How DNA and genetic genealogy has helped crack some of the most notorious cold cases and capture monsters like the Golden State Killer and Grim Sleeper

  • DNA was used to help investigate a criminal case for the first time ever in 1986
  • Advances in DNA technology cracked some of the most notorious cold cases
  • Joseph James DeAngelo ‘Golden State Killer’ and Lonnie Franklin Jr. ‘Grim Sleeper’ were both caught with the help of advances in DNA technology

DNA technology has helped crack some of the most notorious cold cases and capture monsters like the Golden State Killer and the Grim Sleeper – bringing justice to the families of victims. 

DNA was first used to help investigate a criminal case in 1986 and since then, hundreds of cases have been solved thanks to genealogy research advances. 

Genetic genealogy, which is the practice of entering a DNA profile into a public database to find relatives, has emerged as a powerful tool for identifying suspects who leave DNA behind at a crime scene.

Investigators can use it to construct a family tree that leads them to an otherwise unknown suspect.

Here, takes a look at some of the biggest cases DNA has helped solve…

The Golden State Killer: DNA used to nab Joseph James DeAngelo decades after he terrorized Californians in murder and rape spree

Joseph James DeAngelo, now 77, a former cop who eluded authorities for years as the Golden State Killer is serving multiple consecutive life sentences for sadistic rapes and murders

DeAngelo is pictured in the early 70s when he worked with the Exeter Police Department

Californians were terrorized in the 1970s and the 1980s by the Golden State Killer before a suspect was finally apprehended. 

Dozens of rapes and murders went unsolved until Joseph James DeAngelo, now 77, was captured in 2018 with the help of advances in DNA technology. 

To finally identify and arrest DeAngelo, investigators compared the killer’s DNA from the crime scenes to the genetic profiles that are publicly available on genealogical websites. 

Law enforcement found that it matched one of DeAngelo’s relatives, which eventually led to him, proving that DNA could be the most innovative way to catch killers. 

DeAngelo pleaded guilty to 13 murders and 13 rape-related charges that spanned much of California between 1975 and 1986.  

He also admitted victimizing at least 87 people at 53 separate crime scenes spanning 11 California counties, though some of the crimes were too old to be formally charged. 

On August 21, 2020, DeAngelo was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The plea deal spared him the death penalty.

DNA from son led to arrest of ‘Grim Sleeper’ Lonnie Franklin Jr

Lonnie Franklin Jr., a convicted serial killer known as the ‘Grim Sleeper,’ pictured at his sentencing in Los Angeles Superior Court. He died in 2020 at the age of 67

Lonnie Franklin Jr. was a convicted serial killer known as the ‘Grim Sleeper’ who preyed on young black women of South Los Angeles for more than two decades.

The murders went unsolved for years and Franklin avoided suspicion by working as a city trash collector and one-time garage attendant for Los Angeles police. 

Franklin was eventually connected to the crimes after a task force that re-examined the old cases discovered DNA from Franklin’s 28-year-old son, which was in a database because of a 2009 weapons possession arrest. It showed similarities to genetic evidence found on some of the ‘Grim Sleeper’ victims. 

A detective posing as a busboy at a pizza parlor collected utensils and crusts while Franklin was attending a birthday party. Lab results connected him to some of the bodies from deaths in 2002, 2003 and 2007 and led to his arrest in July 2010.

Investigators later found a gun used in one of the killings and photos of victims in Franklin’s house.

In 2016, Franklin was convicted of murdering 10 women, but was linked at trial to 14 slayings, including four women he wasn’t charged with killing. Police have said he may have had as many as 25 victims since 1984.

Franklin died in the San Quentin Prison in March 2020 at the age of 67.

Truck driver convicted in 1980 murder of Helene Pruszynski after cops made DNA break-through in 40-year-old cold case

James Curtis Clanton was arrested for the rape and murder of 21-year-old Helene Pruszynski decades after she was killed after she got off a bus in Englewood, Colorado, in 1980

Clanton was finally caught after police sequenced genetic material on a beer mug he had used and matched it to semen left on Helene Pruszynski’s coat

James Curtis Clanton was arrested for the rape and murder of 21-year-old Helene Pruszynski decades after her body was found. 

In 2019, the truck driver pleaded guilty to raping and murdering the journalism intern in 1980 after he was snared by DNA.

Clanton had abducted Pruszynski as she got off a bus in Englewood, Colorado, and sexually assaulted her before dumping her body in a field.

He was finally caught after police sequenced genetic material on a beer mug he had used and matched it to semen left on Pruszynski’s coat.

In July 2020, Clanton was sentenced to life in prison.

