Above: Portrait of Ed Green in the lab. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)
Clearfield, Utah, lies in the shadow of the rugged Wasatch Mountains, a place that residents have described as quiet and clean.
But in 2000 and 2001, the community was rocked by a pair of home-invasion rapes that a police department press release called “incomprehensible, brutal, and methodical.” DNA later linked the attacks to six other rapes in two states committed between 1991 and 1997. The attacker, however, remained unidentified.
Then, UC Santa Cruz professor Ed Green stepped in.
Contacted by Barbara Rae-Venter, a genetic genealogist most famous for helping crack the Golden State Killer case, Green had developed a technique that made it possible to recover and sequence DNA from things like old hair and degraded semen samples—something not thought possible by forensic investigators before.
The method was an outgrowth of Green’s work with ancient DNA. In 2010, collaborating with Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Green, associate professor of biomolecular engineering, had helped decode the Neanderthal genome from 40,000-year-old bone fragments, revealing that Europeans and Asians share a portion of their DNA with our heavy-browed cousins.
Rae-Venter wondered if Green might be able to collect and sequence DNA from an old, and what seemed like an unusable, semen sample from a cold case she was working on.
Green said he could.
In September 2019, after months of investigative work by Rae-Venter and detectives, the Clearfield police announced the arrest of a 69-year-old long-haul truck driver named Mark Douglas Burns and charged him with eight counts of aggravated sexual assault and six cases of aggravated kidnapping, among other charges.
“The genetic profile developed by Green was key to this whole process,” Rae-Venter said.
According to Rae-Venter, she took the genetic profile Green had assembled and uploaded it into two databases, GEDmatch and Gene by Gene’s FTDNA, to look for matches. Rae-Venter then built family trees for each of the matches, searching for a common ancestor between them and the perpetrator. She used what she’d found to identify Burns as a suspect.
He was arrested after comparing DNA samples taken from his trash with crime-scene DNA stored in the FBI’s CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) database, Rae-Venter said.
It was just one of the dozens of long-unsolved cases that Green has been called to work on by the FBI and law enforcement agencies over the past two years—cases that involved using hair and degraded bodily fluid samples to create genetic profiles for both killers and victims, including for an unidentified woman and two children found dead in a pair of 50-gallon drums in Bear Brook State Park in New Hampshire decades ago.
“Professor Green is opening doors that never existed before,” said San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputy Pete Headley, who was involved in the infamous Bear Brook murder case through his investigation into the identity of another victim of the suspected killer. “(What he does) is a game changer. It’s huge.”
The new technique, along with strides in genealogical research, could help solve thousands of cold cases, some experts believe.
Impressing the boss
Green, 47, who majored in computational biology at UC Berkeley, hadn’t planned on a career studying ancient DNA. He just wanted to impress his boss.
He’d arrived at the Max Planck Institute in 2005 intending to research gene expression in great apes. But he noticed that, in meetings, his boss, the renowned paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo, kept asking if any of the junior staff had had a chance to look at data the lab had received from a new DNA extraction technique that was being tested.
Thinking he would impress Pääbo, Green did the analysis and presented it at the next gathering.
“I don’t think I would have made a bigger impression if I had hit him with a baseball bat,” Green said, slouching in an old swivel chair in his first-floor office in UC Santa Cruz’s Biomedical Sciences building.
The new technique worked. Unbeknownst to Green, what he’d found would become the foundation for a new way to extract and sequence ancient DNA and spark his headline-gathering discovery that there’d been “hook ups” between Neanderthals and early humans. It also led him to his current focus on the technical challenges of sequencing DNA from ancient bones where DNA is in small amounts and highly fragmented. That includes his work on the discovery of a lost lineage of humans, called Denisovans, using DNA recovered from a tiny piece of fingerbone unearthed in a Siberian cave.
But it was the 2016 discovery of a small metal casket containing the body of a 2- to 3-year-old girl under a slab of concrete at a San Francisco home that led Green into the world of criminal cold cases. The toddler’s body—discovered during a remodeling project—had been almost completely preserved in its airtight coffin. The family that owned the house christened her Miranda Eve. Nobody knew who she was.
A team of volunteers, coordinated by the Garden of Innocence project, which provides dignified burials for abandoned children, eventually discovered that the girl’s casket was most likely left behind when 29,000 bodies were moved from an old cemetery to the city of Colma in 1923. Green was asked by the project’s director, Elissa Davey, if he could help identify the child by sequencing DNA from a few locks of her hair.
“I thought it was a cool thing to work on,” said Green, who regularly tunes in to the TV show Forensic Files and has a penchant for true-crime books.
Besides, he said, “I like to do stuff I don’t know how to do.”
Experimenting with techniques he’d used to extract and sequence ancient DNA, Green was able to create a genetic profile for the girl using 140-year-old strands of her hair. When historians and genealogists came up with three possible identities for the girl using maps of the old cemetery, her genetic profile was able to be matched with a distant relative.
In 2017, Edith Howard Cook, who died of an unknown illness six weeks shy of her third birthday in 1876, had finally been identified.
Then, genetic genealogist Rae-Venter called.
There was some decades-old hair she wanted Green to examine.
Traditional forensic labs can get DNA out of old hair samples, including those without a root. But they can only recover mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to child. That can help determine whether one person is related to another.
But in order to identify a person, nuclear or autosomal DNA, is needed. To get autosomal DNA out of a hair, a traditional lab had to have a fresh strand and preferably one with a root, which contains the cells responsible for making the hair.
Getting autosomal DNA out of old, rootless hair was thought to be impossible. Exposure to air and the elements caused whatever DNA was there to decay quickly.
Green’s work with ancient bones changed that.
