Cold Case Cards: All In – DNA Changing the Game

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This is Part 1 of 4 of a 12 on 12 Digital Original – The Cold Case Cards: All In »

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — Jade Roberts was just a kid when her mom said goodbye and was never seen again.

“Eighteen years,” she said. “Eighteen whole years without the person who brought me into this world.”

Alex Tsouvalos lost his brother at a similar age.

“To live your life after something like this is such a shock,” he said.

Roseanne Robinson’s sister was only a teenager when she was killed.

“The pain she must have gone through,” she said.

The stories are all unique. But the pain they all feel is the same.

Their grief is amplified, they say, because the murders are unsolved.

“My family just needs to heal,” Roberts said. “We need something.”

New Hope

Warwick detectives ran out of leads.

In May 2013, 66-year-old Jack  Fay was murdered in Warwick City Park and left inside a trash barrel.

“He was really smart, intelligent guy,” his son Dan Fay said. “He would talk to anybody.”

Detectives investigating the homicide had the killer’s DNA but there was no match in the federal database.

“We had DNA. We had a weapon. We had a very secluded crime scene, and we could not come up with our suspect,” Warwick Police Capt. Joseph Hopkins said.

Detectives kept the investigation in the news to bring in new tips and leads.  On the three-year anniversary of Fay’s death, investigators revealed they had come up with a profile of what the suspect might look like thanks to new advances in DNA technology. There still wasn’t a match though.

Detective Sgt. Mark Canning said at the time, a DNA match was still their best bet to solve the case

A break in California gave them a new lead. Detectives used a controversial new tool to arrest the Golden State Killer. They took DNA from one of the scenes and put it through a genealogy database.

Warwick detectives contacted a similar company, Identifinders International, to use the same technique with their DNA.

“That was magnificent,” Identifinders President Colleen Fitzpatrick said. “That was very difficult.”

Her team said they connected the DNA found at the scene to a second cousin twice removed of Pawtucket resident Michael Soares. He was arrested and charged with Fay’s murder this past February.

“Soares’ arrest was the result of his being identified as a suspect in this case through an extensive investigation,” Warwick Police Chief Rick Rathbun said. “His DNA matched evidence samples at the scene, located on a trash barrel, from the body of Mr. Fay, and a weapon discovered next to the victim.”

Fitzpatrick said this new use of genealogy DNA has changed cold case investigations.

“You don’t have to be in the database,” she said. “Your brother doesn’t have to be in the database. You can have third and fourth cousins in the database and we can still figure it out.”

Hopkins credited the technology at a news conference.

“Without this line of investigation, we would not be solving this case any time in the near future,” he said.

Identifinders used a database called GED Match to connect the dots. It’s a public database that Fitzpatrick said they have now used in 200 cases.

After privacy concerns arose from the Golden State Killer arrest, GED Match changed its policies. According to its website, anyone who uploads their DNA to the site must “opt-in” to allow their information to be used by detectives.

Fitzpatrick said since that change, the database pool has shrunk by 90%.

“There has already been 100,000 people that have opted-in and that’s fine because as time goes on, that’s going to get back to where it was,” she said. “It may take a year. Who knows?”

The New Approach

Shane and Clint Cole were 4 and 5 years old when their big sister Christine walked to the store for groceries and never returned.

“It ruined my family,” Shane said. “My mother, it took a big toll on her.”

Christine’s 10-year-old body washed ashore in Warwick in February 1988. A recent court affidavit revealed that in April of this year, Pawtucket Detective Sue Cormier contacted Fitzpatrick to analyze DNA recovered from Christine’s clothes.

There wasn’t a hit, but it narrowed the suspect pool, according to the court document.

On July 18, Joao Monteiro was arrested for Christine’s murder. He maintains his innocence.

It’s not the only case in which Fitzpatrick’s team is involved. Smithfield police are investigating the murder of a man found in Stump Pond in 1987. He was wrapped in chicken wire and weighted down with barbells and rocks.

The body was never identified.

“Without knowing who they are or where they came from, it’s very difficult to get any sort of justice for that person,” Detective Gregg Catlow said.

The man’s DNA is being looked at again using today’s technology, according to Catlow.

“They are testing the DNA for further sequencing and then it’s going to go to another lab—which is happening as we speak—for further sequencing,” he explained.

Once they have that, Catlow said they will give the profile to Fitzpatrick.

“It’s very important because once we get that data, we have to have somebody that knows what to do with it,” he said.

Time and Money

Genealogical testing has opened doors in many homicide investigations. It’s a powerful tool that comes with a cost.

“It’s expensive for the testing and its a lot of effort,” Catlow said.

Central Falls Detective Jeff Araujo agreed. 

“It’s very costly,” he said. “It’s very difficult.”

Araujo and Catlow said despite the cost, it wouldn’t affect their investigations.

“Any one of our homicides, if I said, ‘chief, this is going to cost $5,000, $10,000,’ he’s going to say, ‘Do it. Do it.'”

Departments with smaller budgets might not be given the same leniency.

“There’s a lot of agencies, they’re so small,” Araujo said. “There’s only so many line items, so much revenue that you get for a year to throw into a bucket for something that you’re not even sure you should put into that bucket. It’s hard for them.”

Fitzpatrick said at Identifinders, her team is made up of volunteers. There’s an administrative fee, but she says they don’t charge for the hours of work they put into connecting a sample. 

“One case took five hours, another case took 15 months—6,000 hours,” Fitzpatrick said. “We aren’t limited by having to pay our people hourly. We can just do it until we drop. So it can take a year and a half even. We are just coming up on solving a case that took a year and a half.”

There are many Rhode Island communities retesting samples this year in decades-old cases. In South Kingstown, Detective Ray Lamont said they have a new lead in the 1969 murder of Louise McMillen.

“We were able to get a DNA profile off of one piece of evidence,” Lamont said. “I was ecstatic when I got the news.”

Cranston Detective Robert Santagata is taking another look at DNA in the 1988 murder of Lauren Morris.

“The evidence is being reexamined right now to see what can be resubmitted for DNA analysis,” he said.

Araujo said in Central Falls, the updated technology is giving him new hope in one of his cold case investigations.

“It might not be a full profile to find out who that person is, but now we can go further with it,” he said.

As the work continues to expand DNA profiles, Araujo has a message for all of the killers that have evaded arrest: “They shouldn’t be comfortable, because we’re getting closer and closer.”

Cold Case Cards: All In

Part II | Part III | Part IV

More Cold Case Cards »

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