Genealogy Helps Solve Colorado Cold Cases

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DENVER – They’ve happened time and time again since 2020 – press conferences where law enforcement announces arrests in cold cases. What they have in common is how investigators finally came up with a suspect so many years later: the technology known as genetic genealogy.

Denver7 has reviewed several instances where this technique has been used to help law enforcement and prosecutors get closer to a suspect. Host Jason Gruenauer delved into file images, heard from family members and interviewed those on the front lines of using genetic genealogy to help resolve cold cases.

What is that?

Genetic genealogy is a law enforcement technique that combines two things that are well known and widely used. First, genetics or DNA – something found at a crime scene that is statistically specific to a single person. Second, genealogy, the creation of a family tree that links relatives to a common ancestor.

“This is the man who killed this victim almost 40 years ago,” Mitch Morrissey said at a recent press conference announcing a cold case arrest.

Morrissey is a former Denver District Attorney specializing in the use of DNA as a prosecutor. When he left office after reaching the end of his term, he turned that expertise into a new company specializing in genetic genealogy and cold cases called United Data Connect. The UDC begins with DNA evidence from unsolved cases that belong to an unknown suspect and that don’t match anyone in a criminal database.

“So we are sequencing DNA (found at a crime scene) and using the databases that people think of when they think of ancestry DNA. They think of “the DNA of the family tree,” they think of “23 and me,” he explained. “So we use two of these databases, the only two that cooperate with law enforcement, and we search these databases for matches with those left at the scene of the crime.”

And sometimes, as Morrissey explained, partial matches come back to this unknown DNA.

“Usually what we get is a cousin, in the range of third cousins, and then you start building family trees from that,” he said.

His investigating genealogist builds that person’s family tree using items such as obituaries, marriage announcements, birth certificates, etc. Law enforcement can then use these trees to focus on a person who might have lived in a certain location at a certain time, and narrow them down to a potential suspect. If they get that potential suspect’s DNA and compare it to the original sample, suspects can be found and unresolved cases can be resolved.

“I would say that genetic genealogy has been a revolutionary technology for us trying to resolve unresolved cases,” 18th Judicial District Attorney John Kellner said in an interview with Denver7.

“Now we’re looking at it from a completely different perspective. It really opens up the possibility of resolving unresolved cases that are 20, 30, 40, 50 years old, ”Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock added in a separate interview.

Denver7 reviewed six individual cases that were impacted by genetic genealogy as part of the ‘Cold No More’ in-depth presentation. You can watch it in its entirety in the player below.

Cold No More: How Genetic Genealogy Solves Colorado Cold Cases

1980 cold cracked case
The first cold Colorado case to be resolved through genetic genealogy was the 1980 murder of Helene Pruszynski. The 21-year-old was sexually assaulted and murdered in Douglas County, but the case was cut short. United Data Connect has helped investigators focus on a potential suspect. James Curtis Clanton was arrested in Florida and ultimately pleaded guilty in this case. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. To learn more about the case, click here.

Denver7

James Clanton pleaded guilty to murder in the 1980 murder of Helene Pruszynski.

Double murder in Breckenridge
The murder of two young women in Breckenridge had blocked law enforcement and private investigators for 39 years, until the case was dealt with using genetic genealogy. Annette Schnee, 21, and Barbara “Bobbi Jo” Oberholtzer, 29, disappeared on January 6, 1982. They were both hitchhiking. Decades later, DNA from a bloodied glove found at the crime scene was linked, through genetic genealogy, to Alan Lee Phillips of Dumont, Colorado. He was arrested and charged with the two murders. To learn more about the case, click here.

Annette Schnee Bobbie Jo Oberholtzer

Courtesy of RockyMountainColdCase.org.

Annette Schnee, 21, left, and Bobbie Jo Oberholtzer, 29.

The murder of a resolute businessman
Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock was only a Patrol Assistant in 1985 when he first worked on the case of a Douglas County businessman who was killed at his residence. The Roger Dean murder investigation has cooled off after working multiple times. Genetic genealogy would now bring Sheriff Spurlock to Los Angeles, where Michael Jefferson was arrested for Dean’s murder. He is now charged and awaiting trial. To learn more about the case, click here.

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Colorado Bureau of Investigation

Roger Dean, 51, was killed in a home invasion in Douglas County in November 1985.

Solved with a can of Coke
Sylvia Quayle was murdered in her Cherry Hills home in 1981, with DNA left at the original crime scene. In 2020, Mitch Morrissey and United Data Connect narrowed the field to two possible suspects. Investigators found the DNA of one of these suspects on a discarded Coca-Cola can that would match the original DNA from the crime scene. David Dwayne Anderson was arrested and charged with his murder. To learn more about the case, click here.

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Cherry Hills Village Police Department.

Sylvie Quayle.

Closure after the murder of a soldier
Darlene Krashoc’s parents never gave up hope that the person who killed their daughter Darlene would be found. In 1987, the Fort Carson soldier was found dead, but the killer was not located. It was the genetic genealogy that led to the breakdown of the case, as law enforcement was able to track down Michael Whyte and match his DNA to that of the killer. A jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison. To learn more about the case, click here.

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Colorado Springs Police Department.

Darlene Krashoc was 20 when she was killed in Colorado Springs.

After 38 years, resolved in 3 months
Genetic genealogy can also lead investigators to a suspect and close a closed case without making an arrest. After 38 years, genetic genealogy was used in the case of Jeannie Moore, to lead to Donald Perea. Perea had died years earlier, but DNA from a close family member was able to confirm that he was indeed the killer. To learn more about the case, click here.

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Courtesy of the Jefferson County Sheriff

Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Shrader has announced that Donald Steven Perea, who died in May 2012 at the age of 54, was responsible for the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of 18-year-old Jeannie Moore , in August 1981.

Aurora’s murder cracked
Tangie Sims was found dead in an Aurora alley in 1996. An unknown sample of male blood was left at the scene of the crime. More than 23 years later, genealogical research has helped investigators narrow the scope of suspects to a truck driver. Wesley Backman was deceased, but police in Aurora were able to report that the Sims murder case had been closed thanks to their DNA match. To learn more about the case, click here.

Tangie Sims Aurora Cold Case

Colorado Bureau of Investigation

Tangie Sims.

‘No longer our Jane Doe’
In addition to identifying potential suspects, genetic genealogy can also help authorities identify victims, including a Jane Doe found murdered in Douglas County in 1993. Investigators initially believed the victim to be a runaway, and the matter has turned cold. Using her DNA and building a tree from it, genetic genealogy was able to help the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office identify her as Rebecca Ann Redeker. They were also able to reopen the case in search of his killer. To learn more about the case, click here.

Rebecca Ann Redeker

Douglas County Sheriff’s Office

Rebecca Ann Redeker

To see how genetic genealogy played a role in resolving these cases and to hear from people who have used it successfully, click on the video above to watch “Cold No More”.


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