Genealogy websites helped lead police to suspect in Jeanie Ann Childs' 1993 killing
A dirty napkin cast aside at a hockey game last month led to the arrest of a Minnesota man as the suspect in a woman’s 26-year-old cold-case murder.
The suspect, Jerry Westrom, 52, of Isanti, hadn’t been on the radar of investigators until 2018. Now, he faces one count of second-degree murder in the 1993 death of 35-year-old Jeanie Ann Childs.
On June 13 of that year, a resident of a Minneapolis high-rise complained of water seeping into her apartment, according to a probable cause charging document obtained by PEOPLE.
Inside the 21st floor apartment from which the water appeared to be leaking, the building’s staff encountered water on the floor “and a significant amount of blood,” the document states. The shower was running and the body of a woman — later identified as Childs — lay on the floor, naked except for a pair of socks.
Childs had multiple stab wounds to her neck, back, arms, hands and buttocks, and died from “multiple sharp force trauma to the chest,” the medical examiner ruled.
“A number of the wounds were inflicted post mortem,” the charging document states.
Although investigators collected and tested several items found at the scene for DNA, the case went cold for more than two decades.
In 2018, the arrest of a suspect in the case of California’s Golden State Killer alerted a number of law enforcement agencies to the possibility that genealogy could pave the way to a suspect. In the California case, authorities had zeroed in on accused serial murderer Joseph DeAngelo through the DNA of his relatives.
Using DNA with an unknown origin from the Childs murder scene, Minneapolis authorities then entered their information into available commercial genealogy websites. The results pointed investigators toward two possible suspects, including Westrom.
Authorities next learned Westrom had lived in Minneapolis at the time Childs was killed, and had a criminal record that included a conviction for solicitation in 2016.
Last month officers began to trail Westrom to collect a DNA sample without his knowledge. At a hockey game, they observed him order food from a concession stand, then wipe his mouth with a napkin that he later placed in a cardboard food container before tossing both in a trash bin.
“When you discard a thing in the trash, the Supreme Court says it is fair game,” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said in a statement announcing Westrom’s arrest. “Saliva is one of the principal ways to get DNA. The best I can tell, it was legitimate.”
• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
Testing revealed a possible match, and police who arrested Westrom on Feb. 11 collected a formal DNA sample that suggested a match with other evidence from the scene of Childs’ killing, including sperm cells from a bed comforter and a towel in the bathroom.
Westrom denied being at the apartment, said he didn’t recognize the victim and told police he hadn’t had sex “with any woman in Minneapolis in 1993,” according to the charging document.
“There was a number of blood samples taken [at the apartment],” Freeman said at a news conference Thursday. “His DNA was found on a number of them.”
Westrom was released from Hennepin County jail Friday after posting a $500,000 bond, jail records show. He is due back in court March 13. Those records do not indicate if he has entered a plea or retained an attorney who might speak on his behalf.
“For people who say, ‘Isn’t this awful, we’re invading privacy,’ we use DNA all of the time to prove that a person didn’t do it,” Freeman said. “Because if we don’t have a match, we don’t have a case. What this has done is make identification much better.”
He added: “We are quite confident that he is the person, or we would not have charged it.”