Kym L. Pasqualini is the founder and former CEO of Nation's Missing Children Organization and National Center for Missing Adults.
Cold Cases Solved by DNA Technology
Every day murders go unsolved. The families of the people who have been sexually assaulted, kidnapped, and violently murdered wait for justice, sometimes for decades, with many perpetrators going on to commit even more brutal murders.
According to the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), there are currently over 250,000 unsolved murders, increasing by approximately 6,000 unsolved homicides annually. This leads to growing caseloads for law enforcement, draining resources, and makes it difficult for law enforcement agencies with limited budgets.
However, in recent years, the families of unsolved murder victims have seen a glimmer of hope with the use of advanced DNA technology used to solve decades-old cases.
Law enforcement agencies throughout the country work with laboratories specializing in identifying genetic matches between DNA collected at the crime scene and DNA that has been entered into genetic genealogy sites and federal databases.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Combined DNA Index System is a collection of databases containing DNA profiles collected from samples taken at unsolved murders and other crimes, and DNA collected from offenders convicted of violent crimes, particular sexual assaults, which often leave forensic biological evidence from the perpetrator.
Investigators working on cold cases have begun to utilize genetic genealogy more and more to solve crimes.
One of the first high-profile cases solved with the use of genetic genealogy was the Golden State Killer. Former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo is an American serial killer and rapist who was charged with 13 murders, rapes, and burglaries that occurred throughout California from 1973 and 1986.
According to Inside Edition, investigators used a DNA sample from the scene of a double murder in Ventura, California in 1980. They matched the sample with distant relatives of DeAngelo on a genealogy website and arrested him in 2018.
According to reports, police departments throughout the United States have been able to crack at least 28 cold cases since 2018 using GEDmatch, genetic genealogy, and DNA testing.
In this article, we will zero in on three cases—Fawn Cox, Jody Loomis and Carla Jan Walker—where advances in genetic technology helped catch violent killers and solve decades-old cold cases.
The Murder of Fawn Cox
On July 26, 1989, Fawn Cox, 16, was raped, strangled, and ultimately murdered in her own bedroom. Her alarm had gone off and she did not turn it off, so her mother and little sister went into her bedroom and found her lying there dead.
“I went over to shake her, 'Come on! Get up!' But she had been gone for a while,” said Fawn Cox’s sister, Felisa Cox.
Fawn was a junior at Northeast High School and had been working at her job—a cashier at Worlds of Fun, a Kansas City amusement park—until 11 p.m. that evening. She went straight to bed when she got home from work.
Her family says they did not hear anything that night because the air conditioners were on. However, Felisa does remember that the family dog acted agitated that evening, which they had attributed to the dog being pregnant.
“To pick that home and that window to come in and leave undetected makes sense that the subject knew Fawn,” Kansas City Police Department Sgt. Ben Caldwell told KCTV News.
Caldwell believes the attacker snuck in through the window that led to the second floor where Fawn’s bedroom was.
The pain of living with Fawn's unsolved murder has been devastating for her family.
“Awful. There’s no word to explain it. No closure,” said Felisa Cox. “Someone out there is living a normal life that she never got to ... that these people are doing. I think about it every day.”
In 2000, the family offered a $3,000 reward in hopes that it would lead to the discovery of Fawn’s killer. “Money does do a lot on the streets,” said Fawn’s mother Beverly Cox. “That’s what we’re hoping and praying for.”
Fawn’s family fought for years to get advanced DNA techniques used on the case. They held fundraisers, even offering to pay for it themselves, as the Kansas City Police could not afford it. Ultimately, the FBI paid for the testing.
Within a matter of weeks of utilizing advanced DNA techniques, the answer the family had waited so long for was received—but it was not what they expected.
According to the Kansas City Police Department press release, in the summer of 2020, Operation Legend came to Kansas City, pumping federal resources into the department and enabling them to pursue advanced DNA technology.
This allowed law enforcement to compare the profile of the unknown suspect’s DNA to other national databases and build a family tree of that person, narrowing the search to a small pool of suspects.
With the use of genealogy DNA testing, it was discovered the killer was Donald Cox, Jr. He was Fawn’s cousin, who was about five years older than her. Unfortunately, justice would not be truly served—he had died in 2006 of a suspicious death that was determined to have been the result of foul play.
Investigators that had worked on his death investigation had retained a blood sample from the investigation. Crime lab staff extracted the DNA from that blood sample and compared it to a DNA profile from bodily fluid recovered from Fawn’s bedroom in 1989. It was a match.
The family has learned that answers are a mixed blessing.
“It’s a relief there’s closure,” said Felisa. “The answers aren’t always what we are asking for, but there’s closure.”
The Murder of Jody Loomis
Around 5:30 p.m. on August 23, 1972, a couple drove up a dark dirt track off Penny Creek Road in Snohomish County, Washington. Back then, there were no developments or strip malls. It was all evergreens and farmland.
