GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The 1988 cold case killing of 19-year-old Cathy Swartz in Three Rivers is the latest to be solved by an emerging technology increasingly used by law enforcement.
This week, police announced 53-year-old Robert Waters was taken into custody nearly 35 years after the killing.
After decades of waiting for answers for their loved ones’ deaths, more families are finding justice thanks to forensic genetic genealogy.
“They need those answers,” said Kristen Mittelman, the chief development officer at Othram, a Texas-based company specializing in the technology. “They seek them every single day, actively. There’s really not much that can be done without new technology being funded to allow for these kinds of answers.”
Forensic genetic genealogy combines DNA analysis with samples submitted to public ancestry databases.
“Forensic genealogy has made a huge difference,” said Michigan State Police Detective First Lieutenant Chuck Christensen. “I’ve been in this for 28 years. Besides the advent of DNA technology … this has been by far the biggest game-changer that we’ve had.”
“I hope that becomes a deterrent for crime, if you knew you’d get caught every single time,” Mittelman said.
In Michigan, MSP teams up with third-party companies specializing in the technology.
“It’s provided closure to families on some cases that would’ve been very difficult to get to the point of an arrest and a conviction of the individual that was responsible without this technology,” Christensen said.
Three Rivers Police and MSP teamed up with Othram over six months to help bring answers to the Swartz case. Scientists built a DNA profile and uploaded it to a genealogical database to look for matches.
“You have fifth cousins, sixth cousins, fourth cousins, third cousins,” Mittelman said. “And so then, you’re able to figure out how far the person is from each one of these relationships. So, you’re able to work back to a common ancestor.”
After combing through hundreds of thousands of markers, the company dialed in on the Waters family and turned that over to police, which then confirmed Robert Waters’ identity through traditional DNA matching. On Sunday, after nearly 35 years, the suspect was in custody for Swartz’s killing.
“I really wanted to get justice for her and her family,” Mittelman said.
Mittelman explained that sometimes matches can be made in days, but sometimes it can take longer.
“We think 10% of our cases will be instant solves,” she said. “We solve within a day or two of profiles uploading. 10% of cases will take longer than a year. Everything else falls within between. It really isn’t predictable.”
Last February, the technology helped solve the Roxanne Wood murder near Niles 35 years later, with a suspect later being sentenced.
“We’re gonna live in a world where your case doesn’t go cold,” Mittelman said. “And hopefully we go back and clear these backlogs. So no one has to wait decades to find out what happened with their loved one. No perpetrator is getting away with it.”
Last year, forensic genetic genealogy helped the Kent County Sheriff’s Office solve the 26-year-old murder of Sharon Hammack near Caledonia.
“It’s totally changed the way we can solve not only these crimes, the homicides, but to solve sexual assault cases to locating the identification of victims,” said Lieutenant Jason Richards with the sheriff’s department’s investigative division. “We’ve used it for those cases as well.”
Identifinders International, a third-party company specializing in the practice, nailed down a family linked to the DNA matches. That led investigators to Garry Artman, a trucker now charged with her killing.
“It’s a huge game-changer,” Richards said.
The technology helped the sheriff’s office identify the remains of a woman found off M-21 near Ada in 1997. Last year, the sheriff announced the remains known as ‘Ada bones’ was a mother of two, Stephanie Judson.
“The smallest amount of evidence now, you can take that small amount of evidence and turn that into something greater,” Richards said.
Right now, state police contract out the work to third-party companies. But some in state police labs are being trained to do genealogical testing.
“We do have individual within our laboratories that are currently and have been going through genealogy training,” Christensen said. “At this point, we don’t have a genealogy unit that has the equipment to do that type of testing.”
Some believe state police could eventually do it on their own.
“I think it is huge,” Richards said. “I think what you’ll see more of is more state agencies using genetic genealogy in their own laboratories versus having to use a third-party for that.”
A spokesperson for the Grand Rapids Police Department told News 8 that GRPD is meeting with MSP in the coming weeks to discuss genealogy testing and which cold cases in Grand Rapids could be a good fit.
“We’re going to live in a world where there are no more cold cases,” Mittelman added.