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1993 Minneapolis murder case solved with the help of online genealogy

The case of Jeanne Ann Childs' murder was unsolved for decades -- until police enlisted the help of an online genealogy service.

The case of Jeanne Ann Childs' murder was unsolved for decades -- until police enlisted the help of an online genealogy service. Hennepin County Jail

In the summer of 1993, the body of a 35-year-old woman named Jeanne Ann Childs was found in her Minneapolis apartment on the 3100 block of Pillsbury Avenue. She’d been stabbed 38 times.

Her killing was one of 56 homicides logged in the city that year, and it didn’t get much more than a mention in the news, according to the Star Tribune. Police had little to go on, and Childs’ murder became a cold case.

That was a quarter-century before Tuesday, when the Minneapolis Police Department shared the first update on Childs’ case in over two decades. Officers had arrested a man in Waite Park in connection to the murder.

The suspect’s name is Jerry Westrom -- a 52-year-old hockey dad and business owner from Isanti. His neighbors describe him as a “nice guy.” His criminal record is peppered with DWI convictions, traffic violations, and one 2015 incident in which he paid a Stearns County escort $100 to have sex with him.

Minneapolis Police spokesperson John Elder told WCCO that Westrom has no known relationship with Childs, but his DNA matched traces left at the decades-old crime scene.

It took the combined efforts of Minneapolis police, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Forensic Laboratory, and the FBI to find Westrom. That’s in part thanks to some major improvements in DNA testing, which prompted officials to send the evidence to the Bureau’s lab in 2015.

The unlikely heroes in this story are trendy online genealogy websites like 23andme.com and Ancestry.com. For a few years now, people have been sending their genetic material (saliva samples) to these services in order to find hidden branches on their family trees, or just get a better idea of what flavor of European immigrant they are. The fad may be the most exciting thing to happen to cold cases in decades.

Ancestry.com alone has more than 10 million people in its DNA network -- a massive collection the company claims is the largest in the world. Such a collection, investigators have since realized, could be incredibly useful for tracking down suspects. 

Last year, Sacramento authorities used an online genealogy service in their hunt for the East Area Rapist -- also known as the Golden State Killer and the Original Night Stalker -- who committed at least 50 rapes and 12 murders in California between 1974 and 1986. DNA evidence from a 1978 crime scene and a genealogy website called GEDmatch led authorities to a 72-year-old man named Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. -- a career cop. He has since been charged with 26 counts of murder and kidnapping.

When Minnesota detectives ran their DNA sample from Childs’ murder through an unnamed “private DNA company,” they found Westrom.

Using these ancestry websites to name suspects is still relatively new, and it’s still controversial. Matching DNA markers against huge datasets like the ones curated by Ancestry.com and its ilk can lead to a lot of false results, not to mention questions of privacy and permission. Not everyone sending their spit to 23andme.com understands it eventually may be used in a criminal investigation.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo called the arrest an “excellent example of great collaboration between our law enforcement partners.” Special Agent Jill Sanborn with the Minneapolis FBI said she hoped Childs’ family could “finally find peace” as a result.

“This case underscores law enforcement’s ability to use every tool at its disposal to crack a case,” she said.