MINNEAPOLIS—A businessman has been charged with fatally stabbing a Minneapolis woman in 1993 after investigators ran DNA evidence from the murder scene through a genealogy website and obtained his DNA from a discarded napkin.
Jerry Westrom, 52, was charged with second-degree murder in the death of 35-year-old Jeanne Ann “Jeanie” Childs, whose naked body was found in her blood-covered apartment. He was released from jail after posting $500,000 bond on Feb. 15.
Westrom was arrested after detectives decided to take another look at the cold case by conducting new tests on DNA samples and running them through an online genealogy website, which turned up Westrom as a possible suspect, according to prosecutors.
Investigators then used the internet to determine where Westrom would be in public, and secretly trailed him to his daughter’s hockey game in Wisconsin in January. That’s where investigators confiscated a napkin he’d used and tossed in the trash, according to police.
Public genealogy databases have been used in other recent cases, including the capture last April of the suspected Golden State Killer in northern California. Prosecutors allege former police officer Joseph DeAngelo is responsible for at least a dozen killings and about 50 rapes in the 1970s and 80s. A public database also helped police arrest a 55-year-old Washington man linked to the 1987 killing of a young Canadian couple.
Westrom appeared in a Minnesota courtroom Friday where his wife, children, and 20 other supporters looked on from the gallery. Several members of Childs’ family were also at the hearing in Hennepin County District Court.
Westrom’s lawyer, Steven Meshbesher, told the court that Westrom had lived in Minnesota his entire life and wasn’t a flight risk.
According to court documents, Childs’ naked body was found in her apartment in an area known for prostitution. She had been stabbed multiple times all over her body, and blood covered the walls of her bedroom, living room and bathroom, according to a warrant.
The bathroom was flooding because the shower had been left turned on. Finger, palm, and footprints were discovered at the scene, investigators said.
The case was reopened in 2015 by a Minneapolis homicide detective and an FBI special agent, who decided to take another look because of advances in DNA testing. Samples from the scene were sent to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and a private DNA company.
The samples were later run through the genealogy website.
Westrom’s next court date was set for March 13.
DNA Trail Led to Alaska Murder Case of Sophie Sergie
Court documents say police in Alaska were able to make an arrest in a quarter-century-old cold case with the help of DNA voluntarily submitted by an aunt of the man charged.
Alaska State Troopers have said 44-year-old Steven Downs of Auburn, Maine, was arrested in his hometown on Feb. 15, on murder and sexual assault charges related to the 1993 death of Sophie Sergie. Sergie’s body was found in a dorm bathtub at University of Alaska Fairbanks when she was 20 years old.
25 Years Later, Steven H. Downs of Maine Arrested for the Rape & Murder of Sophie Sergie at the University of Alaska…
The suspect, Steven Downs, was 18 years old at the time of Sergie’s murder. He has been charged with the sexual assault and murder of Sergie and is expected to be extradited to Alaska. No motive was given for the murder and it is unclear if the two knew each other prior to Sergie’s death.
Back in 1993, DNA technology was not yet being used in Alaska.
When Alaska Trooper investigators last year submitted the DNA profile from the crime scene to Parabon Nanolabs—a Virginia-based company that utilizes extracted DNA to perform genetic genealogy testing—the genetic profile developed a likely suspect.
It was then that Troopers determined that Downs had also been a student at UAF and lived in the dormitory where Sergie’s body had been found.
“The arrest is the culmination of years of effort and tenacious attention by this department to solve a horrendous murder,” the Department of Public Safety Commissioner, Amanda Price, said.
“For more than 20 years, AST continued to receive info about Sophie’s murder,” Colonel Barry Wilson, Director of the AST, said. “Each tip generated a response by members of the cold case unit hoping to break the case.”
On April 26, 1993, a custodian discovered Sergie’s brutally murdered body in a bathtub at the Bartlett Hall dormitory, reported Anchorage Daily News. Sergie, from Pitkas Point, Alaska, had flown from her hometown to Bethal and then to Fairbanks for an orthodontist appointment before her murder, reported KTUU-TV.
According to the charging document, Downs attended UAF from 1992 until 1996, living in Arizona, after which he returned to Maine where he “was most recently employed as a nurse.”
Downs told Maine State Police working with the AST that he recognized Sergie from posters put up after she died but he denied knowing her or going to the floor of the building where she was killed, according to the charging document.
Downs reportedly told investigators, “I remember the picture, it’s terrible, poor girl.”
According to the charging document, Downs also told investigators he had been in his girlfriend’s room on the night of Sergie’s murder and said he believed soldiers from nearby Fort Wainwright were responsible for her death since they were “often in the building.”
However, despite what he said, a DNA swab taken from Downs matched evidence taken from Sergie’s body, the charging document said.
“As the director of this agency, and as a member of the investigative team that originally worked on this case, I am both honored and humbled to help bring some closure to Sophie’s family,” Wilson said.
— Must Read Alaska (@MustReadAlaska) February 16, 2019
“Through their dogged persistence, advances in tech and spirit of cooperation exhibited by other agencies that touched this case, justice for Sophie is finally within reach,” Wilson said, according to KTUU-TV.
The Portland Press Herald reports a charging document filed Friday in District Court in Alaska provides new details about how police identified Downs. The genealogical study traced Downs to Maine.
Court documents say Downs told investigators he recalled Sergie’s murder but had never met her. He’s due in court Tuesday.
Epoch Times reporter Tiffany Meier contributed to this article