Detective who harnessed genealogy to crack cold case of Stickney area newborn twin deaths named Officer of the Year – Chicago Tribune
Dedicated. Reliable. Intelligent.
Those are just a few of the key traits that make Cook County sheriff’s police detective Ginny Georgantas special, said Sean Gleason, deputy chief of investigations.
“She is so driven in getting to the truth, the justice,” Gleason said. “A lot of really solid qualities in someone who continues to develop, wants to develop and is ready to take on the next mission.”
It is not just Gleason extolling her virtues. The International Association of Chiefs of Police named Georgantas, of Lockport, its 2021 Officer of the Year. The association’s award recognizes exceptional achievements in policing, and there were many tales of courage and bravery in the running, Georgantas said.
“I was shocked that I was even nominated and selected as one of the top four finalists,” Georgantas said.
Georgantas is only the second officer from the Cook County sheriff’s police to receive the award, which officer Larry Ostrowski claimed in 1975.
In announcing the honor, the department highlighted Georgantas’ devotion to solving the 17-year-old murders of twin infant boys whose bodies were found in 2003 in a trash bin in unincorporated Stickney Township.
Georgantas said she is uncomfortable being singled out, citing all of the detectives who spent time on the case, countless briefings, meetings with FBI behavioral analysis teams, strategy sessions, help from police in Tennessee and Michigan and, ultimately, the work of detective Leslie Pratts who got an alleged confession from the twins’ birth mother, Antoinette Briley.
Georgantas spent more than 1,000 hours learning forensic genealogy, an investigative use of genetic information such as DNA to link suspects and victims, often on her own time in addition to her regular job duties. She invested her own money in ancestry kits.
“She sees the goal, which was justice for those two murdered boys,” Gleason said. “There’s certain things you’ve got to do just to get this done, and she was willing to do that.”
When new leads took the sheriff’s police out of state, she coordinated with other agencies.
“She has a way to ingratiate herself into different things,” Gleason said. “She knows how to relate to people — and I’m not talking about using people; I’m talking about getting them to understand her thought processes and how to bring them in to further the movement toward this goal.”
Georgantas grew up in the Southland and became a standout softball star at Lockport Township High School, winning the state championship with the Porters in 1997. She credits her grandfather Robert Georgantas, who was a major with the Illinois State Police, with inspiring her interest in police work.
“He would always tell me interesting stories about his career,” she said.
She got her start in 2011 as a Cook County corrections officer and in 2013 she became a police officer. She was promoted to detective in 2015.
Georgantas learned of the unsolved murders by talking to detectives Ronald Russell and Lawrence Troka. An autopsy indicated the boys were born alive but died through asphyxiation in a manner determined to be homicide. The longtime detectives explained all of the angles investigators tried to find the birth mother.
Gleason said the department had exhausted all the resources it had, including canvassing neighborhoods, working with the morgue, vetting tips, following leads, taking buccal swabs for DNA comparison and doing dumpster dives. But there was not much video surveillance back then and little tech to aid the investigation.
“We throw pretty much everybody we have at it to work it and see what we can do,” Gleason said. “This particular case lasted for several months that we had four to six detectives working it.”
The case went cold in 2005.
In 2018, Georgantas, was following developments of the decades-old Golden State Killer case, among the first solved by genetic genealogy. She saw potential to identify a person decades after the crimes were committed.
“I am drawn to cold cases,” Georgantas said. “Obviously, we’d like to open up more as a department, but I don’t specialize in that right now.”
Gleason said there have been cold case subgroups, but the detectives often wind up pulled back because of new assignments, promotions or other movement. So when Georgantas approached him for permission to reopen the case of the twins, Gleason had concerns.
“I knew that case had gone nowhere,” he said.
He also knew it was “laborious” just to look through the files again. But Georgantas explained her plan to look at the DNA. She said she wanted justice for the children.
“They didn’t deserve this. They deserve somebody, a unit or a whole department to fight for them,” she said. “They never really had a chance at life. No one knew they existed on this earth other than their birth mother.”
Prosecutors allege Briley gave birth to the boys in a bathtub before discarding them, still alive, in the trash can.
“I think there’s always cases that affect you; I think every detective feels that way,” Georgantas said. “I think you look at it like a puzzle in trying to figure it out.”