The couple had planned to go target shooting, but a fallen tree blocked their path as they ventured up the dirt road. As they got out to move the tree, they were shocked to find a found woman lying there, dying from a gunshot wound to the head.
Jody Loomis, 20, lay in the woods in her panties, high socks, and dark waffle stomper-style boots. She had been shot above her right ear with a .22-caliber pistol.
Usually, Jody’s parents drove her to the horse stable and dropped her off. That fateful day was the first time she had decided to take her 10-speed bicycle and ride to the stable on her own. The dirt road off Penny Creek is midway to the stable.
Her murder remained unsolved for decades, haunting both her family and investigators.
Over the course of many years, investigators tenaciously pursued the investigation, even passing out playing cards in jails hoping someone would come forward with information. The case slowly became a cold case, but to investigators and the Loomis family, there was still a glimmer of hope.
DNA was found at the crime scene on Jody’s body and the heel of her boot.
The evidence was preserved for nearly 50 years and submitted for genetic genealogy identification, which linked it to a family member of 78-year-old Terrence Miller. Police had narrowed their search.
In 2019, Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department arrested and charged Terrence Miller with first-degree murder. Miller was living in Edmonds, Washington, only 17 minutes away from where Jody was murdered over four decades earlier.
His DNA was collected from a discarded coffee cup and ultimately matched to the semen collected from Jody’s boots.
According to the Seattle Times, Miller had been accused of sex crimes at least five times since the 1960s.
“After more than 46 years of searching for her killer, we finally have some answers for Jody’s family,” Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary said in a statement. “Thanks to the relentless persistence of our cold-case team and new DNA technology, we are one step closer to justice for Jody.
However, just hours before Miller would be convicted by a jury, he killed himself.
The Murder of Carla Jan Walker
Carla Jan Walker, 17, was a beautiful cheerleader and student who was abducted out of the passenger seat of her boyfriend’s car at a bowling alley in South Fort Worth, Texas on February 16, 1974. Several days later, her body was discovered in a drainage culvert at Benbrook Lake, just west of the city. Her clothes were ripped, and she had been beaten, raped, tortured, and strangled to death.
Rodney McCoy was a quarterback on the Western Hills High School football team. He and Carla had attended a Valentine’s week dance and stopped by the bowling alley to see friends before planning to go home.
Rodney was in the driver’s seat when Carla was kidnapped. At the time, McCoy told police the man pointed a gun at him and threatened to kill him, then knocked him unconscious by hitting him in the head and face. Rodney said he woke up later to find Carla was gone.
“She was such a sweet girl,” Rodney said to WFAA TV. “I remember we were in the front seat of the car. Her back was against the passenger side door. She was falling out. I went to grab her, and he started beating me over the head with a pistol.”
The last thing Rodney remembers is Carla yelling, “Rodney, go get my dad!”
An autopsy of Carla’s body revealed she had been injected with morphine leaving many questions about what happened to Carla during the three days between when she vanished, and her body was found. Decades passed with no answers.
Several men were questioned in Carla’s murder. One man was Glen Samuel McCurley, who was questioned less than two months after Carla’s murder in 1974. A gun magazine had been found in the parking lot of the bowling alley where Carla was abducted, and police were able to tie it to McCurley.
However, McCurley was released—he told investigators his gun had been stolen, and there was nothing else tying him to the murder.
Flash forward four and half decades to September 10, 2020. Investigators returned to McCurley’s home where he invited them in to talk to him and his wife. He repeated the same story he told detectives in 1974. He said he did not kill anyone and never knew Carla Walker.
Investigators asked him for a DNA sample to which he agreed and signed a consent form. Police took two swabs and sent them for analysis. It was sent to Othram, a lab that specializes in advanced testing of small amounts of DNA and developing a full DNA profile of perpetrators.
Six days later, police were notified the swabs matched the DNA found on Carla’s bra. A warrant was obtained and McCurley was arrested on the charge of capital murder.
“The word that came across my brain was ‘finally’ … after 46 years, five months, and three days, we have a name, a face and are working toward a complete resolution,” Jim Walker, Carla’s younger brother told NBC 5. “This is a resolution that’s been prayed for by many people for years now. I feel like, God put the right two detectives on the case.”
In a twist, Jim also wanted McCurley’s family to know they were in his prayers and it was not their fault. One man’s full extension of sympathy for the brutal killer’s family.
Jim decided to become a Fort Worth police officer nearly 45 years ago after his older sister was found murdered.
“My mom suffered in incredible silence,” Jim told the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. “Back in the 1970s, you didn’t have Dr. Phil showing up at your door or all this group support.”
His parents have both passed away without ever knowing McCurley was arrested, without seeing justice, but Jim is there to see it through for his mother, to whom he made a pledge.
“This should show you that law enforcement is coming for you," Jim told the Star-Telegram. “It’s not if you get caught, it’s when.”
This case and the many others that have been solved using DNA advanced techniques should also provide hope for the families of murder victims.
Justice may be right around the corner.
© 2021 Kym L Pasqualini