First Alert Investigation: How forensic genetic genealogy helped with a Green Bay cold case

Published: Dec. 16, 2020 at 5:06 PM CST
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - A Racine County man will stand trial in Brown County for the 1986 murder of Lisa Holstead.

After testimony from the lead detective during a preliminary hearing Wednesday, a judge determined there’s enough evidence for 65-year old Lou Griffin to go to trial.

RELATED: Man bound over for trial in 1986 Green Bay murder

Action 2 News first reported in October that police arrested Griffin 34 years after Holstead was found murdered in Green Bay.

Police say DNA connects him to the crime scene, but it took police decades to make that connection.

They say they did -- three decades later -- because of science.

It’s a new and very successful way of tracking down the identity of a person, and what police call ‘forensic genetic genealogy.’

RELATED: Family tree led detectives to suspect in 1986 Holstead murder

It became a more common term two years ago when investigators in California used it to identify the Golden State Killer.

In our First Alert Investigation, we found out how California investigators helped police in Green Bay use this new technology.

Just over a year ago, when Green Bay Police Detective Dave Graf was assigned Lisa Holstead’s unsolved murder case, he knew he had to try something different to track her killer.

Traditional methods had all turned up empty.

He had DNA from someone, but it didn’t match anyone in CODIS, the FBI-operated DNA database containing more than three-million profiles, mostly of convicted felons. CLICK HERE to learn more about CODIS.

Graf needed a different pool of DNA profiles.

”I just found out through the media that these other jurisdictions were doing that,” says Graf.

That is genetic genealogy, also known as ancestry searching, among other names.

Graf consulted with another Wisconsin law enforcement agency who’d worked a case using family tree forensics.

That quickly led him to investigators in California, who paved the way for this new technology in 2018 when they used it to find serial killer Joseph DeAngelo, the man responsible for dozens of murders and rapes dating back to 1973.

RELATED: Golden State Killer admits to dozens of rapes, 13 murders

”Then they walked me through everything, and they hooked me up with somebody local,” says Graf. “So this is just me kind of calling another one enforcement agency, saying, what did you do? And then they put me in contact with the right people.”

That set Graf on a path of learning genealogy 101, tracing family trees -- but backwards -- starting with a match to a DNA profile uploaded to websites of third-party companies that anyone can access.

Those are sites like GEDmatch or FamilyTreeDNA.

”(It’s) something that is not really being done, to my knowledge, in a crime lab level. But it’s being done, you know, in a public company type level,” says Graf.

It’s thanks to the millions of people suddenly interested in knowing who their ancestors are or those looking for long-lost relatives.

By submitting their DNA to those sites, it allows anyone, including police, to go searching for a match.

”I have the exact same access to your information as any other person would. I don’t have any specific information about your DNA. I couldn’t tell you what hair color you were. I couldn’t do anything,” says Graf.

Here’s the science behind it.

The FBI says this DNA research looks at different markers on a DNA strand, not the 20 markers used on DNA in CODIS.

It results in a much different profile.

”They’ve been able to figure out algorithms to say that if you share this much DNA with a person, you could potentially be... this is how you could potentially be related to a person,” says Graf.

It doesn’t give police an instant name and face, like on a tv crime show.

Graf says it allows him to access potential matches, but even those don’t often come with actual names.

”It’s more like a user name and maybe an email address or something,” says Graf. “They’ll give you some type of contact information, and that’s all you get.”

From there, science class is over, and it’s back to traditional investigating.

”Just regular old boots on the ground, investigative techniques. Yes. That’s why it could potentially take so long,” says Graf.

But in Lisa Holstead’s case, it worked, and that is opening the door to using this new technology on other old cases.

”Absolutely. We look at it, use it for other cases. But, you know, it’s only applicable in certain situations,” adds Graf.

Just like the case with Griffin, Detective Graf says the ancestry tracing can give multiple possible matches, but equally important is combining that with geographic locations, and even age, to really narrow in on a possible suspect.

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