Last week, a case that has been cold since 1993 was pieced together. The final clue was a discarded napkin, which authorities plucked from a Minnesota hockey game. After comparing the DNA on the napkin with samples taken from a crime scene in 1993, the Minneapolis Police Department arrested Jerry Westrom, 52. He was charged for the murder of Jeanne Ann Childs, a 35-year-old woman who was stabbed to death in a Minneapolis apartment nearly 26 years ago.
The New York Times reports that Westrom had been eating a hot dog at the hockey game when he wiped his mouth with it, then tossed it into the trash. Because he was a suspect in the unsolved murder from 1993, authorities dug the napkin out of the trash bin and used the DNA to tie him to the unsolved case.
Westrom lives in Isanti, Minnesota with his wife and three children, reports The Minneapolis Star Tribune. Reportedly, he has denied involvement in the case. According to a representative from a law firm representing him, he also declined to comment.
The strategy to use an online genealogy database was popularized last year following the arrest of the Golden State Killer. The criminal raped, burglarized and murdered people across California for decades. The technology has since led to the arrests in cases in Washington state, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.
The tactic is controversial. This is because most people send their DNA to companies like GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA to determine their heritage. In recent years, more than 15 million people have offered up their DNA to genealogy services. Without knowing it, they could also be helping law enforcement officials track down family members.
Authorities have not revealed which genealogy service investigators used. But, at a news conference mid-February, Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney, said that “it was a genealogy company you see advertised on TV.”
The 1993 Case
Ms. Childs was found dead in June 1993 in a flooded Minneapolis apartment. She was laying on the floor, wearing only a pair of socks, with the shower running, according to the statement. At the time, she had been working as a prostitute. She died from multiple stab wounds.
Authorities collected DNA from the crime scene, including from a comforter on the bed, a towel in the bathroom, and a washcloth on a toilet seat. For nearly a quarter of a century, the case remained unsolved.
Last year, investigators made a break on the case when they entered DNA from the crime scene into genealogy websites. They identified two possible suspects, one being Mr. Westrom. During the 1990s, he lived in the Twin Cities area. Furthermore, he had been convicted of soliciting prostitution in 2016, said the statement.
In January of 2019, authorities began to follow Westrom. That’s when they tracked him to the hockey game and collected his DNA sample. The New York Times reports: “They watched him order food from the concession area and then wipe his mouth with a napkin, before placing the napkin in a cardboard food container and throwing it away.”
The DNA that was taken from Westrom “was consistent with” samples taken from the scene of the murder in 1993. This gave police all they needed to arrest him, which they did. Once he was taken into custody, Westrom submitted another sample of DNA, which matched sperm found on the comforter and the towel in the bathroom.
When Westrom was questioned about the crime in 1993, he told the authorities that he did not know Childs and denied being in the apartment. He also denied having sex with any woman in Minneapolis in 1993, according to the probable cause statement.
Steven J. Meshbesher, a lawyer for Mr. Westrom, said the arrest had been premature and that his client, Westrom, will plead not guilty. According to MPR News, Westrom was released on bail last Friday night. The case is far from over, however.
“We all hope Jeanne’s family can finally find peace as a result of this tenacious effort by officers and agents,” said Jill Sanborn, the special agent in charge of the Minneapolis division of the F.B.I., said in a statement.
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