The Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office plans to use open source genealogical databases to help identify “stranger rapists” — people who’ve been indicted as John Does for sexual assault but haven’t been identified.
The prosecutor’s office indicts the DNA profile collected from a rape kit to ensure the statute of limitations doesn’t expire.
There are more than 130 open rape cases in Cuyahoga County and prosecutors plan to start tackling them by trying to identify the assailants with help from DNA-based genealogy databases, said Special Investigations Chief Rick Bell.
“We’re going to do the first five to 10 cases of the worst of the worst of those – the stranger serial rapists that we know connect to more than one rape kit – and we’ll do that as the pilot project,” Bell said.
DNA samples collected from John Does will be compared with DNA shared by users of ancestry websites, he explained.
“If you’ve signed up through an open source platform, you agree that your DNA could be used by law enforcement through a search in order to determine whether or not there are people that are related to you that commit crimes,” Bell said.
The genealogical searches will supplement information from the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).
“Because the cases are so old, the person who committed the rape’s DNA is not in the CODIS system,” he explained. “With this searching ability, we’ll be able to hopefully identify what family the stranger rapists are from and be able to continue the investigation.”
In one case, the genealogical databases will be used for a reverse search.
Serial killer Samuel Little confessed to three murders in the Cleveland area. Two have been solved, but law enforcement has not yet confirmed if remains found in 1983 in Willoughby Hills belong to a victim Little claims to remember from the late 1970s.
“He has a photographic memory of all of these events,” Bell said. “He paints and draws pictures of many of his victims and had a very good recollection of what she looked like.”
A computer imaging program used the woman’s remains to reconstruct her face.
“Before we showed him that picture of this 19-year-old African-American female, he had told us that she was 19 and he actually described what her face looked like and it certainly matched what we knew was the photograph,” Bell said. “We showed him the photograph and he said, ‘That’s her. That’s her’.”
The county prosecutor’s office will use the genealogical databases to try to identify the woman and see if she has any living relatives, Bell said.
“Then we can go back and we can advise her family. Maybe there’s some nieces. Maybe there’s somebody that survived, and we’ll be able to, as they say, bring some closure there,” he said. “But more importantly, we need to make sure that for law enforcement’s sake, we have the right body connected to the right murderer. And that’s our bottom line.”
The next step will be for law enforcement – including the medical examiner and the prosecutor’s office – to go through old case files to determine if any more John Doe assailants need to be identified.
“We’ll have to go back through our cases as well, and I’ve instructed our former homicide detectives to do just that – to see whether or not we have any of that biology, that DNA, those profiles, that might be able to be solved through this technique,” Bell said.
About 20 percent of rapes or sexual assaults reported in the United States are committed by strangers to the victim, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s office will hire a private company to conduct those investigations, which are expected to begin in spring 2020.
The genealogical searches will be paid for with $100,000 out of two grants totaling $3 million awarded to the prosecutor’s office, which leads the Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force, by the Justice Department.