In 1999, Lorenzo Williams raped three women within a 3-mile radius in Cobb County, Georgia. In each case, the victim awoke early in the morning in her own bed to find an intruder standing over her. Each woman immediately reported her assault and received a forensic medical exam to collect and preserve DNA evidence. Sexual assault kits from each attack were sent to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Department of Forensic Sciences where DNA profiles were developed and uploaded into CODIS. The three profiles were determined to be identical. Investigators were dealing with a serial rapist, but no offender match was found in CODIS. Lorenzo Williams’ identity remained unknown for twenty years until the Georgia Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (GA SAKI) Task Force re-examined cold cases.

The GA SAKI Task Force is a project funded by a 3-million-dollar grant received by the Sexual Assault Unit at the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC). The project, funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, supports the investigation and prosecution of cold case sexual assaults that have resulted from sexual assault kit backlog testing and provides advocacy for the victims in these cases. It also supports advanced DNA testing in cold case sexual assaults and homicides. In the Williams case, funds were used for this type of testing to determine the suspect’s identity.

Advanced DNA Testing

The Combined DNA Index database (CODIS) was implemented in 1989. It contains over 13 million offender profiles. It has been used in over 390,000 investigations, but investigators may not always get a CODIS hit. One of three possible outcomes occur when performing a search in CODIS: 

1. a match to a known offender (CODIS hit)

2. a match to an unknown offender (CODIS hit)

3. no match (no known profile in CODIS, but DNA remains in CODIS as a potential match for a future investigation)

When there is no match or a match to an unknown offender, as in the Williams case, investigators still have options. Investigators should conduct a physical examination of any other physical evidence in agency case tracking systems. If something was missed, or if investigators think modern advances in DNA testing can be utilized, they should seek input from the crime lab. Crime lab personnel can provide input on evidence to be tested or retested and the best testing methods.

Some advanced DNA testing methods are:

DNA Phenotyping predicts the physical characteristics of a suspect from DNA. It is used to help solve human remains cases, or as in the Williams case, it was used to generate possible leads. It can also be useful in narrowing a suspect list.  It is used in both active and cold case investigations.  Phenotyping is very detailed and includes eye color, skin color, freckling, and face shape.

Source: parabon-nanolabs.com

Genetic Genealogy combines genetic analysis and genetic research of family histories. It can be used to connect DNA profiles obtained from remains to missing persons. It can also be used to identify an unknown suspect, as it was in the Williams case. The genetic genealogy search yielded several related matches to Williams’ (at the time, unknown) DNA sample. Those related matches were narrowed down by genetic investigators to identify Williams as the suspect using a sort of reverse family tree methodology. In simple terms, relatives of the unknown DNA profile’s subject were identified, and the family tree was examined to determine whom among them were the likely suspect. Based primarily on Williams’ county of residence at the time of the crime, he was determined to be the primary suspect.  But would the genetic findings in the Williams case be enough to build a strong case for prosecution? Likely no. Investigators in the Williams case were able to use the genetic genealogy results and other evidence obtained by traditional investigative methods to obtain a search warrant to collect Williams’ DNA. They traveled to Arkansas to execute the warrant and presented swabs to the Georgia crime lab for analysis.

A match was obtained to confirm that Williams was the preparator. In this case, the DNA confirmation has never been used in court, because Williams committed suicide the day after his DNA was collected. According to the GA SAKI/Cobb County prosecutor assigned to the case Theresa Schiefer, it would have been the key to getting a conviction on lead charges of three counts of rape.

Familial DNA searches are not currently provided by the crime lab in Georgia, but it could have been the first step. What is the difference between a genetic genealogy search and familial DNA search? Familial DNA searches are often utilized, in states that allow them, prior to conducting genetic genealogy searches because they utilize government owned criminal databases. For example, a crime scene profile can be entered into a state database to create a list of profiles that are genetically similar to the DNA collected at the crime scene. This generates a valuable investigative lead. While the suspect will not be directly identified, investigators may have insight into the identity of the suspect’s family members. By comparison, the genetic genealogy search process does not utilize government owned databases and can be expensive. Genetic Genealogy searches utilize public databases also used by individuals searching for their own relatives, such as GEDMatch. GEDMatch provides free, open-source access to anyone seeking to find ancestors and family members by uploading their DNA profile data. Upon enrollment, users are given a choice of four levels of privacy: Private, Research, Public + Opt Out, and Public + Opt In. Users may change their privacy preference at any time. Public + Opt In is the most open access, allowing a user’s profile to be compared to other profiles in the database. This is how law enforcement uses GEDMatch for investigative purposes. Currently, there are approximately 280,000 users who have “opted in” through the GEDMatch database.

A discussion of cold case investigations would not be complete with out mentioning the FBI’s ViCAP database as an investigative tool. The Violent Criminal Apprehension Program allows for the analysis of serial violent and sexually motivated crimes. The FBI maintains the database as the largest investigative repository of violent crime cases in the United States. As with any database, ViCAP’s value is increased the more it is used. The more cases entered, the stronger the investigative tool. Georgia law enforcement agencies should enter sexual assault and homicide cases that meet the FBI’s criteria into the ViCAP system for possible matches to cases across the country with similar case characteristics. The GA SAKI Task Force can assist with ViCAP entry to help alleviate the manpower burden of ViCAP entry.

Victim Impact

Nicole Ebbeskotte was one of the victims in the Williams case. Trauma associated with sexual assault can last a lifetime, but her experience sparked a passion for creating systemic change. In addition to working in law enforcement and as a legislative consultant, Nicole is now serving on CJCC’s Survivor Advisory Council. Nichole says, of the DNA testing used to solve her case, “Without the Georgia SAKI Task Force, and the DNA testing used in my case, I would have likely never gotten the closure I had desperately wanted for so many years.” – Nicole Ebbeskotte

Schiefer concurs and considers the case as one of the most inspiring of her career.

“Providing notification to the victims in the Williams case was extremely rewarding for me. One of our victims stated that she had watched cold case TV shows for years and wondered when it would be her turn. That really resonated with me.” -Theresa Schiefer

As part of the GA SAKI Task Force, Schiefer works collaboratively with a task force coordinator, investigators, advocates, and other prosecutors. In addition to the advanced DNA resources the grant provides, they have access to the consultation services of a certified criminal profiler. Meetings are held biweekly to bring together the collective expertise of the task force. Cases like the Lorenzo Williams case are included as part of routine case reviews to determine if advanced DNA testing can be helpful to investigations in jurisdictions across the state.

If you have a cold case homicide or sexual assault case in Georgia that you would like to be considered for a GA SAKI Task Force consultation, ViCAP entry or advanced DNA testing, please email Amy Hutsell at Amy.Hutsell@cjcc.ga.gov.

Amy Hutsell has over 15 years’ experience in sexual assault and child sexual abuse services. She currently is the Program Director for the Sexual Assault, Child Abuse and Human Trafficking Unit with Georgia’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. She and her team have written grants that have resulted in over $10,000,000 in federal assistance to Georgia. She also oversees Georgia’s Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) as well as chairs the State’s Sexual Assault Kit (SAK) workgroup and the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) Task Force.