun-Sentinel reported. Police said he was able to elude authorities because he had no contact with law enforcement.

  4. Authorities in Washington state said a 1972 rape and homicide cold case is one step closer to being solved after DNA evidence from a coffee cup led to the arrest of a suspect on Wednesday.

    Terrence Miller, 77, was arrested in his Snohomish County home around 10:30 a.m. and charged with first-degree murder for the August 1972 rape and killing of 20-year-old Jody Loomis, police said in a press release...

    Authorities said Miller became a suspect after DNA evidence was uploaded to a public genetic genealogy website. Snohomish County investigations captain Rob Palmer told The Seattle Times that DNA collected from Miller’s cup matches semen that was collected at the 1972 crime scene.

    Police said the genetic genealogy was the same technique that had led to the arrest of the “Golden State Killer” and a suspect in the murderer of a Canadian couple near Seattle in 1987.

  5. Terre Haute Police Chief Shawn Keen, who worked the case himself for the past 11 years, told a news conference Milam’s killer had been identified as Jeffrey Hand after DNA from the crime scene was uploaded to the genealogy website GEDMatch and produced a match to a distant relative of Hand’s. Hand was 23 at the time of the murder, working as a music records salesman...

    Hand has been dead since a deputy killed him Indiana in 1978 when he saw Hand trying to abduct a woman, Keen said.

    For nearly 20 years, police believed Milam’s killer was a serial rapist who prowled the Indiana State University campus for victims around the time Milam was killed.

    The man denied killing Milam and then DNA ruled him out for certain in 2001...

    Keen said DNA from Hand’s son confirmed that Hand was Milam’s killer.

    He said the sample was obtained after Parabon NanoLabs in Virginia conducted the genetic genealogy search and made the identification.

    Parabon has used the same technique to help police departments around the country close more than three dozen cold case rapes and murders in the past year. Some of those cases, like the Milam case, had gone unsolved for decades.

    “This type of genetic genealogy can help with other cases,” the police chief said.