Bartender who died in 1980 identified as the killer of 9-year-old Marise Chiverella nearly 60 years after her murder

Marise Ann Chiverella, 9, was sexually assaulted, beaten and murdered on March 18, 1964. Her killer had gone unidentified fornearly 60 years until 2022

James Paul Forte was in his early 20s when is thought to have killed Chiverella. He died in May 1980 of natural causes, possibly involving a heart attack

Police were helped by genealogist Eric Schubert a 20-year-old college student

The March 1964 murder of 9-year-old Marise Chiverella in Pennsylvania went unsolved for nearly 60 years until 2022 when her killer was finally identified through DNA and genealogy tracking. 

With help from genealogist Eric Schubert, authorities identified James Paul Forteas the killer. Forte died in 1980, possibly due to a heart attack.

He had been arrested for an unrelated sexual assault in 1974 – 10 years after he’s thought to have killed Chiverella. 

Marise Ann Chiverella, 9, was last seen on the morning of March 18, 1964. Her body was found in a strip mine pit in Hazle Township, more than two miles away from her home. She had been beaten and sexually assaulted, police said, and the canned goods she was walking to the church were found near her body.  

Authorities were helped by Eric Schubert, 20, a student at Elizabethtown College who reached out to police and put together a family tree that led them to Forte – a very distant relative who is not thought to have known Chiverella or her family.

The first break in the case came in 2007, when a Pennsylvania State Police DNA lab developed a suspect profile based on a DNA sample left on Marise’s jacket. The DNA was entered into a national database checked regularly. 

In 2018, another break came when the DNA sample was sent to a genealogy database, where it matched to a very distant relative.

The DNA helped create photo renderings using just the suspect’s DNA, predicting what he would’ve looked like at age 25, 40, and 60.

Schubert came in soon after. He put together a family tree based on the DNA and helped police search through census and military records. Police narrowed a list down to four suspects, eventually landing on Forte. 

He worked at a local bar in the decades after the murder and was arrested for sexual assault in 1974, later pleading to a lesser charge and getting a year of probation, according to NBC News. He was arrested on a minor charge in 1978 but didn’t serve any jail time.

Forte’s body was exhumed in January. His DNA matched the sample collected from Chiverella’s jacket in 2007.

California man arrested nearly 30 years after 1994 murder of Cheri Huss after his DNA was allegedly found in bite mark on her neck

Cheri Huss, 39, was found dead in her Desert Hot Springs, California, apartment in April 1994 with several stab wounds and a bite mark on her neck 

Sharron Eugene Gadlin, 48, was arrested after his DNA from the bite wound and the saliva test taken on Valentine’s Day 2022 matched. The Riverside County District Attorney’s Office said Huss had fought Gadlin before she was killed, causing him to bleed

Sharron Eugene Gadlin, 48, of Gardena, was arrested in March 2022 and charged with first-degree murder for the 1994 killing of 39-year-old Cheri Huss. 

Huss was found dead in her Parma Drive apartment in Desert Hot Springs in April 1994 with multiple stab wounds and a bite mark on her neck. 

Authorities said she fought off her attacker, reportedly causing Gadlin’s body to be left on the scene, which was later matched with his DNA from the bite wound.

It is unclear how Gadlin, who was 20 at the time of the crime, got into Huss’ home and if the pair knew each other, or what the motive for the killing was.

The Regional Cold Case Team – which is made up a members of the DA’s Bureau of Investigations, Riverside County Sheriff-Coroner Department and police, and the FBI – was able to match his DNA using genetic genealogy and discovered he lived 12 miles away from Huss in Thousand Palms at the time of the crime.

After receiving a warrant, investigators obtained a saliva sample from Gadlin on Valentine’s Day 2022 and sent the sample to the Department of Justice’s lab, who confirmed his salvia and the blood from the scene matched.

In addition, the lab confirmed that the saliva matched the ‘DNA profile of the person suspected of murdering Cheri Huss,’ the DA’s Office said.

Gadlin remains in the Robert Presley Detention Center on a $1million bond.

DNA breakthrough leads to arrest of Joseph George Sutherland for murders of Susan Tice and Erin Gilmour who were killed within months of each other in 1983

Joseph George Sutherland, 61, was arrested and charged in connection with the 1983 killings of Susan Tice, 45, and Erin Gilmour, 22, nearly 60 years after the murders

Erin Gilmour (left) was a 22-year-old aspiring fashion designer and Susan Tice (right) was a 45-year-old mother of four who held a master’s degree in social work and worked with disadvantaged children

In November 2022, Joseph George Sutherland, 61, was arrested and charged in connection with the 1983 killings of Susan Tice, 45, and Erin Gilmour, 22. 

Both women had been sexually assaulted and stabbed to death in Toronto.

