NILES TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — A genealogist who says she helped crack the cold case of Roxanne Wood’s murder said she was determined to find answers.
On Feb. 20, 1987, Wood was found stabbed to death in her Niles Township home. Her throat was slashed and she had been hit over the head with a frying pan. She was 30 years old.
Gabriella Vargas, who lives in northern California, is an investigative genetic genealogist with DNA-ID. Before Saturday, she had never publicly told the story about how she helped break open the case.
Last April, she was working as a consultant for Identifinders International, the group that law enforcement came to after two previous genealogy agencies gave up on the case, Vargas said. In the decades since Wood’s death, Vargas said several genealogists called the case “unsolvable.” After reviewing the data herself, she felt differently.
“I believed this was a case that I could solve,” Vargas told News 8. “I was determined to solve it.”
When she became involved, she said she got answers quickly.
“Literally a case that took them 34 years to investigate took me four days to solve,” Vargas said.
Vargas received the DNA of the unknown suspect and started the process of DNA matching.
“I used his family relatives to build out their family trees and figure out back in time who the common ancestor was amongst these matches,” she said. “It ultimately led to where the suspect would fall in that family tree.”
Once she found the right family, the process narrowed down to three brothers, two of whom had no criminal record and weren’t in the area at the time of the crime. The third brother was Patrick Gilham.
“Patrick Gilham was never a suspect in this case,” Vargas said. “He was never on the radar. He was not somebody that they had interviewed or crossed paths with Roxanne at any point.
“When looking at the third child, which was Patrick, I uncovered not only was he residing 4 miles from the scene of the crime, he also had a very extensive criminal background,” she continued.
She told investigators, who started building their case. Ten months later, on Feb. 17 of this year, Gilham was taken into custody. The arrest happened just days before the 35th anniversary of the killing.
On Friday, Gilham pleaded no contest to a charge of second-degree murder. Prosecutors said he agreed to a minimum 23-year prison sentence.
“It’s a very powerful feeling that you’ve brought closure to this family,” Vargas said. “You’ve brought these answers that they’ve waited for so long for.”
Gilham’s arrest cleared Wood’s widower, Terry Wood, who was long considered to be a person of interest in the case. He reportedly still lives in the Niles area.
“Publicly, you’ve cleared her husband who was wrongly accused for 35 years,” Vargas said. “He was the target of the investigation. He was their subject. And it devastated the family, it tore them apart, it ruined his life.”
She said DNA and genealogy has been used to help adoptees find their biological parents and now it’s being applied to cold cases, famously in the Golden State Killer case.
“It was essentially realized that why can’t we do this to identify suspects and unidentified remains as well,” Vargas said.
She called it a game-changer for cold cases. However, she said a lot of agencies don’t have enough funding for these services and the lab fees can be quite costly.
Vargas said the family inspired her to dig for answers.
“We’re always told not to get emotionally invested in these cases, but it was extremely hard not to,” she said. “The family was my motivation.”