SEATTLE (AP) — Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Monday that grants from his office have recently helped local law enforcement agencies solve three cold cases using genetic genealogy, and 20 more investigations are underway.
The Grays Harbor County Sheriff's Office used one of the grants to solve the 2003 abduction and rape of a 17-year-old girl, the Kitsap County Sheriff's Office solved a 1995 murder, and Pullman police found the suspect responsible for home invasion sexual assaults in 2003 and 2004.
During a news conference Monday, Ferguson called it “a message to survivors that they are not forgotten.”
Genetic genealogy is the practice of entering a DNA profile into a public genealogy database to find relatives. In recent years, it has emerged as a powerful tool for identifying suspects who leave DNA behind at a crime scene; investigators can use it to construct a family tree that leads them to an otherwise unknown suspect.
The Attorney General's Office has devoted more than $290,000 to assist local law enforcement agencies with felony cold case investigations through forensic genetic genealogy testing. The money is a small part of funding provided by the U.S. Justice Department to help address a backlog of untested rape kits in Washington state.
In 2020, a detective with the Gray's Harbor County Sheriff's Office, Darrin Wallace, obtained a $5,000 grant to pay for genetic genealogy testing in the 2003 cold-case rape of a 17-year-old who had been abducted from her driveway in McCleary, west of Olympia. The girl was bound, blindfolded, attacked and returned to her neighborhood with a warning to keep quiet unless she wanted her house burned down and her father killed.
Over the years, investigators had submitted DNA samples from 37 potential suspects to the Washington State Patrol crime lab, with no hits. But genetic genealogy research conducted by DNA Labs International led investigators to three brothers who could have been the perpetrator.
Based on a description from the victim, detectives focused on one of the brothers — Paul J. Bieker, 51, who lived in McCleary. In May 2021 they followed him to a Starbucks, where he bought an iced coffee, and then to the rose garden at the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, where he drank the beverage and discarded the cup.
A DNA sample taken from the cup matched that taken from the victim 18 years earlier. A jury convicted Bieker last month, and a judge sentenced him on Friday to 30 years in prison.
The crime bore some similarities to the still-unsolved killing of 10-year-old Lindsey Baum, who vanished from the same small town six years after the 17-year-old's abduction. But the sheriff's office said Monday that Bieker last week passed a polygraph when questioned about Baum's case, and while he remains a person of interest, he has dropped down their list of potential suspects.
A grant from the attorney general also paid for genetic genealogy research that linked Kenneth Downing, of Elk, to two home invasions and multiple rapes that occurred in 2003 and 2004. At the time, Downing had been working construction in the area.
Downing pleaded guilty on Friday in Whitman County Superior Court to four counts of first-degree rape and one count of second-degree assault with sexual motivation. He faces a standard sentencing range of 17 to 23 years when he is sentenced next month.
“Without the genealogy research and the grant from the AG’s office, Mr. Downing would still be at large, may likely never have been caught, and we would never have been able to bring justice to the survivors and peace to the community,” said Dan LeBeau, chief deputy prosecutor for the Whitman County Prosecutor’s Office.
In March, the Kitsap County Sheriff's Office closed a cold murder case after genetic genealogy helped identify Douglas K. Krohne as the killer of 61-year-old Patricia Lorraine Barnes, 61, whose unclothed body was left in a ditch in 1995. Krohne died in 2016.
The forensic genealogy testing and research costs about $5,400 on average, the Attorney General's Office said. So far the office has given out $120,000 in grants; about $170,000 is left. The money is reserved for sexually motivated cold cases with no active leads or DNA hits through criminal DNA databases.