Nowadays, it is possible that a drop of blood or a strand of hair could solve a murder. The ability to store, analyze and compare DNA has completely revolutionized the way police tackle crime. Even the detectives who prefer an old school approach must reluctantly admit that DNA evidence, even if unnecessary during the investigation, is still incredibly useful when it comes to securing a conviction in court.
But that’s just current crimes, though. The area where DNA truly shines is cold cases – murders that occurred years, even decades ago, whose trails have long gone cold. As you are about to see, it is highly unlikely that any of the following crimes would have ever been solved without the help of DNA.
10. The Karen Klaas Cold Case
In 2017, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department managed to put to bed the murder of Karen Klaas, which had occurred 40 years earlier.
On January 30, 1976, 32-year-old Klaas was attacked in her home in Hermosa Beach. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled and, even though she was still alive when she was taken to the hospital, she fell into a coma and died a few days later.
Klaas was the ex-wife of singer Bill Medley, one half of the Righteous Brothers. Medley subsequently hired a private detective to look into his ex-wife’s death, but neither he nor the police managed to find any leads. Fortunately, the authorities were diligent when it came to collecting and preserving biological evidence, which included a towel found next to Karen Klaas’ body.
Back in the ’70s, there wasn’t much to do with it, but in 1999, investigators reopened the case and got a DNA sample from the towel which belonged to the killer. Of course, DNA is only useful if you have something to compare it to. Police looked in their database, but found no matches. They tried again in 2011, and still no luck. They tried once more in 2016 and got a hit on a familial match. This meant that the two samples belonged to different people, but that they were related.
From there, police were able to identify the killer – Kenneth Troyer, a man believed responsible for several other sexual assaults, plus dozens of burglaries and robberies. He was killed in a police shootout in 1982.
9. The Murder of Melanie Road
A similar scenario allowed English police in 2016 to solve the 32-year-old murder of Melanie Road, from the city of Bath. On the night of June 9, 1984, the 17-year-old woman was returning home from a nightclub when she was attacked and stabbed 26 times. The killer left his DNA on her body but there wasn’t much police could do with it back then.
In 1995, investigators were able to use it in order to build a DNA profile, but found no matches in their system. It seemed that their killer had kept his hands clean since the murder or, at the very least, managed not to get arrested. Fast-forward to 2014 and police caught a lucky break when a 41-year-old woman was arrested for a “minor incident” and gave a DNA sample as part of the standard procedure.
The following year, detectives still working the Melanie Road cold case did another routine check of the database and got a familial match between the DNA at the crime scene and the one provided by the woman in the 2014 arrest. That woman turned out to be the daughter of Melanie Road’s killer, Christopher Hampton. He was arrested, eventually pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
8. Chewing Gum Clears Cold Case
Back in 2012, the oldest cold case in the history of the state of Maine was cracked thanks to DNA obtained from a piece of chewing gum.
A 63-year-old homeless man named Gary Raub was arrested for the murder of Blanche Kimball, who was found stabbed to death in her home in Augusta, Maine, on June 12, 1976. The drifter had been interviewed during the initial investigation, as he was known to have stayed with Kimball for a while. There was DNA evidence at the crime scene, but this wasn’t particularly useful at the time so, with no solid proof against him, the homeless man was released and soon disappeared.
This seemed like a murder destined to remain a cold case forever, but investigators caught a break in 2010 when Raub, then living in Seattle, got into an altercation with another man. A knife used by the transient was logged into evidence and DNA recovered from it turned out to be a possible match to blood found at the Kimball crime scene decades earlier.
This was a promising new lead, but police needed a better DNA sample so they came up with a ruse. Going undercover, they paid the homeless man $5 to take part in a “chewing gum survey.” He was asked to try different gums to see if he liked the flavors but, of course, what investigators were really interested in was obtaining a fresh, new DNA sample. The deception worked – the DNA matched up, Raub was arrested, he pled guilty and was put behind bars.
7. Death of a Veteran
In Buffalo, New York, DNA evidence helped solve the murder of a decorated World War I veteran who was found dead in his own home back in 1983.
