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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Feb. 28, 2024

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‘The sky is the limit now’: Genetic genealogy offers promise in solving long-cold Inland Northwest killings


SPOKANE — A body in the river. A murdered boy. A teenage runaway found dead in the brush. Each is a case with an unanswered question: Who killed them?

Detectives are increasingly turning toward genetic genealogy, a powerful new investigative tool, to help solve some of these cases. Even those decades old.

Part technology advancement and part old-fashioned investigation, genetic genealogy can help find killers who have evaded arrest.

“It doesn’t solve every case, but it certainly gives us a hell of an insight that we never had before,” Spokane County Sheriff’s Detective Mark Drapeau said.

In the past three years, Spokane Police have used genetic genealogy to solve two cold case homicides, including the notorious 1959 abduction and slaying of Candy Rogers, a Camp Fire Girl selling mints.

They’re also using the technology to identify the remains of people whose identities are unknown, such as Ruth Belle Waymire.

Investigators at the Spokane Police Department and sheriff’s office have dozens of cold cases they’re evaluating to see whether the technology can finally help crack them.

What is genetic genealogy?

Infamous serial killer Joseph James DeAngelo, also known as the Golden State Killer, was caught in 2018, decades after the crimes, not by traditional police work alone, but through a little-known scientific field pioneered largely by volunteers.

One person who wasn’t surprised by the high-profile case getting solved was CeCe Moore.

She began working in the field of what would become genetic genealogy in 2010 after she became obsessed with the concept while developing a commercial for a DNA testing company.

She became a self-taught genetic genealogist, helping people find long-lost family members on the popular PBS television series “Finding Your Roots.”

Genetic genealogy uses a new kind of DNA testing called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP, pronounced “snip” for short) compared to the more standard model of testing called short tandem repeat.

Only a few labs have the technology to perform the specialized SNP testing. One of them is Parabon Nanolabs in Virginia, where Moore works. This also means DNA panels created using short tandem repeat testing aren’t workable for genealogists. For a case to be eligible for genetic genealogy, there has to be a sample large enough for the new advanced SNP testing.

The amount of material needed to create a SNP profile has grown smaller in recent years.

“The Candy Rogers case is a good example of how quickly technology is changing,” Moore said. “Because in 2018 we looked at the Candy Rogers case, and at that time we didn’t feel the case was viable for investigative genetic genealogy.”

Just two years later, Spokane Police Sgt. Zac Storment sent the case to Othram, another lab, with technology that had advanced enough to create a profile.

The rapid technological development has been sparked in large part by the demands of law enforcement.

“This is a very quickly progressing part of science now,” Moore said. “As soon as I think law enforcement and the forensic science world started seeing just how powerful this tool was that we created under the radar as citizen scientists, then the traditional scientists and the forensic scientists really became interested and started working on being able to work with this very degraded, sometimes mixed, sometimes contaminated DNA.”

Once a SNP panel has been created, a genealogist like Moore uploads the panel to GEDmatch and Family Tree DNA, the two genealogy databases that allow law enforcement to use them. More popular commercial genealogy companies like Ancestry, 23andMe and MyHeritage don’t allow law enforcement to upload DNA panels.

These commercial companies connect customers with biological relatives and help build family trees by comparing DNA.

The databases usually turn up a variety of connections, some as close as parents; others, distant cousins. From there, Moore starts building a family tree, using the connections as an outline she fills in with marriage, birth and death records, among other research.

Eventually, Moore whittles down likely name for the person she’s looking for. Then investigators need to collect a DNA sample to confirm.

The name provided by genetic genealogists like Moore isn’t evidence in most cases, it’s just a tip pointing investigators in the right direction.

“That’s all we’re providing is a lead or a tip,” Moore said. “It’s a highly scientific tip, but it’s still just a lead.”

Genetic genealogy in Spokane

For years, as investigators retired and rookie detectives came in, the cold cases that haunt Spokane would get handed down.

Detectives would come in on their day off to poke around old case files or take a peek into the dusty, long-sealed evidence boxes, where they rarely found answers.

