Genealogy, DNA testing lead Beaumont police to Ohio in effort to solve woman’s brutal 1995 murder – Houston Chronicle

DNA

On Jan. 13, 1995, a young Beaumont second-grade teacher arrived home from school after a long week, walked her dog, and then poured a glass of wine and settled in for the evening. She called her boyfriend.

The phone call was likely the last one she ever made.

When Mary Catherine Edwards’ friends and former students think of her, they remember the woman who greeted them with hugs every day. They remember the teacher who watched out for them, who bought snacks with her own money for homeroom parties, who lit up their day with beaming smiles.

Now, decades later, they still choke up recalling the 31-year-old woman’s murder, a case that went cold until late last month, until investigators used DNA testing and genealogy websites to home in on a suspect.

On April 29, cold case investigators from the Beaumont Police Department and the Texas Rangers flew to Cleveland, where they arrested a 61-year-old man they say raped and killed Edwards.

A caring teacher

At the time of her murder, Edwards — who went by her middle name — was an elementary school teacher, a member of Leadership Beaumont, and had been attending a Bible studies class at First Baptist Church.

A petite, 5-foot Beaumont native, she taught at Price Elementary School in Beaumont’s Pear Orchard neighborhood.

Her twin sister, Allison Brocato, also worked in Beaumont ISD — as a kindergarten teacher at Amelia Elementary.

Every year, Edwards warned her new students that she had a sister, according to a Beaumont Enterprise profile on the pair written in 1993.

“If you see another one of me walking around somewhere and she doesn’t speak to you, don’t get your feelings hurt,” she’d tell them. “It’s probably my sister.”

Edwards threw her heart into the job, said former Price principal Floyd Broussard, recalling warning the young teacher not to work too late.

“She cared about the kids so much,” he said. “She was never one to hurry up and leave the building.”

Beaumont Enterprise file photo of Catherine Edwards.

Beaumont Enterprise archive

She was the type of teacher students sought for refuge.

When she was a student at Price, La’Toyya Twine-Ozane’s life was upended when her parents divorced.

School officials transferred Twine-Ozane out of Edwards’ class into a gifted-and-talented program, but every day at lunchtime she would sneak back to Edwards’ room to get a hug from her favorite teacher.

“She loved on us,” Twine-Ozane said. “You’d feel comfortable and safe with her, she was just one of those teachers. Her smile made my day.”

Another student, Cory Crenshaw, remembered a homeroom party where parents had forgotten to bring money for snacks for the class.

“Catherine went to the store and bought them out of her own pocket,” he said, his voice catching. “She was sweet, kind and beautiful, but also generous.”

The murder

When Edwards didn’t return calls on Jan. 14, 1995, her parents drove to the house to check on her. Lum Edwards, her father, walked into the house about 2 p.m. and went upstairs.

In the bedroom, the sheets and comforter had been ripped off the bed. In the bathroom, the shower rod had been knocked from its mount and the curtain hung askew.

Catherine’s wet, partially naked body lay on the floor, her arms handcuffed behind her back.

She had 36 wounds across her body, an autopsy later determined.

Someone had entered the house, raped her, and then drowned her in the tub.

The case left Beaumont — and Edwards’ students and friends — reeling, Broussard recalled.

It was particularly difficult for her second-graders, especially when they saw her twin sister, Allison, at the funeral.

“When she walked in, the reality hit students really hard,” he said.

The investigation

At first, investigators thought they might solve the case quickly. Edwards’ life revolved around school, church and the gym. She’d been in a happy relationship with her boyfriend.

“This can’t be real, nobody is this nice,” Steven Thrower recalled thinking. “But she was.” Thrower, who was a criminal investigator from the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office, worked on the case from 1995 until his retirement in 2009.

Edwards didn’t engage in risky behavior, meaning there would presumably be fewer suspects to sift through. And there was no shortage of evidence at her home.

But every line of inquiry came up blank.

The crime sparked a lengthy investigation by the Beaumont Police Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the DA’s Office. Beaumont police did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In the early years of DNA technology, the investigators spent $10,000 sending evidence from the crime scene to a lab in Maryland for testing. They entered the information in CODIS, law enforcement’s primary criminal DNA database.

Police hoped that over time they might find a match through the system.

Detectives looked through sex offender registries. They researched her associations at the gym. They talked to members of her church. Because the killer used Smith & Wesson handcuffs — favored by law enforcement — they took DNA samples from about 20 police officers and correctional officers.

After reading about a similar murder in North Texas, Thrower drove to Tarrant County to interview investigators who’d worked the case.

But the trail stayed cold. The case loomed in his mind, keeping him up at night.

“It screamed in my head, ‘Find him!’” he said.

Steve Thrower inside his home on Friday, May 7, 2021, in Port Bolivar. Thrower is a retired Jefferson County DA’s investigator who spent years looking for Catherine Edwards’ murderer.