Although their bodies were discovered four months apart, detectives linked the deaths using DNA technology in 2000, and investigators suspected the same man in both cases.

In 2019, genetic samples in the case were sent to a lab in Texas, where the results were cross-referenced with samples uploaded to Family Tree DNA, a Houston-based commercial genetic testing company. 

From there, detectives worked backwards, building a family tree of the suspect’s nearest common relatives.

As they closed in on Sutherland, police served him with a warrant for his DNA to test directly against the samples recovered from the crime scenes.

Sutherland had not previously been a suspect or person of interest in the deaths of Gilmour and Tice, and that police would not have connected him without the DNA technology.

Free ‘spit kit’ leads to conviction of Washington trucker in 1987 double murders of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg

William Talbott II, a truck driver from Seattle-Tacoma, was convicted of killing Tanya Van Cuylenborg, 18, and her boyfriend, Jay Cook, 20, in 1987. Pictured: Van Cuylenborg and Cook in front of their van

Talbott II was found guilty on two counts of first-degree murder in 2019. Pictured: Talbott is helped to a wheelchair by Snohomish County Sheriff’s Deputies after being found guilty 

The case went cold until a genealogy site was used to build a family tree and find the suspect

William Talbott II, a former truck driver from Seattle-Tacoma, was convicted of killing Tanya Van Cuylenborg, 18, and her boyfriend, Jay Cook, 20.

The killings occurred in 1987, but Talbott wasn’t arrested until 2018, after authorities used a genealogy website to identify him as the person who left his DNA on one of the victims.

In 2015, Talbott’s cousin Chelsea Rustad entered a contest and won a DNA ‘spit kit’ and uploaded her profile – which led to Talbott’s connection to the murders. 

He became the first person convicted as a result of genealogy research, PEOPLE reported. 

‘Police told me that without my DNA, he would not have been arrested,’ Rustad previously told PEOPLE. ‘There would have been no trial. That family would have never had answers.’

DNA sample from handle of Gene Meyer’s truck leads to arrest in 1988 murder of Betty Rolf decades after she was beaten to death during her walk to work in a Wisconsin blizzard

Gene Meyer, 66, (left) of Eatonville, Washington, was arrested and charged with murder and sexual assault more than three decades after Betty Rolf, 60, (right) was killed

Gene Meyer, 66, of Eatonville, Washington, was arrested and charged with murder and sexual assault more than three decades after Betty Rolf, 60, was killed. 

Rolf was walking to work in a  a blizzard in Wisconsin on November 6, 1988, when she was sexually assaulted and beaten to death.  

The case turned cold until law enforcement used familial DNA, which led them to Meyer. A DNA sample from the handle of Meyer’s truck allegedly matched swabs taken from Rolf’s body after her death, a criminal complaint says.

Meyer lived about a mile from the crime scene at the time Rolf was murdered.

He is being held on a $2 million bond in Wisconsin and appeared for a preliminary hearing this week. His arraignment is scheduled for April 5.

Ohio man charged with murder of Mary Catherine Edwards who had been in his wedding after DNA match found on genealogy database 

Clayton Foreman was charged in 2021 for the murder of his former classmate Mary Catherine Edwards more than 25 years after she was killed

Mary Catherine Edwards was a Texas teacher when she was found dead in her home in 1995

Clayton Bernard Foreman was charged in 2021 for the murder of his former classmate Mary Catherine Edwards more than 25 years after she was killed in 1995 in Beaumont, Texas.

Edwards, who was last seen on January 13, 1995, was a close family friend and had even been a bridesmaid at his wedding to his first wife.

Cold case detectives managed to link Foreman to the case in April 2020 when they submitted DNA evidence found on Edwards’ body to a lab for comparison to the database.

After a link was found to a family member, law enforcement officials collected DNA samples from trash taken from outside Foreman’s Ohio home and found a positive match, an affidavit states.

During the course of their investigation, police say they also found similarities between Edwards’ killing and a 1981 rape Foreman had previously pleaded guilty to. 

Foreman had given a school classmate a ride home after he found her stranded at a gas station. Cops say he ‘bound her hands behind her back with a belt and held a knife to her throat’ before sexually assaulting her.

Edwards’ body was also discovered with her hands bound behind her back, authorities say. Her parents had found her corpse at her Park Meadows, Texas, home when they went to check on her because she wasn’t answering the phone.

Her body was discovered in a bathtub with her hands handcuffed behind her back and her head under the water, the Texas Department of Public Safety said. She had been sexually assaulted.

Foreman has not yet entered a plea to the charge against him, PEOPLE reports. 