After being awarded the Purple Heart for his participation in the Second Battle of the Marne during the First World War, Edmund Schreiber moved to Buffalo, where he lived a quiet and uneventful life. That is until the night of June 23, 1983, 65 years later, when multiple people broke into his home looking for money. They tied him up and strangled him with his own neckties and, even though they left DNA and fingerprints at the scene, they remained unidentified for decades.
Fast-forward almost 35 years and that same evidence finally implicated one of the killers. Her name was Saundra Adams, one of Schreiber’s neighbors at the time of his death. She was only 17 years old back then and had done some errands for the veteran, so she knew he kept money in the house. In 2016, her DNA was found on some of the neckties used as murder weapons, and subsequently her fingerprints also matched prints found inside the house.
The suspected accomplice was never named publicly as they were already dead. Meanwhile, Adams took a deal and pled guilty to first-degree manslaughter.
6. When Truth Is Stranger than Fiction
One of the oddest cold cases occurred in China, where DNA evidence implicated an acclaimed writer in a mass murder which took place over two decades earlier.
In 2017, Chinese police arrested Liu Yongbiao and accused him and an accomplice of committing four murders back in 1995. These took place on the night of November 29, in a guesthouse in the city of Huzhou. Two men checked in, with the intention of robbing the other people staying there. When they were caught red-handed by a guest, they beat him to death and then, to cover up their crime, they decided to kill everyone else inside the guesthouse, which included a 13-year-old boy.
Almost 22 years later, Chinese police finally had a new lead thanks to DNA evidence. They did not immediately disclose exactly what the evidence was, although some sources later reported that it was a cigarette left at the crime scene. Anyway, it led to Liu Yongbiao who, in the decades that followed, became a popular writer who had published several novels. His accomplice was identified only as Wang.
The writer did not deny the killings, admitting his crimes in a one-page confession addressed to his wife. In a bizarre scenario of art imitating life, prior to his arrest, Yongbiao announced plans for a new novel titled The Beautiful Writer Who Killed, where a female author escaped justice after committing several murders.
5. Murder at Harvard
In 2018, police from Middlesex County, Massachusetts, used DNA to clear what was, at the time, not only the oldest cold case in the county, but also one of the most infamous crimes connected to Harvard University.
Going back almost 50 years to 1969, when Jane Britton was a 23-year-old woman studying Near Eastern archaeology at the prestigious university. On the night of January 7, she left a friend’s apartment in Cambridge and returned to her own home. The following day, her friends got worried after she didn’t show up for class and missed an important exam. They stopped by her place and found Jane dead. She had been raped and bludgeoned to death.
For years, even decades, there was the suspicion that Jane Britton had been murdered by somebody close to her, perhaps even somebody from Harvard. There was some ochre powder sprinkled at the crime scene, and one of her professors suggested that it was similar to an ancient Persian ritual, so there was heavy speculation that Jane’s killer had a connection to archaeology. For a while, investigators also considered the possibility that she was a victim of the Boston Strangler.
Neither of these turned out to be the case, though. It took almost five decades, but in 2017, new testing done on DNA left at the crime scene indicated a possible match to Michael Sumpter, a man connected to several other sexual assaults, who had also done time for the same crime. But this was only a “soft hit” on the match, meaning that it was likely that Sumpter was the culprit, but not certain. To be sure, scientists needed to compare their sample to Sumpter’s DNA or that of a male relative. Michael Sumpter was already dead, but police tracked down his brother and the DNA test proved conclusively that they had finally found their killer.
4. The Coldest Case
Probably the biggest boon for cold case detectives from the last decade has been the rise in popularity of genealogy websites. Millions of people who wanted to learn about their genetic heritage or to find their long-lost relatives submitted DNA samples and, as an unexpected but positive side effect, a lot of old crimes were solved when police began comparing these DNA databases against their own. It’s not that the people themselves were the culprits, but they often turned out to be related to somebody who committed a crime, left their DNA at the scene, but remained unidentified because police didn’t have any other DNA sample to match it to.
The Golden State Killer, Joseph DeAngelo, was famously caught through this method, but he is hardly the only murderer in this situation. Just last year, Alaska State Troopers were able to close the 24-year-old murder of 17-year-old Jessica Baggen, who was killed in Sitka back in 1996.
