How a napkin helped solve the murder of Jeanie Childs

Science News

Mugshot of Jerry Westrom. (Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office)

(NewsNation) — A decades-old homicide case was solved after the suspect ate a hot dog and investigators used a dirty napkin with his DNA to connect him to the crime scene.

Jerry Westrom, 56, was convicted of first-degree and second-degree murder in the killing of Jeanie Childs this past Thursday.

Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, founder and president of Identifinders International, said police have been collecting surreptitious samples for as long as they’ve been using DNA.

“It’s quite common to collect a cigarette butt or a straw or a drinking glass and analyze the DNA on that in order to match it to a crime scene, and then that would perhaps lead to an arrest,” she said.

Westrom was at his daughter’s hockey game, being watched by investigators, when he threw out a hot dog napkin he used to clean his face. Investigators dug the napkin out of the trash.

But Fitzpatrick said the real innovation came from how investigators identified him as a suspect in the first place. By entering DNA found at the scene in a genealogy website, investigators discovered Westrom could be a match.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re an adoptee or you’re a violent offender, if it’s DNA and you don’t know who it belongs to, the method is the same to find out who it is,” she said.

When someone takes an ancestry test, Fitzgerald said, it comes up with a list of people who are matches based on how much DNA they share. If someone shares half their DNA, for instance, it has to be a parent, child or sibling.

“That’s a very easy case to solve,” Fitzgerald said.

The test can reveal people who might be more distant relatives, as well.

“We take all these relatives, and we rearrange them,” Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick said it’s almost like a “big Sudoku puzzle” to take the people and arrange them in a consistent way so that they all relate to each other.

“The missing part is the person you’re looking for,” Fitzpatrick said.

Westrom was charged with first-degree premeditated murder and second-degree intentional murder in a jury trial. His attorney says he plans to appeal the guilty verdict.

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