Tuesday, May 2, 2017
Top 10 Murder Mysteries Finally Solved Using Forensics
Is the CSI effect real? Some legal and criminal experts have opined that the popularity of forensic TV shows, particularly the CSI franchise, has had a detrimental effect on the justice system. Specifically, they complain that juries have come to expect forensic evidence in every case and are less likely to convict without it. In real life, forensic sciences are a complement to quality police work, but also have an undeniable place in modern criminal investigation. In fact, these murders have gone cold for years, even decades, until recent forensic developments allowed police to finally catch the killer.
10. The Phoenix Canal Killings
In the early 90s, the body of a young woman was found dumped in the Arizona Canal running through Phoenix. Ten months later, another victim was dumped in the same place. The cases went cold until 2015 when the police got a new lead courtesy of forensic genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick cross-referenced the suspect’s DNA, provided by police, against DNA databases already established and available to the public. According to her, there are thousands of these databases—some of them organized by companies or professionals, but most by genealogy enthusiasts who post their DNA profiles in the hopes of finding distant relatives. Since the killer was most likely a man, Fitzpatrick searched only along the Y-DNA line for possible matches.
Within a few weeks, the forensic genealogist tracked down a likely surname—Miller. Police looked through their list of suspects and identified Bryan Patrick Miller. They compared his DNA to that of the suspect and got a match. Miller was arrested in 2016 and is awaiting trial.
9. The Lake City Torso Murder
Twenty-three years ago, the dismembered body of a young man was discovered behind a gas station in Lake City, Florida. Several items related to the murder were also present at the scene, including a blood-soaked flannel shirt, a mattress cover, bathtub safety pads, and bloody knives that were most likely the murder weapons. Despite having DNA from the killer and the victim, both remained unidentified for decades.
This changed in 2015 when modern tests and an updated DNA database finally identified the victim as 16-year-old Fred Laster. His family confirmed that Laster disappeared in 1994 shortly before the discovery of his mutilated body.
Once police knew the identity of the victim, they established a short list of suspects. On that list was Ronnie Leon Hyde, a former youth pastor who was a friend of the family. According to Laster’s sister, Hyde was the last person to see Fred alive, and he changed his story several times during the initial investigation into Fred’s disappearance 23 years ago.
With this information, police obtained a DNA sample from Hyde and matched it to DNA from the flannel shirt left at the crime scene. Also taking into account that a car similar to Hyde’s Chevy Camaro was seen leaving the gas station, the 60-year-old former pastor was arrested and is now awaiting trial.
8. The Krystal Beslanowitch Murder
One of the most modern, most sensitive forensic tools helped solve the cold case of a teenager found bludgeoned to death by the side of the Provo River in Utah in 1995. The victim was 17-year-old Krystal Beslanowitch. Next to her, police found the murder weapon—a blood-stained rock. They tried to recover DNA from it, but 90s technology yielded no usable results.
In 2013, investigators analyzed the same rock again, this time using a modern tool called the M-Vac. It is a wet-vacuum collection system used to collect the smallest traces of DNA. It was used on the side of the stone opposite the bloodstain—most likely the part gripped by the killer. Even after 18 years, the M-Vac collected 21 nanograms of genetic material which was more than enough for a DNA profile.
The new evidence quickly pointed to a former airport shuttle driver named Joseph Michael Simpson. His DNA was already in the system as he had previously served jail time for another murder. In 2016, Simpson was convicted of Beslanowitch’s murder and sentenced to life without parole.
7. The Suspected Brooklyn Serial Killer
In 2004, the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn was shocked when dismembered body parts were found throughout multiple areas such as a subway tunnel and a recycling plant. They belonged to 19-year-old Rashawn Brazell, but police never recovered his head. In 2016, a 38-year-old named Kwauhuru Govan was charged with the murder based on DNA evidence.
The charge came following an interview where Govan’s contradictory, evasive answers placed him at the top of the suspect list. At the time, Govan was already in custody on a similar murder charge that took place in Bushwick in 2004. 17-year-old Sharabia Thomas was killed with a blow to the head. Like Brazell, her body was dismembered, stuffed into laundry bags, and discarded in an alley.
Police preserved Thomas’s fingernails as they believed they contained DNA from her killer. Twelve years later, technology advanced to the point where forensic scientists were able to recover a DNA sample and match it to that of Govan who was in the system following a robbery in Florida.
Govan protested his innocence with several violent outbursts during court proceedings, but police and prosecutors strongly believe the same person is responsible for both murders. Not only that, but Chief of Detectives, Robert Boyce, stated Govan is being investigated in connection with other crimes, believing there is a “great possibility” that he might be a serial killer.
6. The Slaying Soccer Mom
At first glance, 48-year-old Carolyn Heckert appeared to live an ideal life. She was a real estate agent in Smithville, Missouri, she had two daughters and lived in a nice, upscale house in the suburbs. However, recent events showed that Heckert was hiding a very dark past after forensic evidence placed her at the heart of two murder investigations.
The first took place in 1989 when 18-year-old Sarah DeLeon was stabbed to death in Kansas City, Kansas. DeLeon had started dating Heckert’s ex-boyfriend. Detectives at the time were aware that Heckert, then known as Carolyn Coon, had been harassing and threatening her love rival, but found no physical evidence to connect her to the murder. A few decades later, the rise of forensic science meant that new DNA evidence pointed the finger at Heckert.
