Genetic genealogy helps solve a pair of decades-old sexual assault investigations
It’s been nearly 20 years since a 17-year-old girl in McCleary, Washington was kidnapped and raped after being bound and placed in her own vehicle when she arrived home, then taken to another location and sexually assaulted. On Friday, Paul Bieker of Enumclaw was sentenced to 30 years behind bars for the sexual assault.
The Enumclaw man was arrested in 2021 after the Gray’s Harbor County Sheriff’s Office asked the State Attorney General’s Office for help with the case. Specifically, the department requested grant money to cover the cost of forensic genetic genealogy.
It was a similar story in Whitman County where Kenneth Downing of Elk took a plea deal on Friday, agreeing to plead guilty to four counts of rape in the first degree and one count of assault with sexual motivation for a series of home break-in rapes in Pullman in the early 2000s. Downing faces 17 years to life when he is sentenced next month.
“Both cases were nearly 20 years old and were solved with assistance from a grant program through my office funding forensic genealogical testing as part of our sexual assault kit initiative,” said state Attorney General Bob Ferguson at a press conference Monday announcing the convictions.
Earlier this year, the program had helped solve a 1995 murder of a 61-year-old woman in Kitsap County.
“This sends a message to survivors that we will not give up on cold cases,” Ferguson said. “My office will continue this initiative to help law enforcement close these cases.”
Ferguson’s forensic genetic genealogy program has assisted with 23 cold case investigations to date. Three cases have been solved with the assistance of this program, and the leads generated by the program may result in future arrests and convictions in the other 20 cases.
The program is part of the Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative. The Attorney General’s Office dedicated $292,275 to assist local law enforcement agencies with felony cold case investigations through forensic genetic genealogy testing.
These resources are reserved for unsolved cold cases of felony crimes with a sexual motivation. Moreover, to be eligible, the cases must have no active leads and no CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) matches.
To date, the Attorney General’s Office provided approximately $120,000 to local law enforcement agencies for testing. Ferguson’s Office has approximately $170,000 remaining to assist agencies with additional cold cases.
Ferguson says the only criteria for law enforcement agencies in the state to apply for grant dollars to assist with the payment of forensic genetic genealogy testing is that the cases in question be cold cases and involve a sexual assault or assault with sexual motivation.
Cold cases solved, assisted with AG genealogy grant funds
A 2003 rape without a named suspect
The Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Office first investigated the rape of a teenage girl in March 2003.
The assailant abducted the girl, then 17 years old, after she parked her car at home in McCleary, according to the initial 2010 arrest warrant. He taped her head and hands then bound her legs and put her in the trunk of her own car. He drove her to a remote location where he raped her. He put her back in the car and drove her back to near her home. He told her that if she told anyone about what happened that “her dad would be dead and the house would be burned down and the rest of her life would be miserable.” He cut the ties from her wrist and then left her.
She was eventually able to drive herself back to her home. Her father was at home and told law enforcement officers that she had duct tape on her and nylon wire tied around her ankles. He cut the ties then she locked the door and closed the windows out of fear that the assailant was watching them. She told her father what happened and he notified law enforcement.
Police officers examined her and took evidence from her. They compared the genetic evidence to databases available at the time but found no matches. As there was no suspect at the time, the county issued an arrest warrant for a “John Doe” and the case went cold.
Grays Harbor County receives assistance from Attorney General’s forensic genetic genealogy program
In 2020, a detective from the county sheriff’s office approached the Attorney General’s office, requesting funding for forensic genetic genealogical testing of the 2003 crime scene DNA.
The Attorney General’s Office agreed to provide the resources and assist the sheriff’s office with the case. The Attorney General’s Office paid $5,000 to send Bieker’s DNA to a private laboratory for genealogical testing. The main database used by law enforcement, the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), is limited by only having DNA from convicted offenders.
Bieker had no prior convictions, so his information was not in CODIS. Grays Harbor County law enforcement officers sent the assailant’s DNA evidence to DNA Labs International, which outsourced the creation of the DNA profile used for forensic genetic genealogy.
DNA Labs International then uploaded that profile into a public database managed by GEDMatch and Family Tree DNA and created family trees.
DNA Labs International genealogists provided the names of individuals who were potentially the suspect to Grays Harbor County law enforcement.
One of those names was Bieker, who also lived in McCleary and near the survivor’s home at the time of the rape.
These details provide an active lead for law enforcement to investigate.
Information from a genetic genealogy company does not provide grounds for an arrest by itself. Grays Harbor County law enforcement had to independently match Bieker’s DNA to the evidence collected from the crime scene.
Grays Harbor County detectives then followed Bieker and collected a DNA sample after he left it at a public location.
The Washington State Patrol Crime Lab confirmed the DNA results were a match to the 2003 crime scene.