He and his partner, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Beth Shapiro, run UC Santa Cruz’s Paleogenomics Lab. There, in a wide-windowed room that looks out onto stands of redwoods, they are using new genomic technologies to unlock some of evolution’s oldest mysteries. Where did we come from? How did populations move? What are the genomic consequences of environmental change?
Answering those kinds of questions requires the ability to gather and sequence tiny amounts of DNA from bones that are tens or even hundreds of thousands of years old—DNA that has been broken up by years of exposure and decay.
It’s a little like chopping a stack of newspapers into confetti, tossing the bits of paper into the air on a windy day, and then trying to reassemble them into something you can read.
“It’s a lab thing, a physical thing,” Green said of the process. “Our job is to get DNA out of these difficult samples as completely as we can and then convert it into a form that can go into a DNA sequencer. You have to do specific lab manipulations to get it prepared to sequence. It’s a lab process developed by trial and error. The white boards were filled and erased, filled and erased dozens of times over.”
Although the Edith Howard Cook case involved hair and not bone, Green used a variation of the same technique to create a genetic profile of the girl.
The story of the toddler, dressed in white with purple flowers woven into her red-blonde hair, made national news.
Her eyes lit up
Genetic genealogist Rae-Venter was recovering from surgery when she read a news article about how Green had used an old hair sample to confirm Edith Howard Cook’s identity.
A retired patent attorney with a Ph.D. in biology, Rae-Venter had become known for using her knowledge of genetics and her genealogy research skills to reunite adoptees with long-lost family members. She also had started working with cold-case investigators. Her sleuthing would help lead, in 2018, to the arrest of the alleged Golden State Killer, a former police officer named Joseph DeAngelo suspected of raping 50 women and killing 13 people.
But, at the time, Rae-Venter also was working on the infamous Bear Brook murder case near Allenstown, New Hampshire. In 1985, the skeletonized bodies of a woman and a young girl were found in a 55-gallon drum in the heavily wooded state park. Fifteen years later, another drum containing the decayed bodies of two young girls was discovered nearby.
Years of detective work by San Bernardino County Deputy Headley, who worked in the Crimes Against Children Detail, and sleuthing by Rae-Venter, had identified a suspect in the killings but the identities of the four victims still weren’t known.
“I was having a problem with my Allenstown (Bear Brook) victims,” Rae-Venter said by phone from her Central California Coast home. “The bodies had been exposed to the weather for years and, as a result, the DNA extracts were heavily contaminated. They were about 98% bacteria and 2% human.”
Then she saw the Edith Howard Cook article.
“My eyes lit up,” she said.
Rae-Venter met Green for lunch at the Whole Enchilada restaurant in Moss Landing and told him how his new DNA technique could be useful in cold cases like the Bear Brook killings.
“I said, ‘of course,’” Green remembered. “In every way, it’s analogous to having an officer come up to you after you’ve witnessed a murder and asking you to tell them what you saw in order to capture the murderer. How could I say no? Plus, the technology was fun and stimulating and interesting, and certainly worthwhile for the sake of justice.”
Samples of the four Bear Brook victims’ hair were brought to Green’s Paleogenomics Lab.
Green fine-tuned his process over the next year, even using a genotype file from his own hair and a DNA database to test the reliability of his technique. Finally, Green was able to create genetic profiles for the victims. Along with work by Rae-Venter and others, three of the four bodies were identified in June 2019 as Marlyse Elizabeth Honeychurch, 24, and her two daughters Marie Elizabeth Vaughn, 6, and Sarah Lynn McWaters, 1. They were believed to have been murdered by Honeychurch’s boyfriend, a convicted killer named Terry Peder Rasmussen, who eventually died in prison. The fourth body, believed to be Rasmussen’s daughter, remains unidentified.
The case was covered in a true-crime podcast called Bear Brook by New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR).
According to NHPR, in November 2019, relatives of Honeychurch and Vaughn gathered at the cemetery where the pair’s remains were first interred beneath a headstone describing them as “known only to God.” The new marker carried their full names.
Green’s work had literally been set in stone.
McWaters’s remains were released to her family.
“This is all about the victims,” Deputy Headley said of the case. “This is for the victims that were murdered, for their families…. To have this kind of closure? That’s huge.”
A big step
It’s also a big step for forensic investigators, according to Rae-Venter.
A criminal could wear gloves and wipe down a crime scene, but “basically, unless you go into a crime scene in a hazmat suit, you’re probably going to leave a hair,” Rae-Venter said.
It also is a leap forward for cold-case investigations.
“Any technique that allows us to extract reliable evidence where we couldn’t before, in this case DNA, brings the potential of solving cases that have frustrated investigators,” said Nathan H. Lents, a professor of biology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who is working on a DNA bar-coding system to identify plant residue left at crime scenes.
The ability to extract and sequence DNA from hair and degraded bodily fluid samples means it will be easier to identify suspects, either through databases like the FBI’s CODIS or, with the help of researchers like Rae-Venter, through commercial databases.
“The real value of this (Green’s) technique is that it adds to the forensic toolkit going forward, especially as the technique is further refined, validated, and spreads around the forensic community,” said Lents. “There is no telling how many cold cases could be solved or assisted by this technique, but the number is surely in the thousands.”
In October, Green moved his criminal DNA work out of his lab and into a nondescript Santa Cruz office staffed by himself and two employees.
“You can’t help thinking of the victims and their families and their view of the world and justice in a very real sense,” Green said on a sunny November morning. “For them, it’s, ‘Am I living in a just universe if this thing can happen and the perpetrator never gets caught?’
“Now (after an arrest), their mindset is that bad guys do get caught and justice happens,” Green said. “Just like MLK (Martin Luther King Jr.) said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”