Carolyn Heckert was arrested in late 2016 for the 1989 murder. During the investigation, police realized that DNA evidence placed Heckert at the scene of another cold case from 1994. Diana Ault, 26, was gunned down in her home, in front of her baby daughter and four-year-old son. Police believe jealousy was again the motive, and Heckert is their main suspect, although she has not yet been formally charged.
5. The Murder of Nova Welsh
In 1981, 24-year-old Nova Welsh was found dead, stuffed inside a cupboard, in her home in Birmingham, England. She had been strangled and went undiscovered for three weeks. Almost 36 years later, her former partner Osmond Bell was finally charged with her murder thanks to an old piece of gum which yielded a DNA sample that placed him at the scene of the crime.
The gum was initially used to secure the lock on the cupboard where Welsh’s body was found. Bell argued that he performed the impromptu repair job before his former partner’s death. However, the same DNA was found on an envelope containing an anonymous letter blaming another man for Welsh’s murder, trying to deflect suspicion away from Bell.
Bell also had a motive, as Welsh had left him for another man after several instances of domestic violence. The judge saw it as a crime of passion and sentenced the 60-year-old Bell to 12 years for manslaughter.
4. The Murder of Karen Klaas
In 1976, 32-year-old Karen Klaas was assaulted in her Hermosa Beach home which she once shared with her ex-husband, Righteous Brothers singer, Bill Medley. She died of her injuries a few days later. Even though police had several viable suspects, and Medley hired his own investigators to track down Klaas’s killer, the case went cold for over 40 years.
Police had the foresight to collect a towel found next to the woman’s body in the hopes that one day it could provide a new lead. As technology advanced, investigators were able to obtain a DNA sample from the towel. With a DNA profile, investigators looked for a match in their database in 1999 and again in 2011, but they came up empty.
Detectives searched for a third time in 2016 and got a hit through familial DNA. A relative of the killer was in the system for a crime committed in late 2011. This new lead helped police identify Karen Klaas’s killer as Kenneth Eugene Troyer. He was gunned down by cops during a prison break in 1982. This was before police began regularly collecting DNA samples from convicted felons, which is why Troyer was not in the system.
This marked the second time familial DNA evidence helped close a case in Los Angeles County. The first was the identification of the notorious Grim Sleeper, Lonnie Franklin.
3. The Saturday Night Fever Killer
In 1982, 17-year-old Yiannoulla Yianni was raped and murdered in her North London home, shortly after being seen talking to a young man in his 20s on her doorstep. Police found physical evidence at the scene, including semen on the bedspread, but lacked the technology to test it. It was not until 1999 that they were finally able to extract a usable sample but, even then, they turned up no matches.
Finally, in 2016, police caught a break when a new search found a match—56-year-old James Warnock. He had been entered into the system after being forced to give a DNA sample following a charge of possessing indecent images of children.
At the time of the murder, Warnock lived about half-a-mile (800 meters) from the victim. He described himself as tall, thin, with dark hair styled to look like Saturday Night Fever era John Travolta. This matched descriptions given by neighbors of the man seen talking to Yianni. When presented with the DNA evidence, Warnock tried to claim he was in a sexual relationship with the victim. The jury did not buy it and found him guilty of rape and murder.
2. The Cornell-Story Murders
Since the rise of DNA evidence, one of the most ambitious projects in the United States was the establishment of a national database—the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). It ensures that DNA samples of new criminals are checked against past DNA profiles of unidentified criminals collected at crime scenes and logged into the database. On several occasions, this has helped investigators find new leads in decades-old murders that would have, otherwise, likely gone unsolved forever.
That was the case in 2016 when Joseph Zieler of North Fort Myers, Florida, was arrested for shooting his son with a pellet gun and charged with aggravated assault. When his DNA profile was uploaded to CODIS, it matched a sample taken from an unsolved double murder from 27 years ago . . . In 1990, the city of Cape Coral, Florida, was rocked when 32-year-old Lisa Story was killed inside her home alongside her roommate’s 11-year-old daughter Robin Cornell.
This was not the first time detectives tried to close the case using modern forensics. In 2015, they tried another technique called DNA phenotyping—a procedure that tries to determine what a person looks like based on their DNA profile. The case also garnered plenty of media attention—being featured on America’s Most Wanted three times. Neither technique yielded any solid leads.
1. The 50-Year-Old Cold Case
Since 2007, New Jersey State Police have been using the Applied Biosystems AmpFISTR Identifiler amplification kit. Basically, the kit uses a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to amplify a DNA selection many times over so that a usable sample can be retrieved, even from the smallest sources. In early 2016, this technique was used to put to rest one of the Garden State’s oldest unsolved cases—the 50-year-old murder of Mary Agnes Klinsky.
Klinsky was just a teenager in 1965 when her body was found after she was raped and beaten to death. There were no solid leads at the time, but police kept the biological evidence in proper storage, waiting for the right tool that could put it to good use. Eventually, investigators were able to show that Mary Klinsky had been a victim of infamous New Jersey serial killer Robert Zarinsky.
Zarinsky died in 2008 while serving jail time on two other murder charges. According to the established timeline, Klinsky might have been his first victim, but Zarinsky has long been suspected of up to ten homicides. Police are hopeful the new forensic tool will help to solve other long-standing cold cases.