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Local

Genetic DNA tool used to catch Sycamore double murder suspect marks 100th case for lab

DeKalb County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Andy Sullivan speaks while flanked by area law enforcement representatives Tuesday during a press conference announcing the arrest of Jonathan D. Hurst on charges of first-degree murder in the killing of Patricia and Robert Wilson of Sycamore.
DeKalb County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Andy Sullivan speaks while flanked by area law enforcement representatives Tuesday during a press conference announcing the arrest of Jonathan D. Hurst on charges of first-degree murder in the killing of Patricia and Robert Wilson of Sycamore.

The DNA genealogy mapping used to connect an Ohio man with the brutal homicide of Patricia Wilson and Robert Wilson in Sycamore 3½ years later is the same complex forensic tool used to identify a suspect in the Golden State Killer case in California.

CeCe Moore, chief genetic genealogist at Reston, Virginia-based company called Parabon NanoLabs – which undertook an arduous process of building a family tree for the offender using publicly available DNA databases – said Monday’s arrest marked the 100th case the laboratory has helped solve using the DNA technology. The labs also used genetic phenotyping using DNA taken from the scene to compile a rough digital sketch of what the Wilson murder suspect might look like.

“It’s really exciting, putting a puzzle together,” Moore said. “We joke on my team, we don’t need Sudoku because what you’re doing is you’ve got to put these pieces together until they create a whole picture, and that picture is going to lead you to a suspect.”

DeKalb County Sheriff’s detectives on Monday traveled to Cincinnati, where they arrested Jonathan D. Hurst, 51, formerly of Chicago, at his home. Hurst is charged with first-degree murder in the Aug. 14, 2016, killings of Patricia Wilson, 85, and Robert Wilson, 65, who were found Aug. 15, 2016, at their home, 16058 Old State Road in rural Sycamore.

In the years since, investigators followed more than 1,300 leads and traveled as far as Washington state in search of suspects, all while attempting to identify the DNA found at the crime scene.

Although Parabon did not specifically work on the Golden State Killer case, the same type of genetic mapping was used to help link suspect Joseph James DeAngelo, a former police officer and a U.S. Navy veteran, to 13 related kidnapping and abduction attempts in the decades-long cold case that goes back to 1974.

About a week ago, the genetic research pointed them to Hurst, and investigators found phone records and other evidence placing him in the area Aug. 14, 2016, the night the Wilsons were killed at their home at 16058 Old State Road in rural Sycamore, Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Andy Sullivan said.

Sheriff’s detectives announced the arrest Tuesday. Hurst is charged with first-degree murder on a no-bond warrant, will be extradited from Hamilton County Jail in Ohio and appear before a DeKalb County judge Friday to face charges.

Sullivan has said the sheriff’s office never thought of the Wilson murders as a cold case, and Moore agrees.

“This isn’t as cold of a case as many others that we’ve worked,” she said. “So it’s really gratifying to help the family and community get answers quickly rather than waiting decades for that to happen.”

Last week, the team stumbled upon a breakthrough as it cross-referenced the DNA taken from the Wilsons’ house with a public database of DNA from GEDmatch (where genealogy enthusiasts often voluntarily upload their own DNA samples). People swab their own cheek, send in the DNA sample to GEDmatch (or sometimes to private databases such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe, which were not used for this case), and then are sent a map to begin building family history.

Parabon and the detectives constructed an intricate web of family trees and then attempted to match the suspect’s DNA with genetic markers that indicate a DNA match.

As they discovered more matches, they constructed Hurst’s family tree backward, working their way through at least 20 of his relatives until they settled on him.

“People ask [whether] we are worried about pulling innocent people into these investigations,” Moore said. “But in reality, we’re eliminating the vast majority of the public and honing in on a much smaller group of people. That’s something I’m most proud of.”

Parabon has been working with law enforcement agencies since 2015 and began offering agencies aid in genetic mapping in 2018, Parabon spokeswoman Paula Armentrout said.

“Phenotyping was developed by us with funding from the United States Department of Defense for anti-terrorism purposes,” Armentrout said.

Since May 1, 2018, Parabon has worked about 300 cold cases around the country, Moore said. And the Wilson murder breakthrough marks the 100th they’ve been able to help law enforcement come to an identification, she said.

“You want to find DNA that’s not degraded if possible, and enough of it,” Moore said. “There’s a lot of credit that has to go to the original crime scene investigators are on this because of how well they collected evidence.”

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