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DNA samples and genetic sleuths helped solve WA cold cases

AG Ferguson Presser.PNG
Screenshot courtesy of
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TVW
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks at a news conference to announce the first convictions stemming from a forensic genealogy grant program his office created to help local police agencies solve cold cases.

In March 2003, a 17-year-old girl from McCleary, Washington was kidnapped, driven to a remote location and raped.

In November of that same year, a student at Washington State University in Pullman was raped at gunpoint in her off-campus home. The same assailant stuck again several months later.

The cases — one near the Washington coast, the other near the Idaho border — were unrelated. But they sent shockwaves through each community. They also both went unsolved despite thousands of investigative hours spent tracking down leads and possible suspects.

But in 2020 new life was breathed into both of these cold cases. That’s when, independent of each other, investigators in Pullman and Grays Harbor County applied for grant money from the Attorney General’s new forensic genetic genealogy program.

Forensic genealogy is a relatively new field that meshes DNA science with genealogy to try to identify criminal suspects who don’t show up in law enforcement DNA databases. The way it works is a DNA profile of the suspect is uploaded into a public DNA database — fed by DNA from members of the public trying to trace their own ancestry. From there, a genealogist works to identify possible relatives of the suspect, even distant ones. Once that “family tree” is constructed, the researcher works to narrow the field to a list of possible suspects.

While not without controversy, Attorney General Bob Ferguson, at a news conference Monday, called forensic genealogy “a lead for investigators where the case has gone cold.”

Ferguson’s office created its forensic genealogy program in 2020 using $292,275 in federal Department of Justice sexual assault kit testing grant funds. To date, the Attorney General has granted approximately $120,000 to assist with nearly two dozen cold case investigations. To qualify for a grant, Ferguson said, the case must be a felony crime with sexual motivation where there are no active leads and no matches to the FBI’s DNA criminal database.

In both of the Washington rape cases, the grants were approved allowing local investigators to contract with private labs to do the genealogical sleuthing.

The Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s office worked with DNA Labs International, whose genealogists used public databases managed by GEDMatch and FamilyTreeDNA to create family trees for the suspect, according to the Attorney General's office.

Eventually, the detectives on the case were given the names of three brothers who could be possible suspects. One of the brothers, Paul J. Bieker who had previously lived in McCleary, quickly became a person of interest in the 2003 kidnapping and rape.

But the case wasn’t solved yet. Detectives still needed a sample of Bieker’s DNA to see if it matched DNA collected from the victim.

At the news conference Monday, Chief Deputy Darrin Wallace of the Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Office described how during Memorial Day weekend 2021, he and a partner trailed Bieker to Point Defiance Park in Tacoma.

Wallace said Bieker walked around the rose gardens with a cup of iced coffee from Starbucks. When he discarded the cup, the detectives quickly scooped it up and sent it to the Washington State Patrol’s crime lab where the DNA was analyzed and found to match the DNA from the crime.

In June of last year, Bieker was arrested. Wallace described the victim’s reaction when he told her.

“She grabbed my arm and she was just trembling asking me, ‘Did he follow you here?’” Wallace recounted. “So she’s been living that crime every day of her life.”

On Friday, Bieker was sentenced to 30 years in prison following his conviction at trial.

As investigators in Grays Harbor County were closing in on their suspect, so were detectives in Pullman. Their contracted genealogists, at Texas-based Identifinders Forensic Genealogy, had given them the names of two brothers who might be possible matches to the DNA collected from the rape victims.

Pullman Chief of Police Gary Jenkins said Monday that one of the brothers — 47-year-old Kenneth Downing of Elk, Washington — quickly became their person of interest. He matched the suspect description and, it turned out, had been working on a construction project in Pullman at the time of the rapes.

With assistance from the Spokane Police Department, investigators trailed Downing to a restaurant where they too collected an item with his DNA and sent it for testing. It was also a match.

Downing was arrested in March. On Friday, he pleaded guilty to four counts of rape and other charges. He's scheduled to be sentenced in August.

Dan LeBeau, Whitman County’s chief deputy prosecutor, said that after Downing pleaded guilty one of the victims told him that she’d finally be able to sleep well at night.

“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 wouldn’t have been able to bring justice to the survivors and peace to the community,” LeBeau said at the Monday news conference.

Ferguson noted the two cases are the first convictions to result from its forensic genealogy grant program.

“These cases are an example of what law enforcement can accomplish by working together and, importantly, a message to survivors that they are not forgotten.”

In March, another forensic genealogy grant from the AG’s office helped close a 1995 cold case homicide in Kitsap County. In that case, the suspect had previously died.

Ferguson’s office said it has about $170,000 in remaining grant funds. Staff said the cost of a forensic genealogical investigation varies, but is typically about $5,400.

While the state grant program is fairly new, some local police agencies have been relying on forensic genealogy for a number of years. For instance, the DNA sleuthing method has been used to solve several Snohomish County cold cases, according to reporting by The Herald.

Additionally, last year, the national DNA Doe Project used forensic genealogy to identify the remains of an unidentified victim of Green River Killer Gary Ridgway, who’s serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Those remains, found near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, belonged to Wendy Stephens of Denver who disappeared in 1983.

The Doe Project website lists several other examples of Washington cases where human remains have been identified through forensic genealogy.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."