The Cold Case That Inspired the ‘Golden State Killer’ Detective to Use Genealogy
Posted May 3, 2018 7:27 p.m. EDT
Updated May 3, 2018 7:30 p.m. EDT
LOS ANGELES — Before investigators in California say they solved a decades-old case of rape and murder using a genealogy website, the only other known case to use that method to identify a serial killer involved a gruesome series of murders in New Hampshire in which the bodies of a woman and three young girls were stuffed into metal drums and buried in a state park.
The pioneering approach used in that case would become the inspiration for the detective who finally found the so-called Golden State Killer.
Last year, Paul Holes, an investigator with the Contra Costa County district attorney’s office, heard about a break in a case that he thought might help him solve one that had consumed his life for decades. Holes had spent years hunting the Golden State Killer, who was allegedly responsible for 12 murders and more than 50 rapes, and who spread terror across California during the 1970s and 1980s.
Investigators, he learned, had used genealogy websites to identify the New Hampshire suspect, a man who had died years earlier in a California prison. The techniques gave Holes the idea to try a new, long-shot approach in his own case: using DNA collected from an old crime scene, creating a fake profile on a genealogy website, and then uploading genetic data to identify relatives of the suspect.
The connection between the New Hampshire case, known as the “Bear Brook Murders,” and the Golden State case helps fill out the picture of how detectives were able to crack one of America’s most notorious and vexing serial murder cases after more than four decades of traditional police work led to one false lead after another. In January, investigators began piecing together genetic links between the suspect and users of the ancestry site GEDmatch, which had also been used in the New Hampshire case, and within four months had found their suspect.
Holes, it turned out, was linked to both cases. Years earlier, when he was already tracking the Golden State Killer, he had investigated a man for a murder in California who was later tied to the New Hampshire killings. He had since moved on to other cases, but last year Holes was briefed by a California detective, on a conference call, on how the New Hampshire case was solved, using ancestry websites and the help of genealogists. “I’m listening and I’m thinking, how can I use this technique in my other big case?” he said in an interview. “And that’s when I went on a deep dive with this technology.”
“It’s kind of weird how interconnected this thing was and how these things all came together,” he added.
After identifying distant relatives of the Golden State murder suspect in an online DNA database, Holes and other investigators spent months, working with genealogy consultants and using traditional police methods such as scouring death and census records, to build out about 25 family trees going back as far as the suspect’s great-great-great grandparents,who lived on the East Coast in the 1800s, according to Holes.
By scouring hundreds of names, the investigators narrowed in on a man living in a suburb of Sacramento, who matched physical descriptions of the suspect and, in his early 70s, was the right age. They decided to focus on the man, sent a surveillance team to retrieve an item the suspect discarded near his home, tested it for DNA and got a match with the killer’s genetic profile.
The suspect, Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, was arrested April 25 in a suburb of Sacramento, and days later was charged with murdering a couple in 1978. They were the first charges of many that are likely for DeAngelo.
At around the same time as the Golden State Killer was in the middle of his rape and murder rampage, a man killed a woman and three young girls, and stuffed their bodies into two metal drums and buried them in Bear Brook State Park, in Allenstown, New Hampshire. One barrel was uncovered in 1985, and the other in 2000.
Despite a long investigation, the case remained unsolved — until decades later, when the trail was picked up in California in the last two years.
Investigators now believe that the killer in New Hampshire, known then as Bob Evans, fled the state and came to California, where he committed a number of crimes under various aliases — Curtis, Gerald, Gordon, Larry. By 2002, he was working at a convenience store in Richmond, in Holes’ jurisdiction of Contra Costa County, and going by the name Larry Vanner. It was there that Vanner murdered his live-in girlfriend, whose body was found dismembered under a pile of kitty litter. He was convicted, and died in a California prison in 2010.
By then, though, detectives had come to believe that Vanner was not who he said he was. He had previously been imprisoned in California, under a different name, for the abduction and torture of a young girl. He claimed to be her father, but DNA proved he was not.
That case began in 1986, when a 5-year-old girl named Lisa was abandoned in a trailer park in Scotts Valley, north of Santa Cruz. She was adopted by a police officer, although detectives could never figure out where she came from. She grew up near Los Angeles, according to The Boston Globe, and eventually married and had three children.
“We were always saying, who is Lisa?” Holes said. “And who really is Larry Vanner? And we always hit brick walls using traditional techniques.”
For years, Peter Headley, a detective with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department who specializes in crimes against children, worked on Lisa’s case. Eventually he turned to online genealogy sites, including GEDmatch — the sit investigators eventually used to unlock the Golden State case — to identify her distant relatives.
With the help of a genealogist and other investigators, including from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Headley identified Lisa as Dawn Beaudin, who was last seen in Manchester, New Hampshire, in the early 1980s. Her mother, Denise, had gone missing and is believed to have been murdered by the same man who had abandoned Lisa at the trailer park, and went to prison for murder in California.
“The team was looking at the map to see where Manchester was,” Carol Schweitzer, an investigator in the case, told Forensic Magazine last year. “When they’re pulling up the map to see where Lisa originally came from, we noticed that’s right there. Right near the New Hampshire case.”
Using similar techniques with a DNA sample from the man known as Larry Vanner who died in prison in 2010, investigators discovered the identity of the New Hampshire killer. Last year, New Hampshire authorities identified him as Terry Peder Rasmussen, who was originally from Colorado, and is now believed to have carried out killings across the country. The use of online genealogy websites by law enforcement in the Golden State case has raised legal and privacy concerns among experts, who say that genetic information was uploaded by ordinary citizens looking to make connections with relatives, not to have their data used by the police.
DeAngelo on Wednesday made another court appearance in Sacramento, wearing an orange jail suit and sitting in a wheelchair, for a hearing to consider a motion from his lawyer to prohibit the authorities from taking more DNA and fingerprint samples, a request the judge denied Thursday.
Now, investigators in several jurisdictions are trying to piece together how many crimes the two serial murder suspects may have carried out. In California, detectives are scouring records and DNA databases to fill in the gaps in DeAngelo’s life, and to see if there are other murder cases that can be linked to him. In one instance, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, detectives are trying to determine if DeAngelo was responsible for a rape and murder for which another man served 38 years in prison before being exonerated.
With Rasmussen, investigators suspect he went on a killing rampage in several states after leaving New Hampshire in 1981.
“We know he didn’t just stop,” said Headley, the San Bernardino detective involved in the case. “We have no idea how many people he killed.”
He continued, “I’m trying to find more victims. I’m working the West Coast side of things. New Hampshire is working the East Coast side of things. We’ve got Rasmussen in Texas, Idaho and Arizona. Hawaii.”