Orlando Police using genealogy, family trees to find criminals

Family trees have winding, complicated twists and turns. But do they ultimately hold the answer to everything? They can tell you about your heritage and your health, but now they can solve murders.

“This is such a blessing for our family,” said Tina Franke.

A blessing for Tina Franke’s family came 17 years after the nightmare of her daughter’s murder. Christine Franke, a University of Centreal Florida student, was robbed, assaulted and killed inside her Audobon Park apartment back in 2001.  Detectives found lots of DNA from a suspect in her apartment but was never able to match it to anyone until one detective did his own DNA test.

“A lightbulb just clicked in my head. How can I apply this to the Christine Franke case?” said Orlando Police Detective Michael Fields.

Orlando Police Detective Mike Fields knew he had precious clues. What if all that DNA from the scene served as the seed to the killer’s family tree? But not every family tree is so simple. Some have deep roots with lots of branches and leaves.

“It was brand new and I wasn't sure if the science was going to work,” said Detective Fields.

Still, it was worth a shot. First, he sent the DNA to a lab, where it was entered into a computer, creating this sketch showing what the killer could look like based on genetics. Then, the DNA was uploaded to a public genealogy web site that searched for not only an exact DNA match, but any related strains or people who could be related.

The system pinged three matches, including the suspect’s great-grandparents who were born more than 100 years ago. Then they relied on good old-fashioned police work.Lori Napolitano is the chief of forensic services for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).

“Then we'd come down on the tree and determine who their children, their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren were."

She used police records, newspaper articles and anything else she could find to build out the tree. Each person in this family had between eight and 15 children.

“We were looking at not a family tree, but a family forest,” said Detective Fields.

It took six months, but they finally narrowed it down to two brothers. They tracked down DNA from a Gatorade bottle from one brother, but it was no match. That meant, by process of elimination, the other brother was their man.

“Now we knew it had to be Benjamin Holmes and it was just a matter of getting his DNA.”

According to the arrest affidavit, DNA from a cigar and beer can turned out to be an exact match. Benjamin Holmes was arrested and locked up for the death of Christine Franke 17 years later.

“I honestly never thought they would find him,” said Tina Franke.

This case proved to be so successful that FDLE now has a new genealogy unit, helping police departments with more than a dozen cases across the state.