Genetic genealogy helps solve three Cobb rape cold cases

Cobb County Police Department Crime Scene Unit vehicle in article about Anderson Mill Road homicideCobb police Crime Scene Unit vehicle (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

Three Cobb cold cases from 1999 were solved with the use of technology called genetic genealogy, according to a public information release from the office of Cobb District Attorney Joyette M. Holmes.

According to the International Society of Genetic Genealogists:

Genetic genealogy is the use of DNA testing in combination with traditional genealogical and historical records. Genetic genealogy involves the use of genealogical DNA testing together with documentary evidence to infer the relationship between individuals.

Between June and October of 1999 three women were raped in Cobb County within a three-mile radius spanning Smyrna and Marietta addresses in the Windy Hill Road area.

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The crime

Each of the assaults happened pre-dawn, in the bedroom of the victim. All three women immediately reported the crime to Cobb police, and underwent medical examination, including preservation of the perpetrator’s semen.

All three rape kits were tested by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation,

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and it was determined by DNA that the same person had committed all three rapes.

But at the time no match could be found in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a service of the FBI, so it became a cold case.

The recent investigation

In late 2018, Cobb Senior Assistant District Attorney Theresa Schiefer, assigned to the Georgia Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (GASAKI) task force, started looking at the case at the the request of Cobb’s Cold Case Unit.

She contacted the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which funds the GASAKI project through the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, to ask whether SAKI funds could be used for testing, and the CJCC approved approximately $10,000.

In early 2019 the profile derived from the rape kit was submitted to Parabon NanoLabs, which used a procedure called phenotyping to figure out the physical characteristics of a person from DNA.

Parabon also uploaded the DNA file to the public website GEDmatch.com and determined a potential ancestor of the rapist. GEDmatch compares a DNA sample to samples submitted to genealogy sites like AncestryDNA and MyHeritage DNA.

They then built a genetic tree, finally finding a potential suspect in the family tree.

According to the public infomation release:

From there, the Cobb SAKI team and Cold Case Unit researched that individual’s background and found not only that he lived in metro Atlanta at the time of the crimes, but had arrests for charges that include peeping tom, indecent exposure, and burglary incidents in Cobb and Gwinnett counties around the time of the rapes. Some of those crimes were also committed in the same vicinity as the rapes.

In December 2019, two investigators traveled to Arkansas, where Arkansas State Police assisted in executing a search warrant to collect a known sample of the man’s DNA for comparison. In an interview after the sample was collected, the suspect denied committing any sexual assaults.

As investigators returned to Cobb the following day, they learned from Arkansas investigators that the suspect had gone missing and was soon found deceased.

The GBI’s Forensic Biology Section expedited testing of the DNA collected from the suspect, Lorinzo Novoa Williams, 48, and it indeed matched the profile from the 1999 rape kits.

Obituaries from Arkansas indicate that Williams died in El Dorado Arkansas on December 11, 2019. No cause of death was available.

“I am incredibly proud, not only of my team in the DA’s Office, but everyone who helped get us here,” DA Holmes said. “Even if it takes 20 years, we refuse to give up.”

Schiefer spoke with all three women after the match was confirmed.

“One woman said she often watched television shows about cold cases being solved and told us, ‘I always wondered when it would be my turn,’” Schiefer said. “I feel very fortunate that we could provide some answers to these women after all this time. We want anyone who has experienced sexual assault to know that we will continue to work their cases in hopes that their turn will come, too.”

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