DENVER — They’ve happened over and over again since 2020 — news conferences where law enforcement announce arrests in cold cases. What they have in common is how investigators ultimately arrived at a suspect so many years later: the technology known as genetic genealogy.
Denver7 looked at several cases where this technique was used to help law enforcement and prosecutors get closer to a suspect. Anchor Jason Gruenauer dug through file footage, heard from family members, and interviewed those who are on the front lines of using genetic genealogy to help crack cold cases.
What is it?
Genetic genealogy is a law enforcement technique that combines two well-known and widely used things. First, genetics or DNA — something found at a crime scene that is statistically specific to a single person. Second is genealogy, the creation of a family tree that connects relatives to a common ancestor.
“This is the man who killed this victim some nearly 40 years ago,” Mitch Morrissey said during a recent news conference announcing a cold case arrest.
Morrissey is a former Denver District Attorney, who specialized in using DNA as a prosecutor. When he left office after reaching his term limit, he turned that expertise into a new company that specialized in genetic genealogy and cold cases called United Data Connect. UDC begins with DNA evidence from cold cases that belongs to an unknown suspect and that did not match anyone in a criminal database.
“So we sequence the DNA (found at a crime scene) and use the databases that people think about when they think about ancestry DNA. They think about ‘Family Tree DNA,’ they think of ’23 and Me,’” he explained. “So we use two of those databases, the only two that cooperate with law enforcement, and we search those databases for matches to those left at the crime scene.”
And sometimes, as Morrissey explained, partial matches come back to that unknown DNA.
“Usually what we get is a cousin, in the third cousin range, and then you start building family trees from that,” he said.
His investigative genealogist constructs out that person’s family tree by using things like obituaries, wedding announcements, birth certificates, and more. Law enforcement can then use those trees to focus in on a person who might have lived in a certain place at a certain time, and narrow it to a potential suspect. If they get that potential suspect’s DNA, and compare it to the original sample, suspects can be found and cold cases can be cracked.
“I’d say genetic genealogy has been a breakthrough technology for us trying to solve cold cases,” 18th Judicial District Attorney John Kellner said in an interview with Denver7.
“Now we’re looking at it at a complete different angle. It really opens up the opportunity to solve cold cases that are 20, 30, 40, 50 years old,” Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock added during a separate interview.
Denver7 looked into six individual cases that were impacted by genetic genealogy as part of the in-depth presentation “Cold No More.” You can watch that in its entirety in the player below.
Cold No More: How genetic genealogy is solving Colorado’s cold cases
1980 cold case cracked
Colorado’s first cold case to be solved through the help of genetic genealogy was the 1980 murder of Helene Pruszynski. The 21-year-old woman was sexually assaulted and murdered in Douglas County, but the case went cold. United Data Connect helped investigators zero-in on a possible suspect. James Curtis Clanton was arrested in Florida, and ultimately pleaded guilty in the case. He was sentenced to life in prison. To read more about the case, click here.
Double murder in Breckenridge
The murder of two young women in Breckenridge had stumped law enforcement and private investigators for 39 years, until the case was worked using genetic genealogy. Annette Schnee, 21, and Barbara “Bobbi Jo” Oberholtzer, 29, went missing Jan. 6, 1982. They both had been hitch hiking. Decades later, DNA from a bloody glove found at the crime scene was connected, through genetic genealogy, to Alan Lee Phillips of Dumont, Colorado. He was arrested and charged with both murders. To read more about the case, click here.
Businessman’s murder solved
Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock was just a patrol deputy in 1985 when he first worked the case of a Douglas County businessman who was killed in his home. The investigation into the murder of Roger Dean went cold after being worked multiple times. Genetic genealogy would bring now-Sheriff Spurlock to Los Angeles, where Michael Jefferson was arrested for Dean’s murder. He is now charged and awaiting trial. To read more about the case, click here.
Solved with a can of Coke
Sylvia Quayle was murdered in her Cherry Hills home in 1981, with DNA left at the original crime scene. In 2020, Mitch Morrissey and United Data Connect narrowed the field to two possible suspects. Investigators found DNA from one of those suspects on a discarded can of Coca-Cola that would match the original crime scene DNA. David Dwayne Anderson was arrested and charged with her murder. To read more about the case, click here.
Closure after soldier’s murder
Darlene Krashoc’s parents never gave up hope that the person who killed their daughter Darlene would be found. In 1987, the Fort Carson soldier was found dead, but the killer wasn’t located. It was genetic genealogy that led to a break in the case, as law enforcement was able to track down Michael Whyte and match his DNA to the killer’s. A jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison. To read more about the case, click here.
After 38 years, solved in 3 months
Genetic genealogy can also lead investigators to a suspect and close a cold case without making an arrest. After 38 years, genetic genealogy was used in the case of Jeannie Moore, to lead to Donald Perea. Perea had died years earlier, but DNA from a close family member of his was able to confirm that he was, in fact, the killer. To read more about the case, click here.
Aurora murder cracked
Tangie Sims was found dead in an alley in Aurora in 1996. An unknown sample of male blood was left at the crime scene. More than 23 years later, genealogical research helped investigators narrow the field of suspects to a truck driver. Wesley Backman had died, but Aurora Police were able to announce that the case of Sims’ murder had been closed thanks to their DNA match. To read more about the case, click here.
‘No longer our Jane Doe’
Along with the identification of possible suspects, genetic genealogy can also help authorities identify victims, including a Jane Doe found murdered in Douglas County in 1993. Investigators initially believed the female victim to be a runaway, and the case went cold. Using her DNA and building a tree from it, genetic genealogy was able to help the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office identify her as Rebecca Ann Redeker. They were also able to reopen the case in the search for her killer. To read more about the case, click here.
To watch how genetic genealogy played a role in solving these cases and hear from the people who used it successfully, click on the video above to watch “Cold No More.”