Solving 40 Year Old Cold Cases

The unmasking of the Golden State Killer came by unusual means. Unusual in that Joseph DeAngelo Jr. wasn’t caught through surveillance, or from a tip that came through a jail house snitch, or from an eyewitness account of the crime. The murders and rapes suddenly ended decades ago and the trail went cold. When a case goes cold, investigators work the evidence they have, but need something new–some additional thread to unravel–before they can hone in on a suspect. More often than not, once a case goes cold, it remains unsolved.

That was until recent developments in forensic sleight of hand changed the way investigators look at old unsolved crimes. As we recounted here, DeAngelo was identified after a profile was submitted to an open source DNA database, one designed to flesh out that family tree that people are so curious about. In DeAngelo’s case, that family tree led to his capture when a relative spit in a tube and mailed it off to GEDmatch.

image by hoisen via flicker creative commons

Contra Costa County District Attorney investigator, Paul Holes developed a fake profile using DNA from the crimes and submitted the sample to the open source DNA registry. Soon after, a genetic match was found, and with some solid detective work, Sacramento County was able to trail and nail the suspected Golden State Killer.

Joseph DeAngelo, Jr. unmasked as the Golden State Killer and East Area Rapist

The unusual and unconventional use of open source DNA registries has opened up complex legal debate over the right and expectation of privacy, chain of evidence, and the reliability of these private labs. After all, some of the ancestry DNA labs have misidentified canine samples for human. Rover was a very good boy…

This week, El Dorado County California authorities solved a pair of forty year old homicides using this unconventional DNA comparison technique.

On August 20, 1977 the body of Brynn Rainey, aged 27 was found, partially buried on a trail in South Lake Tahoe. She had been reported missing nearly a month and the medical examiner believed the cause of death was strangulation, or suffocation.

image from the El Dorado County District Attorney Cold Case Task Force

On July 1, 1979, the remains of 16 year old Carol Andersen were located along the side of a busy South Lake Tahoe road. Like Rainey, Anderson was strangled to death. The autopsy also showed evidence that she was bound at the wrists before she was killed.

image from the El Dorado County District Attorney Cold Case Task Force

The investigation into the Rainey and Andersen murders quickly ground to a halt and they became two of the sixty cold case homicide victims in El Dorado County.

In 2012, and again in 2013, partial DNA profiles were created from blood and evidence left behind by the killer. That DNA sample did not turn up a match in the national DNA database. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until 2017 that additional testing on the samples concluded that male DNA collected from both victims matched–they were looking for a single suspect.

The El Dorado County Cold Case Task Force submitted the sample to Paragon Nanolabs. The company uploaded publicly available DNA profiles from GEDmatch and developed a family tree from that data. Analysis found that the crime scene DNA likely came from one of three Holt brothers–all of whom were deceased.

With the cooperation of the Holt family, investigators retrieved additional DNA samples and a toothbrush belonging to Joseph Holt proved to be the lead they had waited forty years to find. Joseph Holt was the man responsible for both murders. Holt was a UC Berkley graduate who moved to South Lake Tahoe in 1974. He was a real estate agent and had no criminal history. Holt didn’t live to see himself named as a murder suspect–he died of a heart attach in 2014

In a press conference on February 25, 2019, El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson said that this technology should make those responsible for cold case crimes start to sweat. A search of Holt’s belongings also revealed evidence of other crimes in California, including a burglary and shooting in Los Gatos. A composite drawing of the Los Gatos suspect bears a strong resemblance to Joseph Holt.

Authorities believe he was responsible for other crimes and have labeled him a serial killer–yet another in our region’s legacy.

We appear to be on the frontier of new crime solving methods–be they somewhat unusual and unconventional. It also shows that local law enforcement shouldn’t give up on cold cases.

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