The match was so solid that a June 15, 2021 motion to the court notes the chances of it not being Bieker were “one in 35 quadrillion.”
Grays Harbor County detectives then arrested Bieker in McCleary and charged him with the 2003 crime.
Forensic genetic genealogy program helps lead to Kenneth Downing’s arrest and guilty plea for two Pullman home invasions
After receiving funding from the Attorney General’s Office for forensic genetic genealogy testing, Spokane police arrested Kenneth Downing of Elk, WA in March for two home invasions and multiple rapes.
In 2003, a man broke into a home in Pullman and threatened a woman at gunpoint. He sexually assaulted her three times. At one point, she said the attacker made small talk and asked about her pets.
Then in 2004, a man broke into an apartment, where two women were inside. The man, who had a gun, tied up one roommate and raped the other. Forensic genetic genealogy testing helped match Downing’s DNA to the evidence in both cases.
On July 8, 2022, Downing pleaded guilty to four counts of rape in the first degree and one count of assault in the second degree with sexual motivation.
A Whitman County Superior Court judge will sentence him on August 19 and he faces a standard sentencing range of between 17 to 23 years in prison.
One unsolved case: The disappearance of McCleary’s Lindsey Baum
When Bieker was arrested in 2021, the Gray’s Harbor County Sheriff also announced that he was a person of interest in the disappearance of 10-year-old Lindsey Baum in McCleary in 2009. Investigators said in a statement at the time, “Due to the nature and circumstances of the crime, investigators are also looking into the kidnapping and murder case of Lindsey Baum, who went missing on June 26th, 2009, in the city of McCleary.”
Lindsey’s partial remains were found deep in the woods of Kittitas County nearly 3 hours away from where she vanished nearly a decade before. On Monday, the Gray’s Harbor County Sheriff’s Office said Bieker had recently taken – and passed – a polygraph related to Lindsey’s kidnapping and murder but was still considered a person of interest, albeit lower down the list. Investigators say Lindsey’s case is still an active investigation, and they are still getting – and welcoming – tips.
The Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Office says anyone with any information in Lindsey’s case can call the Lindsey Baum tip line at 360-964-1799 or email [email protected]
Forensic genetic genealogy program helps solve 1995 murder in Kitsap County
Also in March, the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office announced a match for the DNA left behind by the killer of 61-year-old Patricia Lorraine Barnes, who was murdered in 1995.
A cigarette butt left at the scene provided a DNA sample, but no matches until forensic genetic genealogy testing in late 2021.
Police found Barnes without clothing and partially covered by a sleeping bag in a ditch in South Kitsap County. She had two bullet wounds in her head.
The suspect, Douglas K. Krohne, died in 2016 and law enforcement closed the case.
Forensic genetic genealogy: a powerful tool for solving cold cases
In recent years, law enforcement and prosecutors have had success solving cold cases using forensic genetic genealogy. This involves a genealogist taking DNA evidence, uploading it to a public DNA database that allows access to its data, then using that information to construct a family tree to identify potential suspects who may not themselves have a DNA profile available.
DNA samples in public databases contain more genetic information than those submitted to CODIS, and the companies can conduct genealogical research to determine potential familial links to DNA samples — from a third cousin to a brother. The genealogists or law enforcement officers do not have access to specific genetic data, just the results from matches within the database.
Only a few companies that offer DNA testing provide access to their internal databases for law enforcement requests. Companies that provide their databases to law enforcement specifically note they will provide the information to law enforcement officers for open investigations and allow customers to opt-out of having their information provided to law enforcement.
The first conviction ever in a case where forensic genealogy was used to help identify a suspect was also here in Washington State. A Snohomish County jury convicted William Talbott for the 1987 double murder of a young British Columbia couple – Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg – who had traveled to Seattle for an overnight trip to pick up heating equipment for a family business.
Talbott’s conviction was later overturned due to juror bias and is currently being reviewed by the state Supreme Court.
Attorney General Ferguson’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative
Attorney General Ferguson has prioritized clearing the rape kit backlog and improving the state’s response to sexual assault. Through his Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, his office:
· Inventoried all unsubmitted kits that were being housed in local law enforcement evidence rooms;
· Allocated more than $2.25 million for testing to help clear the backlog;
· Launched a website to keep the public up to date and provide comprehensive information about Washington’s SAKI program, part of a statewide initiative to end Washington’s rape kit backlog; and
· Worked with local law enforcement to collect DNA samples from hundreds of registered sex offenders that failed to comply with a legal obligation to provide their DNA.
Ferguson’s Office is also convening two task forces intended to improve the state’s response to sexual assaults – the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination (SAFE) Advisory Group and the Sexual Assault Coordinated Community Response Working Group.
The initial rape kit backlog is expected to be cleared by the end of the year.