“I don’t know about this baby. I know it’s part of my family, he’s part of my blood. This little baby that I never met . . . this child is in my heart.” – Dave Gilger
When Vern Holden submitted his father-in-law’s DNA to an ancestry website roughly five years ago, little did he know that branch of the family tree eventually would help lead law enforcement to the doorstep of the suspected murderer of Geauga’s Child.
Thanks to the cooperation of Holden, his father-in-law, Dave Gilger, and other distant family members, Geauga County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested 49-year-old Gail M. Eastwood-Ritchey, of Euclid, on June 6, accusing her of dumping her one-to-three-day-old biological child in a wooded area on Sidley Road in Thompson Township more than 26 years ago.
Ritchey admitted to birthing the child, placing him in a trash bag and discarding him in the wooded area, Geauga County Sheriff Scott Hildenbrand previously said. She also admitted to committing a similar crime two years earlier in Cuyahoga County.
Ritchey was indicted on charges of aggravated murder and murder. She pleaded not guilty and was released from jail after posting 10 percent of a $250,000 bond. Her trial is scheduled for Oct. 28.
On Aug. 29, Sheriff Scott Hildenbrand presented Holden, who lives in Omaha, Neb., with an Outstanding Civilian Award on the opening day of The Great Geauga County Fair in appreciation and gratitude for his support in solving the Geauga Child’s mystery.
“It’s very humbling for me that you’ve honored me in this manner,” Holden said, praising the work of the sheriff’s office and, specifically, Detective Donald Seamon. “I’m also very happy to have been a big part of bringing closure to this sad event in the community.”
Over the past two and a half decades, sheriff’s deputies have followed up on hundreds of leads and conducted dozens of interviews in the case, but made no arrest. Though the facts surrounding the death of the child were few, they were tragic enough to urge the community into action. Community members christened the baby “Geauga’s Child” and raised money to give him a proper burial and gravestone in Thompson’s Maple Grove Cemetery.
Authorities were electrified in April 2018 when a DNA search was used to nab the Golden State Killer, a California man accused of a series of decades-old rapes and murders. Crime-scene DNA samples were uploaded in GEDmatch, a free public online database where hobbyists share their data from consumer DNA testing companies such as 23andMe, FamilySearch.org, MyHeritage.com, FindMyPast.com and Ancestry.com to find relatives with shared DNA and to reverse-engineer their family tree.
A search of GEDmatch’s profiles identified several relatives who were the equivalent to third cousins to the crime scene DNA linked to the Golden State Killer. Other information such as genealogical records, approximate age and crime locations then allowed authorities to home in on a single person.
Inspired by this new crime-fighting tool, Seamon uploaded DNA collected from blood and tissue samples from Geauga’s Child that had been stored all these years into an online database in an effort to identify both the child and the circumstances surrounding its death.
“The initial results that we received were that the closest match was approximately a third to fourth cousin who resided in Warren, Ohio,” Seamon explained. “That DNA kit was submitted by a family member who was a resident of the state of Nebraska.”
‘Instrumental’ in Investigation
Holden got into ancestry about 20 years ago, after his father, also a genealogy hobbyist, passed away.
“He left all of his files and records, so I just picked it up and I just started from there, and started building on that,” Holden said.
Utilizing numerous online resources, Holden has been able to trace part of his family’s ancestry back to the early 1600s in England. Other parts of the family he has been able to trace back only to the early 1800s.
To date, Holden said he has obtained DNA from six to seven family members, including Gilger, whose data was uploaded to GEDmatch about five years ago.
“In the beginning it was like a little joke. He wanted to see if I had any criminals in my family,” Gilger said. “And it went from there. He got interested in this and, boy, he really went after it.”
Results revealed Gilger’s ancestors came from the French/German border.
“I didn’t even know that myself,” Gilger said.
Holden explained Gilger’s DNA was just sitting there in GEDmatch for years. And then, in February, a City of Omaha police detective knocked on his door and told him the Geauga County Sheriff’s Office wanted to speak to him about a DNA kit he maintains that was matched to a deceased child in Ohio.
“So I called Detective Seamon and he quickly explained to me that it was Dave (Gilger) and it was a third cousin,” Holden said, explaining Geauga’s Child was a third cousin of his father-in-law.
The two men talked about Holden’s research and Gilger’s family.
“They had been doing their own independent research, and actually pretty darn good research,” Holden said. “But I was able to starting filling in a lot of the blanks on that.”
So Holden agreed to help.
“We found that he had a vast knowledge of genealogy, the ancestry sites and the way that the process worked,” said Seamon. “This was a new technique for us and we had little experience with it.”
He added Holden was “instrumental” in the investigation’s success.
“With his knowledge that he provided us, not only with the resources but because he already had done substantial work on the family tree, we were able to bring this case to some resolution,” Seamon said.
Gilger said he was told someone in his family 26 years ago had a child who was “thrown away.”
“When I heard that, I thought who did this. Somebody in my family is involved in this. Somebody did this. I got interested. Who was it?” Gilger said, adding he went through all of the family members he knew, including cousins, aunts and uncles. “And nothing came of it.”
Holden kept investigating and got “closer and closer,” Gilger said, and working with the sheriff’s office got “closer and closer and closer, and finally the results came out.”
“I’m not a religious guy, but this was like an act of God. This is something that had to come and finally came out,” he added. “I look at this as God looked at this little child and said, ‘You’ve got to figure this out.’ And it came about.”
Glad to Help
Holden said it was a “very rewarding feeling” to help solve the Geauga’s Child case.
“I’m happy to have done this,” he said, adding he was humbled he was even asked to assist in the investigation.
“I have a lot of pride in the fact that they took my research and help, and advice and went and put some closure around this thing,” Holden added. “This is terrific and it was, again, rewarding work to achieve what needed to be done.”
While Holden said neither he nor is father-in-law know Ritchey, they did know family members closer to her.
“When we were closing in . . . there were several times there . . . where we had to go down very close family-member lines to people we did know,” he said. “The detective had to call upon them and they were all very helpful, either in submitting DNA or turning over the DNA test they had already finished.”
Thursday afternoon Holden, his wife, Lauren, and Gilger were planning a visit to Geauga’s Child’s gravestone.
“I think I will feel a little melancholy but a great degree of happiness that we’ve, I’d like to think, righted a wrong here and unfortunately a dead child’s there,” Holden said. “It’s going to be a touching moment for us. There’s an attachment there now for us, I think, for the family.”
For Gilger, he looks at the events two ways.
“This child didn’t have to be discarded in this way. There could have been a better solution. It was poor judgment, a terrible decision this person made,” he said. “On the other hand, I’m glad we got it solved. I don’t know about this baby. I know it’s part of my family, he’s part of my blood. This little baby that I never met . . . this child is in my heart.”