A man who was executed in Texas 20 years ago for killing a woman in Tyler is now on the hook for another murder from forty years ago. He almost got away with it, but DNA and genealogy teamed up to help police close the case.
On May 5th, 1986, an 18-year-old high school student disappeared from Hawkins, a tiny town north of Tyler. A day later, her body was found. Suzanne Harrison had been raped and strangled.
Jerry McFadden, who called himself “Animal” and had already been jailed and paroled in three rapes in Texas, would soon lead police on what was then known as Texas’s largest manhunt. He was captured, tried, convicted and executed.
During the McFadden drama in Texas, the investigation into the 1979 murder of a woman in Portland, Ore. -- 20-year-old Anna Marie Hlavka -- was going nowhere.
But in late January, the Portland Police Bureau had an announcement. It turns out McFadden killed her, too. After forty years, genetic genealogy cracked the case.
CeCe Moore is the chief genetic genealogist at Parabon NanoLabs, a company that uses genetic genealogy to help law enforcement solve crimes. Her team of genetic genealogists examined DNA left at the crime scene, and they figured out who it came from.
"They would never have solved this crime without genetic genealogy,” Moore said. “They had absolutely no reason to tie him to the crime. How would they have guessed a Texas killer was in the Pacific Northwest?"
Moore added that genetic genealogy is especially useful when all you have to go on is crime scene DNA.
"When you don't have any eyewitnesses, all you have is this genetic witness," Moore said.
Portland investigators took their "genetic witness" in the form of unidentified crime scene DNA and sent it to Parabon's lab, where it was analyzed and then uploaded to a public genealogy website called GEDmatch.
"So we're not using the DNA directly from the DNA testing companies,” Moore said. “We're only using the DNA where people have chosen to upload to that website, and then that crime scene DNA is compared to everyone in that database."
When the crime scene DNA profile is uploaded to GEDmatch you learn to whom the unknown subject is related. The amount of shared DNA between the suspect and his matches will tell the genealogist how closely they are related, and who their most recent common ancestor is likely to be.
"If you have a third cousin, as we did in this case, then they would be second great-grandparents,” Moore explained. “So you've to build that person's family tree back to second great-grandparents, and then do what I call reverse genealogy, where you instead of building backwards in time you build forward in time trying to find the descendants of all those ancestors, looking for one who was in the right place and the right time to be that suspect."
In this case, the “right place” seemed to be a problem. Family tree building led the genealogy team to McFadden. He was a killer, but he also lived, committed his crimes, and died in Texas.
That’s where good, old-fashioned police work came in.
Portland police investigating Hlavka’s unsolved murder did some interviews and discovered that McFadden had, in fact, visited Portland in 1979.
But this case, like any genetic genealogy case, couldn’t be considered solved until police had a close family DNA match. Close family matches can include parents, siblings, children, aunts or uncles, and first cousins. So Portland police visited McFadden's relatives.
"They did travel down to Texas, meet with his family, and the family was willing to provide DNA samples. So that's how they were able to confirm it," Moore said.
McFadden died by lethal injection in 1999, so he can't be prosecuted for killing Anna Marie Hlavka. But Anna's relatives finally know who killed her, and they also know who to thank: dedicated investigators, creative scientists, genealogists, and, perhaps most of all, the genetic witness -- DNA.
Bonnie Petrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kbonniepetrie