Americans’ appetite for learning more about their ancestral past is helping solve murders. DNA kits used for genealogy are making connections in decades-old crimes.
Just a month ago, investigators said they’d solved the cold case murder of an Indiana college student, thanks to new DNA testing and genealogy technology.
Police identified Jeffrey Lynn Hand as the possible killer of Pamela Milam, a 19-year-old Indiana State University commuter student, who was found bound and gagged in her vehicle nearly 50 years ago.
Milam vanished the night of Sept. 15, 1972, after leaving a university sorority event in Terre Haute, about 80 miles southwest of Indianapolis. Her family found her body in the trunk of her car on campus the next day, and police said she died of strangulation. There were no witnesses or clear suspects at the time.
Terre Haute Police Chief Shawn Keen said Hand died in a gunfight with police in 1978 during an attempted abduction.
Investigators who took over the cold case in 2008 ran a “reverse paternity” test using DNA from Hand’s children and comparing it to DNA evidence from the scene.
The evidence, Keen said, would have been enough for prosecutors to charge Hand had he been alive.
Pat Postiglione is a legend in Metro police crime solving. Before he retired in 2013 and took a job with the Davidson Co. District Attorney’s Office, he served as Detective Sergeant of the Homicide Cold Case Unit and was the lead detective on at least 130 cases.
“A lot of time you have unidentified DNA on a crime scene. We have suspect DNA, but we have no idea who this suspect this person is — so he or she — is not in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database” Postiglione explained. “So now, the other avenue you have to go through is Ancestry.com and these other companies that do the same, and you get a hit that way. That doesn’t mean the person in Ancestry is the suspect, but it could mean they are related to the suspect.”
Photos of Linda and Clifford Bernhardt, who were killed in 1973, are displayed at a press conference at the Yellowstone County administrative offices in Billings, Montana on Monday, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)
A genealogy kit played a part in cracking a cold case in Montana last March. Linda and Clifford Bernhardt, both 24, were killed at their Billings-area home in 1973 in a case that would stymie investigators for decades.
Investigators believe they were killed by Cecil Stan Caldwell, a longtime city of Billings employee who was once a co-worker of Linda Bernhardt, Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said. He did not identify a motive in the killing.
Caldwell had no criminal record and died in 2003 at the age of 59.
In 2015, the sheriff’s cold case unit enlisted a Reston, Virginia, technology company, Parabon NanoLabs to analyze the DNA by comparing it to genetic samples available through a public genealogy database. That process ultimately narrowed the list of suspects to Caldwell and his brother, who is still alive and living outside the area, said Vince Wallis, a former detective captain with the sheriff’s office who now works for the Billings Police Department.
After DNA was obtained voluntarily from the brother, it was analyzed by the Montana State Crime Lab to eliminate him as a suspect. That left only Caldwell, Wallis said.
Wallis added other circumstantial evidence, including “unspecified behavior” by Caldwell connected the suspect to the crime scene, but he declined to offer additional details.
“Just recently in the last week, they got somebody through that. He had killed a young couple 30 or 40 years ago,” Postiglione said. “They connected that to him through the DNA using that exact same method, and they got the Golden Gate serial killer doing the same thing. I think it’s an incredible tool.”
News 2 is investigating local cold cases. We have special reports all day Thursday in every newscast digging deeper into homicides that have stumped investigators for years.