Greasy napkin, genealogy website help convict man in 26-year old murder cold case
Feb 19, 2019
A Minnesota man was taken into custody last week after DNA removed from a greasy napkin connected him to a 26-year-old cold case, according to The New York Times.
Jerry Westrom, 52, was eating a hot dog at a hockey game last month when he wiped his mouth on a napkin and threw it into the trash, authorities said.
Investigators, who had been looking at Westrom as a potential suspect in the 1993 stabbing death of 35-year-old Jeanna Ann “Jeanie” Childs, followed Westrom’s movements at the game and retrieved the napkin from the trash when the coast was clear, according to The Star Tribune.
Investigators ran DNA from the crime scene through a genealogy website then matched those results to DNA obtained from the napkin, connecting Westrom to Childs’ death, the reports said.
According to The Star Tribune, Westrom was arrested last Monday and is in jail on a $1 million bail.
Childs’ body was discovered after police were called to her apartment to investigate a water leak, according to The Star Tribune. Officers found Childs dead in the shower wearing nothing but socks and covered in dozens of stab wounds and wounds inflicted after her death.
Investigators collected a bed comforter, towel, washcloth, T-shirt and blood from a stain on the sink as evidence, but the trail soon went cold after police found no connected DNA in their database, according to The Star.
Advances in DNA testing technology led to Minnesota police reopening Childs’ case in 2015.
Police reports state, “In 2018, in an effort to identify unknown DNA obtained from the crime scene, cold case investigators consulted with the FBI’s experts, and a private DNA company.”
Last year, crime scene DNA was run through a genealogy website and turned up two possible suspects, including Westrom, who authorities say submitted or had a family member who submitted DNA for ancestry testing, according to The Star.
DNA recovered from the discarded napkin matched DNA from the crime scene, giving authorities probable cause to arrest Westrom, according to the reports.
Authorities collected another DNA sample from Westrom once he was in custody, which matched sperm found on evidence collected from the crime scene, according to The New York Times.
Bigger picture: According to The New York Times, authorities have been increasingly collecting DNA from genealogy databases in criminal cases. The technique was popularized last year after authorities used a genealogy website to make an arrest in the case of the “Golden State Killer,” an alleged rapist and murderer who committed dozens of crimes in the 1970s and 1980s and managed to elude police for decades.
The technique has raised ethical concerns about how and if genetic information submitted to ancestry sites should be used in criminal cases. Several ancestry websites, like GEDmatch, have updated their privacy policies to reinforce that submitted DNA may be used by law enforcement.
According to The New York Times, more than 15 million people have submitted DNA to genealogy websites in recent years.
“Researchers believe that in the coming years, 90 percent of Americans of European descent will be identifiable, even if they have not submitted their own DNA,” The New York Times reported.
Westrom has denied all allegations against him in the case of Childs’ murder and has made no comment about the case.