Over the past few decades or so, a vast amount of genealogy Websites have become popular to the public. For a moderate fee, these companies will send you a kit where a person can submit their DNA for testing which is analyzed in their labs.
Most people that use these services are curious about their heritage and want to track their family tree going back generations. But they’ve also become a treasure trove of potential evidence for law enforcement agencies.
The use of a DNA profile, commonly known as a DNA fingerprint has come a long way since its acceptance as a means of identification since it was first introduced into the legal system back in the mid 1980’s.
Earlier this month (November, 2018) this method was used for the fifteenth time in acquiring an arrest in a cold case homicide that has baffled authorities for over seventeen years.
In October, 2001, Christine Franke, a University of Central Florida student who was majoring in education while she worked as a bartender/waitress at the Cigarz bar at Universal’s CityWalk was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head after what appeared to have been a robbery gone wrong at her Central Florida apartment. She was last seen alive leaving work about four in the morning after working a double shift.
She was 25 years old at the time of her death.
Police interviewed a multitude of people and accumulated DNA samples which were tested through the Combined DNA Index System that law enforcement uses from an acquired potential suspect pool collected during their investigation. But none of the samples that were taken showed any type of match whatsoever relating to any evidence found at the crime scene where the homicide took place at that time.
The case basically officially went cold, although detectives unofficially kept digging through evidence which was originally found at Ms. Franke’s apartment complex. Orlando Police Department Detective Michael Fields was one of the law enforcement personnel who refused to give up hope of finding Ms. Franke’s killer.
Fifteen years later, in 2016, based on DNA advancements, analysts still working on the case were able to develop a DNA profile along with a composite image of a possible suspect established from evidence found at the crime scene. But detectives didn’t obtain any new leads after releasing the composite image for public consumption.
However, approximately six months ago, Detective Fields and other police officials began to work with a well-known genealogist scrutinizing the online genealogy community, hoping to find any scrap of evidence that would match anything they already had in their case file.
GEDmatch.com is where they finally hit pay dirt coming up with what was assessed as a familial match. They were able to come up with three relatives of a possible person from their suspect list who had submitted their DNA to the genealogy site.
After the sensational find was carefully evaluated, Fields and his team began interviewing the three relatives before widening their search by questioning other relatives that were easy to find by following the mapping of the family tree already laid out by the conclusions from the GEDmatch laboratories findings.
Using the testing results as their guide, Fields and his team received more DNA samples to compare to the suspect’s through further DNA testing.
Fields was quoted as saying “Through this testing, we were able to show the kinship relationship between the [alleged] killer and different family members. We eliminated most of the family using genetic genealogy and eventually, we were able to narrow down the suspect list to two brothers, one of which was Benjamin Lee Holmes.” who became their main suspect based on the genetic mapping had that had been reached at that stage.
At this point of Field’s investigation, the original crime scene analyst who was the chief investigator on the case seventeen years previously was called to analyze the new sample acquired from Mr. Holmes. He concluded that the sample was a perfect DNA match for the person who allegedly took the life of Franke.
Other than the physical evidence that matched what police had collected at the original site of the crime, police said that they hadn’t discovered any other connections between Christine Franke and their “now” prime suspect. When confronted with the DNA data which clearly was a match; Mr. Holmes vehemently denied the allegations.
However, despite Mr. Holmes declaration of innocence he was arrested three weeks ago charged with first-degree murder as well as robbery with a firearm.
Franke’s mother Tina, when told of the arrest expressed her relief at the possibility of closure after close to two decades and said “I honestly thought that he was dead after 17 years and that we would never find out, so this is such a blessing for my family.”
Using Social Media to announce the arrest, the Orlando Police Department’s tweet can be found on Twitter by clicking this link.
Orlando police chief Orlando Rolon said that this was an evolving technology that has proven to work. He went on to say that the Department planned to use the technique on other cold cases.
To read more about the history and evolution of DNA as evidence click here to be directed to that topic laid out on my Website.
Michael Cohen is a Fort Lauderdale based Criminal Defense Attorney specializing in the defense of federal crimes.