Minnesota dad charged with murdering Jeanie Ann Childs in 1993 after cops matched his DNA from napkin at ice rink to crime scene

Jerry A. Westrom was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison for the 1993 murder of Jeanie Ann Childs, a case that was cracked after police traced his DNA on a genealogy site

Jeanne Ann Childs, 35, was brutally stabbed to death in June 1993 in her Minneapolis home

Jerry A. Westrom, a businessman and well known ‘hockey dad,’ was charged in a 26-year-old cold case after police traced his DNA on a genealogy site. 

Jeanne Ann Childs, 35, was brutally stabbed to death in June 1993 in her Minneapolis apartment. 

The case remained cold for years but after the Golden State Killer was caught, detectives used the same method which led to his arrest. 

Detectives entered DNA found at the crime scene into genealogy websites and were led to two possible matches, which include Westrom. 

They trailed Westrom and grabbed his discarded hot-dog napkin at the ice rink in January 2019.

They then matched his DNA to that of their suspect. He was convicted of first degree murder in 2022 and sentenced to life in prison.  

DNA found on a conch shell that was used as a murder weapon linked to Rose Marie Moniz’ half brother to crack 20-year-old cold case

David Reed, 53 (left), allegedly beat Rose Marie Moniz, 41 (right), to death with a cast-iron kettle, a fireplace poker and the shell in March of 2001

David Reed, 53, allegedly beat his half-sister Rose Marie Moniz, 41, to death with a cast-iron kettle, a fireplace poker and a conch shell in March 2001. 

His DNA was in a database after he attacked another woman in 2003 – this time with a tire iron – and stole her purse.

Police finally pieced together the clues this year when detectives were able to get DNA from the conch shell by envisioning how the attacker might have held it.

Based on the abrasions on Moniz’s face, they determined that she was probably struck by the shell’s spiny point, and that the attacker probably held the shell with his fingers inside its opening for leverage.

Reed was indicted by a grand jury on charges of murder and armed robbery. He has pleaded not guilty, but was denied bail in January 2022.

DNA on roommate’s toothbrush led to arrest in 2006 murder of Francisca Perea-Dominguez after it allegedly matched semen found at the crime scene

Francisca Perea-Dominguez (left) was found dead in her room in 2006 but her roommate Salvador Hernandez-Morales (right) was not charged in her murder for 16 years when in 2022, police matched DNA from his toothbrush to DNA at the crime scene

For 16 years, the murder of Francisca Perea-Dominguez was unsolved. She was sexually assaulted and stabbed to death in her bedroom in 2006. 

Her roommate Salvador Hernandez-Morales was always a person of interest, but was not charged until October 2022. 

Police say DNA on a toothbrush used by Hernandez-Morales helped crack the case after it allegedly matched semen found at the crime scene, PEOPLE reported.

A warrant is currently out for his arrest.

DNA links Reuben J. Smith to two 1980s cold case murders of Shannon Rose Lloyd and Renee Cuevas  

Shannon Lloyd (left), 23, was killed in 1986 and Renee Cuevas (right), 27, was killed in 1989. Reuben J. Smith was linked to murders after his DNA matched DNA at both crime scenes

Reuben J. Smith was linked to two murders in the 1980s after DNA matched the DNA found at both crime scenes.

Authorities had Smith’s DNA on file after he was arrested for sexually assaulting and attempting to kill another woman in 1998, PEOPLE reported. 

In 1986, Shannon Rose Lloyd, 23, was sexually assaulted and strangled to death in her Garden Grove, California home. 

In 1989, 27-year-old Renee Cuevas was found dead on a road near Irvine, California. 

Both cases were linked and determined to be by the same killer in 2003, but it wasn’t until 2021 when Orange County District Attorney’s Investigative Genetic Genealogy team identified Smith as a possible suspect, NBC Los Angeles reports.

His DNA matched samples found at both crime scene. Smith died by suicide when he was 39 years old in 1999.  

Advanced DNA technology used to link Jeffrey Paul Premo to DNA found on ax used to kill Jennifer Brinkman in 1998 

Jennifer Brinkman, 19, was killed in 1998, but her alleged killer was not caught until 2022

Jeffrey Paul Premo, 52, was arrested in December 2022 in connection to the 1998 death of 19-year-old Jennifer Brinkman.

The arrest was made more than 20 years after Brinkman’s murder with the help of advanced DNA technology and genetic genealogy.

Investigators say they matched his DNA to an ax that was used in the murder and found at the crime scene in 1998, PEOPLE reported. 

Brinkman is believed to have met her killer on a phone chat line. Investigators from early in the investigation found a letter the suspect wrote to Brinkman before her death that indicated the pair had met, police said at a press conference in 2022. 

Premo was booked into the Snohomish County Jail and posted a $250,000 bond in December 2022. 

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