Then in 2015, the Washington State Legislature required all law enforcement agencies in the state to send untested rape kits to labs for DNA processing.

The Spokane Police Department decided to take advantage of grant programs and assigned two officers to investigate the results from the rape kit tests.

When Sgt. Zac Storment was assigned to the project, he decided to take on the bulk of cold case investigations, too. In 2019, he and a few officers attended a meeting on genetic genealogy.

Storment left the meeting about the new DNA testing method a bit confused, but also inspired.

After reviewing a few cold cases, Storment sent off a DNA sample found on Marsi Belecz, a 12-year-old girl who was killed in 1985 after running away from her East Central home.

There was a good sample in the Belecz case, and they quickly got results through Parabon Nanolabs. They got a distant match in the family tree of the killer.

Months later, they exhumed Clayton Carl Giese, a Montanan who was 22 at the time of the slaying and died in 1989. A DNA test confirmed Giese to be the killer.

When they got a match in 2020, Storment called Belecz’s sisters to tell them the news.

“This was the privilege of the case,” Storment said. “It was really crazy to make a call like that for somebody that thought that call would never come.”

The Belecz case was the first successful use of genetic genealogy in the Inland Northwest.

“We were both in shock for a day for two … and then it started to sink in that, well, what else can we do? The sky is the limit now,” Storment said of solving that first case with Death Investigator Nicole Hamada. “You start thinking of all the notorious cases in Spokane and then, let’s apply it, let’s start doing it.”

By the time the Belecz killing was solved, Storment had sent off a DNA sample from the Rogers case for testing, but the sample was too degraded for the technology available in 2019.

There are two major barriers to solving cases with genetic genealogy: lack of biological evidence and officer time.

“Genealogy cannot solve all our cold cases,” Storment said. “If I don’t have DNA, it’s not going to be a genealogy case.”

In some cases, the DNA is too degraded; in others, investigators suspect the person was killed but never found a body.

The other problem is time.

The Spokane Police Department has 10 detectives. In recent years, they investigate some 15-20 homicides each year on top of working other cases, such as drive-by shootings, assaults and attempted murders.

Detectives don’t have time to pick away at the 110 or so cold homicides, where all traditional investigative methods have been exhausted, Storment said.

Storment has to review each case and the evidence, then work with a forensic technician to decide what evidence should be tested.

Sometimes the first items they send for testing don’t come back with anything, Storment said.

It takes about a year from when Storment picks up a case to get it reviewed, get samples sent for testing, receive results and complete the genealogy.

He hopes to continue the pace of solving about one case a year.

While the basic barriers to using genetic genealogy are the same, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office faces different challenges, Drapeau said.

The agency has 30 to 40 cold cases, Drapeau said, and many aren’t eligible for the new technology.

One of the most notorious cold cases is the disappearance of Julie Weflen. The 28-year old Bonneville Power Administration employee went missing in September 1987 from a substation where she was working. Investigators never found her body.

Without DNA to submit for a SNP profile, genetic genealogy can’t help in many of the sheriff’s office’s cases.

With significantly fewer cases than the Spokane Police Department, Drapeau said the county department has enough staff to handle the cold cases, but there can be a funding shortfall.

“Funding can be an issue because they’re not cheap,” Drapeau said of the genetic genealogy process.

While the cost is typically under $10,000, according to Storment, Drapeau, and Moore, it can be a stretch for smaller departments.

Drapeau has sent a few samples out for analysis, he said, but they’re still in process.

He is excited about the new technology as a tool for preventing serial offenders.

He thinks about what it would have been like if the technology had been around when Drapeau was on the task force investigating Robert Lee Yates for the murders of 11 Spokane women.

“We’d have had way less dead women. We would have caught him the first or second time out.”

He sees a future where, if DNA on an active case doesn’t get a hit in the national DNA database of criminal offenders called CODIS, investigators will immediately turn to genetic genealogy.

“It would be an excellent tool in routine police work,” Drapeau said. “I’d like to see us use it all the time.”