Whether it’s a sunny afternoon at the baseball stadium or a chilly winter’s excursion to the local hockey rink, it’s always fun to go out to a game. Of course, most of the time, one attends such events relatively free of worry that their escapades won’t necessarily result in their eventual arrest. That’s what Jerry Westrom thought anyway.
Westrom, a 52-year-old man from Isanti, Minnesota, had gone to the hockey game to take in his favorite team. He’d picked up a hot dog, which he ate with relish (the sentiment, not the condiment) and went on with his day, heedless of the fact that this frankfurter would ultimately seal his fate…
Westrom’s story of guilt begins 26-years prior. It was June 1993 and Jeanne Childs, a prostitute, had been found dead inside an apparently flooded Minneapolis apartment. Her body was discovered lying virtually naked on the floor, the only article of clothing she had been wearing was a pair of socks.
Lady of the Evening
The initial coroner’s report indicated that she had been stabbed repeatedly, even after she was already dead. Whoever had killed her had obviously been enraged. Authorities collected DNA samples from a comforter on the bed, a towel in the bathroom and washcloth on the toilet seat. Problem was, they didn’t really have anything to do with it…
In the early 1990s, crime scene investigation was not what it was today. The DNA evidence they had could not be linked to anyone and there were no witnesses. No leads and all-but-useless evidence meant that Jeanne Childs’ murder remained an unsolved mystery for a quarter of a century. That is, until the invention of Ancestry.com.
In 2018, investigators caught a break in the case. A number of law enforcement agencies had begun entering DNA from crime scenes into genealogy websites. They entered the DNA from the as-yet-unsolved Childs’ case and wound up getting a hit on not one, but two possible suspects…
In recent years, more than 15 million people have offered up their DNA to online genealogy services. This is a relatively small fraction of people, but it’s still an awful lot of DNA; enough that 60 percent of white Americans can be identified through these databases. The theory is that in the coming years, 90 percent of Americans of European descent will be identifiable.
The most amazing, or depending on how you look at it, unsettling part of all that is that most of that 90% wouldn’t even have had to submit their own DNA, just be linked to someone who did. One of those suspects happened to be none other than Jerry Westrom, a man who had lived in the Twin Cities area around the time Childs had been murdered…
Today, the 52-year-old businessman resides in Isanti, Minnesota with his wife and three children. Westrom’s life wasn’t always so domestic, however. Westrom also apparently had a thing for prostitutes, one that didn’t fade as time went on. He was even convicted of soliciting prostitution in 2016. It was enough for probable cause.
The Hockey Game
Still, they didn’t have much to work on besides a hunch and the officers following Westrom didn’t want the potential murderer to know what they were up to. They began following him surreptitiously, eventually tracking him to a hockey game. They watched as he ordered food from the concession stand…
It must have been a messy hot dog, messy enough that Westrom needed to wipe his mouth with a napkin more than once. When he was done, he tossed the napkin into the cardboard food container and threw it away. He had no idea that this was the moment the cold-case investigators had been waiting for.
The officers dug out the napkin and brought it in, comparing the saliva left on it to both the genealogy report and the DNA from the 1993 cold case. Just as they expected, the evidence was a match and since Westrom had willingly discarded the evidence, he had no legal standing against them taking it. His time was up…
26 Years Later
The Minneapolis Police Department arrested Westrom a few days later and charged him officially for the 1993 murder of 35-year-old Jeanne Ann Childs. As expected, Westrom vehemently denied knowing Childs, to say nothing of being in that apartment or killing her. He even denied sleeping with any women in Minneapolis in 1993.
The strategy of using genealogy databases to solve unsolved murders has only recently been popularized by the results of the Golden State Killer case, which determined the identity of a man who had burglarized, raped, and murdered people across California over the course of several decades…
Golden State Killer
The Golden State Killer was responsible for 13 murders, more than 50 rapes, and over 100 burglaries throughout California from 1974 to 1986. At first, each crime spawned a different nickname from different investigators. That is until investigators finally realized they were all committed by a single person.
On April 24, 2018, authorities arrested and charged 72-year-old U.S. Navy veteran and former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo with eight of the murders. The statute of limitations laws says that DeAngelo cannot be charged with the late 1970s rapes, but can indeed be charged with 13 related kidnapping/abduction attempts. Of course, some folks don’t like police using this method…
Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney who had been working with the investigators, declined to specify which DNA service investigators had used to but gave a small clue. He said that “it was a genealogy company you see advertised on TV.” He added that he does not know if it was Westrom himself or a relative who had uploaded their DNA.
Many argue that these genealogical sleuthing techniques, effective as they have proven to be, raise a number of ethical concerns. The problem lies in intention. The people who have submitted their DNA to find out about their heritage often have no idea that they are inadvertently helped the police track down their family members…
FamilyTreeDNA, which also happens to be one of the country’s largest at-home genetic testing companies, also spoke out to their customers about this. They issued an apology to their users for failing to disclose that they had agreed to share DNA data with federal investigators. Either way, you turn and twist, it’s a dicey topic…
In the end, many believe that the ethics of the situation are not nearly as important as finding justice for Jeanne Childs. Once they had the napkin and had Westrom in custody, his newly connected DNA confirmed their suspicions and matched sperm found on the comforter and the towel in the bathroom.
Released on Bail
Westrom’s lawyer, Steven J. Meshbesher spoke to the press about how the arrest had been premature and how his client intends to plead not guilty. He was released on bail, but it’s pretty clear that as long as the DNA evidence holds up, Westrom may end up in prison for his alleged crimes. You can see Meshbesher’s interview in the video below…