Georgantas saw genealogy as a missing piece. Forensic use of the ancestry study was new to the department, so she took it upon herself to start linking DNA recovered at the scene to distant blood relatives of the unknown birth mother.
“We knew she was out there somehow,” Georgantas said. “She’s related to these people somehow. We just had to figure out how to do it.”
She dove deeper with detective Patrick Doyle, working through databases and learning more about the genealogy. Whenever they hit roadblocks, they would brainstorm.
“It just kind of went from there,” Georgantas said. “How do you give up? There was more to do.”
When investigators discovered Briley might be a match, Georgantas and Gleason went to Michigan to establish a “pattern of life” by seeing where she lived and worked, what she drove.
“At the time, we weren’t 100% sure if she was the birth mother, but we strongly suspected that she was,” Georgantas said.
They were about to leave when Briley drove to a convenience store, smoked a cigarette outside and dropped it on the sidewalk before going inside. The investigators pulled up, grabbed the still-smoking cigarette and rushed it to the Northeastern Illinois Regional Crime Lab in Vernon Hills. Within three days, they had confirmation Briley was the mother.
From that point, it was “real excitement from the top down,” Gleason said.
Georgantas had whatever she needed to work toward the arrest and confession, which the Cook County state’s attorney said they would need to charge Briley. Georgantas had formed a relationship with the Michigan State Police, and the agency used an affidavit Cook County police wrote to get a search warrant for vehicle tracking. They kept investigators updated about Briley’s movements.
In December 2020, on the day of the arrest, Gleason came to work thinking it was going to be an easy day. Georgantas notified him the vehicle was moving on Interstate 94, but it was still in Michigan. Then, it crossed the Indiana border and continued coming their way.
“There was a lot of excitement and a lot of anticipation for the day this was going to go down,” Gleason said. “It was planned chaos at that point.”
They had a helicopter in the air and a takedown team ready. When Briley exited the expressway, she was stopped near 108th Street and Cicero Avenue in Oak Lawn, and charged with two counts of first-degree murder. Briley is still being held in Cook County Jail while awaiting trial.
“Especially with a case like this, there’s a lot of joy and happiness and fulfillment in finding out who did this and who was responsible,” Georgantas said. “There was also a lot of sadness in this case, too, just because of the nature of the crime.”
“We work for God.”
It is a detective motto held by Vernon Geberth, a retired New York City police commander and homicide expert. The idea is that the job is a duty to bring justice. In a unique case in which there was no family clamoring for answers or ready to give thanks, Gleason said the children drive that search for answers.
“I think it eats at the heart of anybody that reads about this, anybody that’s involved with it,” Gleason said. “It’s almost that extra motivator. You have to think about the innocence of it.”
The case may not have hit anyone quite as hard as it did the late detective, Larry Troka. Three months after the bodies of the infants were found, no one had claimed them from the Cook County medical examiner’s office. So Troka did. The detective also named the boys, and paid for both their burial and the headstones.
When Georgantas reopened the case, the investigators did not let Troka know because they did not want to get his hopes up, Gleason said.
“Unfortunately, he died in March of 2019 while she was working this, and he obviously didn’t get the final conclusion, but what that man did was all heart,” Gleason said. “It’s definitely remembered by all of us.”
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Georgantas said in finding answers, she could not help but think about Troka, everyone else who investigated this case and others who were touched by it.
“I just kept thinking of the original detectives who had to respond to that scene, and the woman from waste management who discovered them,” she said. “That’s just ingrained in their brains for the rest of their lives, and it shouldn’t be.”
Two-and-a-half years after Georgantas brought a new idea to the table to help the team solve a 17-year-old case, the tool of genetic genealogy is now in Cook County’s arsenal. There may be only one or two cases that call for it, but Gleason said thanks to Georgantas, investigators can look at cases both old and new from a different angle.
“It is now part of our thought process,” Gleason said. “Two, three years ago? Not even a thought.”
Genetic genealogy is now a bigger part of Georgantas’ life, too. She is putting those skills to use volunteering to help individuals find their birthparents, whether they were adopted, do not know their birth fathers or simply have questions of lineage. It is all ultimately about getting answers to questions people once thought unanswerable.
“Helping people get closure in that respect, too,” she said. “I really enjoy it.”
Bill Jones is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.