Ozark, Alabama – A truck-driving preacher arrested for killing two teenage girls from Alabama nearly 20 years ago was found by the same genealogy database techniques used to apprehend the suspected "Golden State Killer" last year.
Law enforcement interest in using genetic genealogy to crack cold cases has ballooned since the high-profile arrest of the suspected California serial killer who was found by running crime scene DNA through a genealogy database, said CeCe Moore, chief genetic genealogist with Parabon NanoLabs, which did the searches in the Alabama case.
On July 31, 1999, Tracie Hawlett and J.B. Beasley, both 17, set off for a party in southeastern Alabama. They never returned home. Their bodies were found the next day in the trunk of Beasley’s black Mazda along a road in Ozark, a city of 19 000 people located about 90 miles (145 kilometres) southeast of Montgomery. Each had a gunshot wound to the head.
The case sat unsolved for nearly two decades.
Ozark Police Chief Marlos Walker, who said he always believed the case could be solved, said the Golden State killer
Police on Friday arrested Coley McCraney, 45, of Dothan, Alabama after the genetic genealogy steered them in his direction.
Moore said the Alabama crime scene sample was analyzed and uploaded to GEDMatch, a public genetic database repository where over a million people have uploaded profiles from at-home ancestry kits.
"We are looking for second, third, fourth cousins and then we reverse engineer the family tree based on the people who are sharing DNA with that crime scene sample," Moore said.
The police chief said the genetic genealogy work identified a family — which means at least one of McCraney’s relatives had uploaded information — and kinship testing narrowed the suspect list down to a single person. The police chief said they obtained DNA from McCraney — although he did not say how — and the state crime lab matched it to the DNA from the 1999 crime scene.
Interest is growing in the technique and Moore said the company is fielding calls for help in decades-old cases. Since May the company has helped provide law enforcement with identifications in 43 cases, she said.
She said genetic genealogy can help provide answers for families who have seen their loved one’ murders go unsolved for years. "The fact that we can finally provide those is just incredibly important," Moore said.
While it has intrigued investigators as a means to develop new leads in once cold cases, the technology has raised red flags for others.
"There are huge privacy concerns," said Jennifer Friedman, a public defender in Los Angeles who has been involved in cases involving DNA since the late 1980s. She said there are multiple problems with tying people to crimes using family genetic information, including the fact that most people probably wouldn’t want a relative arrested based on their DNA sample.
Moore said she only uses a database where people have uploaded their information and are told it can be used this way. She said only a small fraction of the estimated 23 million people who have taken a consumer DNA ancestry test are in GEDMatch.
David Harrison, McCraney’s lawyer, said he’s an outstanding member of the community and a married man with children and grandchildren. He’s been a truck driver and had his own church where he preached as recently as three weeks ago, Harrison said.
At the press conference announcing the arrest, Carol Roberts, wore a brooch over her heart with a photograph of her daughter Tracie Hawlett, her youthful smile frozen forever in time.
As the years slipped by, her parents began to doubt if the case would ever be solved.
"We’ve been through pure hell the last 20 years," said Mike Roberts, Hawlett’s stepfather. "DNA don’t lie," he said.
Tracie, who had planned since she was a little girl to become a doctor, would have turned 37 this month, her mother said.
She remembered the last phone conversation with her daughter the night she disappeared when she asked if her friend could sleep over and go to church the next day.
"Last words out of her lips were, ‘Mama, I love you.’ Last words out of my mouth to her were, ‘I love you.’"