Genealogy technology plays key role in Minneapolis cold case

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Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman in March 2018.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman in March 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

Minnesota is joining a growing number of states where unsolved cases are reopened through new DNA technology, but the new technique raises questions.

On Feb. 14, Jerry Westrom, 52, was charged in a 25-year-old homicide with the help of data gleaned from a genealogy website.

Jerry Arnold Westrom
Jerry Arnold Westrom
Courtesy of Hennepin County Sheriff's Office

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced that the Isanti man had been charged in the 1993 stabbing death of Jeanne Ann Childs.

"This was a cold hit case," he said. "This was put together by the extensive use of DNA, including the process that is similar to the Golden State Case — the Golden State Killer — in which DNA samples were sent to genealogists who helped us match them together."

The Golden State Killer case, which could involve up to 13 homicides and 50 rapes in the 1970s and 1980s, was the first major case to make headlines about this technology, which helped locate a suspect who has since been charged.

In Minnesota, Westrom faces one count of second-degree murder.

The case came together through matching DNA on genealogy websites, used increasingly to pry open cold cases.

Law enforcement usually hires a genealogical geneticist to try to match DNA found at a crime scene with DNA data on GEDmatch, a free, centralized database where users can upload and find matches with data from different commercial DNA websites.

CeCe Moore is a genetic genealogist with Parabon NanoLabs, a Virginia-based company that has participated in dozens of criminal investigations. Moore is not involved in the Westrom case. She said genetic genealogists narrow down the DNA match by finding relatives — even distant ones — of the suspect.

"What we're using tests hundreds of thousands of genetic markers, rather than just 20, so we can predict someone's second, third, fourth cousin in order to reverse engineer the family tree of the unknown suspect and eventually identify him," she said.

That information about a small pool of possible genetic matches is sent back to police, who then try to identify people of interest in the case based on other data, such as their connections to the victim.

After that, in Westrom's case, investigators followed him at a hockey game and retrieved a napkin he had thrown away in the trash. They used that to further compare to evidence collected at the crime scene.

Westrom's attorney Steven Meshbesher questions whether prosecutors have connected Westrom's DNA to blood found on items in Childs' apartment.

"They don't have the evidence. They admit on the complaint, if you read it, that there are certain things that are under investigation right now," he said recently. "And they're being looked at on an investigatory basis by the [Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension]. They don't know what the analysis will show."

Curtis Rogers, one of the co-founders of GEDmatch, said the site started out and still is primarily used for genealogical research. A year ago, he heard a suspect in Golden State killer case was caught. The next morning, he received several emails. One message told him of GEDmatch's role in that case.

Rogers has concerns about privacy, but he points out people who upload choose to do so and can erase it whenever they want.

The American Civil Liberties Union argues on its website that legislators, the courts and law enforcement should ensure that benefits from this technology not infringe on privacy rights.

Legislators in Maryland may consider a bill to stop criminal investigators using public DNA databases to find potential suspects.

"If there is a lot of regulation put on it, it will kill genealogy," Rogers said. "Because genealogy and law enforcement use exactly the same tools and the same methodology."

CeCe Moore, who started in the public genetics field by helping adoptees find their birth parents, has aided in 39 criminal cases just in the last year.

She said law enforcement agencies have already begun training their own investigators in genetic genealogy.

"We will be able to resolve hundreds of cold cases over the next couple of years — maybe thousands, depending on how many skilled people get involved in this work," Moore said.

Moore believes genealogy tools may start to help people on the other side of criminal cases — the suspects that DNA may prove innocent.

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