For decades, police had no leads, but this changed in 2019 when somebody uploaded a DNA sample to a public genealogy database which partially matched a sample they had recovered from the crime scene. From there, investigators tracked down Steve Branch, from Austin, Arkansas, who became their new prime suspect.
On August 3, 2020, Branch was interviewed at his home and refused to provide a voluntary DNA sample. Shortly after police left, he committed suicide, and a subsequent test performed at his autopsy confirmed that he was the one who killed Jessica Baggen.
3. The Bear Brook Murders
Even when a criminal is apprehended and imprisoned, DNA could still be used to link them to other crimes and not only get some cold cases off the books, but possibly provide some closure to the families of the victims.
That was the case with Terry Rasmussen from Denver, Colorado. In 2002, he was sentenced to life in prison for murdering and dismembering his wife. The killer was already caught by this point, but looking back into his shady past, police discovered that he had traveled from place to place and used many different aliases, so investigators were fairly certain they were going to find more criminal activity.
They were right. First, in 2017, Rasmussen was connected to the 1981 disappearance (and likely murder) of his then-girlfriend Denise Beaudin, whom he was dating under the alias Bob Evans. Then later that year, he was identified through DNA evidence as the likely perpetrator of the infamous Bear Brook murders, referring to the bodies of a woman and three young girls who were found in metal drums dumped at Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown, New Hampshire.
DNA tests revealed that the female victim was not Denise Beaudin, as first suspected. Only in 2019 was she finally identified as Marlyse Honeychurch, while two of the girls were identified as her daughters, Marie and Sarah. They all disappeared in 1978 and were killed shortly after. The final victim was a girl between two and four years old who remains unidentified, but we know that she was Rasmussen’s biological daughter after matching her DNA to that of his son.
This, plus the fact that Honeychurch was dating the same Bob Evans at the time of her disappearance strongly suggests that Rasmussen was responsible for all the murders. However, since he died in 2010, he will never officially be charged with any of them.
2. The Little Martyr of the A10
One of the most heinous crimes in the history of modern France occurred in August 1987, when the body of a small girl was found placed next to the A10 highway near the city of Blois. The body showed signs of extreme abuse, including burns and bite marks. With no idea who she was, police referred to the victim as Inass, although in the media she became known as the “little martyr of the A10.”
Decades passed with no new developments, until 2016 when a man was arrested for assault. After entering his DNA into the national database, the authorities were stunned to realize that he was related to Inass – he was her brother.
From there, investigators managed to get the full story. They found out the victim’s real name, although it was never publicized. She was born in 1983 in Casablanca and she was four years old when she died. Police tracked down her parents in Orleans and arrested them for the crime. Already divorced by that point, the two of them each accused the other one of being the killer. Following additional testimony from their other children, the mother was eventually convicted, although she was released after a few years and placed under house arrest due to her failing health.
1. The Many Crimes of Bruce Lindahl
Back in 1981, Bruce Lindahl got into a fight with a younger man named Charles Huber and proceeded to stab him repeatedly with a knife. However, during the chaotic altercation, Lindahl also stabbed himself a few times by accident, cutting his femoral artery and bleeding out next to the man he had just killed. Lindahl was only 28 years old when he died, but recent DNA evidence still has implicated him in a dozen unsolved murders.
Even during his lifetime, Lindahl had been accused of several sexual assaults in the late 70s – early 80s, but always managed to avoid a felony conviction one way or another. The most serious case was that of Debra Colliander, who went missing in 1980 before she could testify, and whose body was found two years later.
It wasn’t until 2019, however, that investigators finally formed an idea about the true extent of Lindahl’s crimes. That was when he was connected to the 1976 rape and murder of Pamela Maurer, after a living relative of his gave a DNA sample to a genealogy company. But he was still only a person of interest at that point, so investigators obtained a court order to exhume Lindahl’s body for a DNA sample which ended up matching the DNA recovered in the Maurer case.
It was almost 45 years later, but Bruce Lindahl was proven to be the killer of Pamela Maurer. This, however, was just the beginning, as police believe that his DNA could tie Lindahl to, at least, ten more murders committed in his area in the suburbs of Chicago during the years he was active.