Godofredo A. Vásquez, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Eventually, the murder was classified as a cold case.

The Department of Public Safety offered a reward for information. Nothing turned up.

About two years ago, newly elected Jefferson County DA Bob Wortham was discussing cold cases that Texas Ranger Brandon Bess and Beaumont Police Detective Aaron Lewallen were working on. He asked them to take a fresh look at the Edwards murder.

The Department of Public Safety doubled its reward for information about the case.

Investigators pored back over more than a dozen boxes of evidence.

They enlisted the help of Othram Inc., a private forensic lab based in The Woodlands that does specialized DNA testing for law enforcement.

Traditional DNA testing entered in CODIS searches a profile consisting of 20 markers (sequences of DNA that indicate traits that can be used to identify a person). The testing at the Othram lab can map 10,000 to 100,000 markers, allowing investigators to discover connections that CODIS might miss.

In the Edwards murder, “the DNA was fairly degraded,” CEO David Mittelman said. His scientists tested a small piece of bedspread and other items investigators still had and managed to extract a small sample of DNA — less than a nanogram. A typical mouth swab used in a standard DNA test frequently holds 750 to 1,000 nanograms of DNA.

A boost from genealogy

Then, investigators turned to genealogy.

Over the past few years, some 20 million people have had their DNA tested by companies such as 23andMe, connecting long-lost relatives or helping families gain insight into their origin and history.

Detectives from agencies around the country have also started harnessing the databases to try to crack cases by tracing criminal suspects’ family trees.

The technique gained international attention in 2018, when investigators used the method to help identify the Golden State Killer, a former police officer who murdered at least 13 people and raped 50 women between 1973 and 1986.

The technique has also sparked controversy. Civil rights activists and genealogists warn of privacy violations and say law enforcement is using the technology without any oversight, and in some cases working with genealogy testing websites in ways that violated users’ terms of service.

In the subsequent backlash, some sites barred law enforcement or excluded users’ data from law enforcement searches unless they explicitly agreed to opt in.

Police and their supporters counter that the technology has helped close dozens of murders or missing-persons cases.

Paul Holes, one of the investigators who tracked down the Golden State Killer, said that law enforcement traditionally uses DNA technology to try to catch people they assume have already struck elsewhere.

But genealogy testing “isn’t predicated on the repeat offender,” he said.

“It just points to a small group of individuals that fit as suspects,” he said. “It’s something that takes the control out of the hands of the offender.”

Closing in

After Mittelman’s team obtained the DNA sample from the crime scene, genealogists uploaded the data into a website called GEDmatch.com, which is widely used by police; its terms of service specify that it can be used by law enforcement to search for perpetrators of “violent crime.”

The database didn’t identify a specific individual but did help investigators determine the person was likely a Cajun man, and pointed toward some of his distant relatives.

From there, Bess and other detectives working the case sought DNA evidence from more than 30 distant relatives to build the killer’s family tree and weed out suspects.

Bess said everyone he approached donated genetic material.

“Everybody was on board,” he said. “Everybody loves a true crime story, and they want to be involved.”

Over several months, the list dwindled to a pair of brothers from Beaumont. One of the men had no criminal record. The other, Clayton Foreman, caught their attention, court records show.

Foreman, 61, had gone to Forest Park High School at the same time as Edwards — and she had been a bridesmaid at his first wedding, Wortham, the district attorney, told the Beaumont Enterprise.

Floyd Broussard inside his home on Friday, May 7, 2021, in Port Neches. Broussard hired Catherine Edwards to be a teacher when he was the principal at Price Elementary School in Beaumont. Authorities arrested a suspect last month in the 26-year-old case of Edwards’ murder.

Godofredo A. Vásquez, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

In 1981, he’d been accused of raping a woman at knifepoint. Court records showed that police said he had driven into a gas station and found a woman stranded there. Foreman told the woman he was a police officer and offered her a ride. Once he got her in the car, he drove away, stopped the vehicle, tied her hands behind her back, held a knife to her throat and raped her. Foreman pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and was sentenced to three years’ probation, officials said.

When police made the identification, Foreman was living in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. Investigators contacted the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, whose officers surreptitiously took items from Foreman’s trash and sent them back for DNA testing at DPS’ Houston lab.

On April 28, Bess and his peers got the result: DNA from Foreman’s garbage matched that of semen taken from Edwards’ body 26 years before.

The next morning, Bess flew to Ohio to interview Foreman, an unemployed bill collector working as an Uber driver. By 4 p.m., he was in cuffs. He’s charged with capital murder. Police are seeking to extradite him to Texas.

After Bess interviewed Foreman, he picked up his phone and called Edwards’ surviving relatives — her sister and brother-in-law.

The news quickly spread from there, throughout Beaumont and to the many people who had known the young schoolteacher.

“I pray her sister finally gets justice,” Twine-Ozane said.

st.john.smith@chron.com

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