Genealogy databases are powerful new tools for police and could be used to solve local cases, Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards said Tuesday.
The comments came during a news conference in which she thanked investigators from several law enforcement agencies for work that led to the arrest Sunday of John D. Miller, 59, of Grabill. He is charged with murder, child molesting and criminal confinement in the death of April Tinsley, 8, in 1988.
No new details about the case were released, but Richards said DNA evidence coupled with publicly available genealogical data should send a message to criminal suspects.
“This case should tell them something,” she said.
April disappeared April 1, 1988, after leaving her West Williams Street home to go to a friend's house. She was found dead in DeKalb County three days later.
Little hard evidence was available to tie potential suspects to the killing, though investigators collected and kept DNA found at the crime scene. That and DNA collected from used condoms in 2004 and on July 6 was used to narrow the search to Miller as the alleged killer, police said.
Detectives also hired private research firm Parabon Nanolabs, which compared DNA samples in the case with data uploaded to a website that allows users to search for relatives using genetic codes. The nascent detective tool also has been used to lead police around the country to high-profile suspects including Joseph James DeAngelo, the alleged Golden State Killer in California, in April.
The Reston, Virginia-based firm's star is CeCe Moore, a former theater actor who later turned to genetic genealogy and has helped solve cold cases around the country. She also was featured on the PBS program “Finding Your Roots,” in which subjects learn about their ancestors.
Reached by phone, Moore declined Tuesday to discuss specifics of her work with local investigators but confirmed that GEDmatch.com was used to examine the Tinsley case.
“When you're working with DNA, you're uncovering some very amazing things,” she said.
The Tinsley case stumped detectives for years, but Parabon used DNA data July 2 to narrow the case to Miller and another man, police said. State police investigators said a week later that DNA recovered in 1988 and 2004 matched samples recovered at Miller's home, according to a probable cause affidavit.
It is not clear when Parabon was hired or whether its methods are being used in other local cases. Richards and officials at the news conference said they could not talk about the pending case.
It was clear from the beginning, though, that DNA would be central to the case. Former Allen County Prosecutor Stephen Sims told The Journal Gazette a few days after April's death the DNA would be crucial.
“We owe it to the community to get the right person, not just a person,” he said then.
Gary Grant and Danny Jackson were among the first Fort Wayne police detectives assigned to the case in 1988. Each remembered Sims pointing to the importance of the evidence.
“When we entered into this case, we didn't know what DNA was,” Grant said. “We knew it was going to be important. We said, 'OK, we're going to get this,' but we didn't know how important it was going to be.”
Richards lauded the work of investigators from the Fort Wayne Police Department, the Allen County Sheriff's Department, the FBI, Indiana State Police and others. She and representatives from those agencies expressed hope that April's family can have closure with Miller's arrest.
“The abduction and death of 8-year-old April Tinsley ... has haunted this community for 30 years,” Richards said. “This case was solved by the tireless efforts of many of the people in this room. It's almost impossible for me to express the gratitude this community has for the investigators and all the law enforcement agencies involved.”
Ron Galaviz, a spokesman for Indiana State Police, said investigators worked together and never gave up on the case.
“I know somewhere up there, dancing with her angels,” he said, “she's celebrating.”