A Minnesota man was charged with murder after police used a discarded napkin, which he used to wipe his face while eating a hot dog, to tie him to a nearly 26-year-old cold case.
Police arrested 52-year-old businessman Jerry Westrom last week after investigators employed a genealogy company to link his DNA to crime scene evidence from the stabbing death of 35-year-old Jeanne Ann “Jeanie” Childs in 1993.
Westrom denied the allegations under questioning, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and was released on $1 million bail on Friday.
Westrom’s attorney declined to comment to the paper and did not immediately return BuzzFeed News' request for comment on Monday.
Westrom’s arrest is just the latest example of authorities taking advantage of genealogy services to revive decades-old cold cases. For the last two years, federal and local law enforcement have used such databases to match potential suspects to unsolved cases, most notably in the landmark capture of the suspected Golden State Killer.
The tactic, however, has raised ethical questions as many people use these private companies and their databases to obtain information about their heritage, unaware that uploading their DNA could potentially help authorities locate family members. Last month, BuzzFeed News reported that Family Tree DNA, one of the largest at-home DNA testing companies, had an agreement to work with the FBI to solve violent crime cases.
"This was a cold hit case," Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman said in a press conference last Friday, comparing it to the Golden State Killer case. "DNA samples were sent to genealogists who helped us match them together. This was good police work to pass this kind of technique on between cops.
While Minneapolis police did not say in a statement detailing the arrest in the Childs case which private DNA company was employed, authorities explained that a break in the case came last year after they entered DNA from the crime scene into genealogy websites, revealing two possible suspects. One of them was Westrom, who lived in the Twin Cities area around the time of the murder and had been charged with soliciting a teenager for sex in 2016, according to the Tribune.
Last month, officers trailed Westrom to a hockey game, watching him order a concession stand hot dog and then wipe his mouth with a napkin. After the suspect threw away the napkin, authorities rifled through the trash and obtained the evidence, and used that DNA to match it to samples from the 1993 crime scene. Police then arrested Westrom, a father of three from Isanti, Minnesota, at his office last Monday.
"When you discard things in the trash, the Supreme Court has often said it's fair game," Freeman said.
"By the way, for people who say, 'Isn't this awful? We're invading privacy,' we use DNA all the time to prove that the person didn't do it," Freeman continued. "Because if we don't have a match, we don't have a case. What this has done is make identification that much better."
Childs was found dead in June 1993, after a neighbor noticed water running from her Minneapolis apartment. When police arrived, the victim, who had previously been a sex worker, was dead on the floor with multiple stab wounds. At the crime scene, authorities were able to collect multiple DNA samples from a bed comforter, a towel in the bathroom, and a washcloth on a toilet seat.
“We all hope Jeanne’s family can finally find peace as a result of this tenacious effort by officers and agents,” said Jill Sanborn, an FBI agent in charge of the Minneapolis division. “This case underscores law enforcement’s ability use every tool at its disposal to crack a case.”
When asked on Friday if his office would go back to use the same genealogy websites and databases to revisit past unsolved crimes, Freeman seemed unequivocal.
"I don't know why we wouldn't," he said.