Tag Archives: DNA

Wisconsin Innocence Project client freed after 24 years in prison

Daryl Dwayne Holloway walked out of Green Bay Correctional Institution a free man Oct. 5 after serving 24 years in prison for crimes he didn’t commit.

Holloway was accompanied by his attorney, Keith Findley, and a team of law students from the Wisconsin Innocence Project who worked on his case, according to a news release from UW-Madison.

A Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge signed the order freeing Holloway on Oct. 4.

Prosecutors in the Milwaukee district attorney’s office had agreed that exculpatory DNA results warranted the reversal of Holloway’s convictions in a 1992 sexual assault case.

“This case represents one example of the power of post-conviction DNA testing to help us achieve justice and of a prosecutor’s office recognizing that power and working with defense attorneys to find the truth, rather than just protect old convictions,” said Findley, a University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor and co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project.

Findley said Holloway’s case received renewed interest in April 2015, when now-retired Assistant District Attorney Norm Gahn conducted a review of the case file.

Gahn discovered conflicting DNA reports issued by separate labs that had previously analyzed evidence in the case. The conflicting reports meant that at least one of the labs made an error in its analysis.

Gahn contacted Holloway’s attorney, who reached out to the Wisconsin Innocence Project for help.

Findley and a team of law students reviewed the file and convinced prosecutors that remaining evidence from the case should be analyzed by an independent third-party laboratory.

The new DNA report identified numerous errors in the previous testing and identified the presence of male DNA from an unknown third party. Test results conclusively excluded Holloway as the perpetrator of the crime for which he spent more than two decades in prison.

The Milwaukee County district attorney’s office cooperated with the Wisconsin Innocence Project to draft a stipulation of facts with a joint recommendation to Judge Jeffrey Wagner to vacate Holloway’s conviction.

Wagner, who presided over the wrongful conviction in 1993, ordered the conviction vacated and dismissed all charges.

“This is a remarkable example of a prosecutor doing the right thing, motivated by the search for justice. The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office deserves tremendous credit for this exoneration,” Findley said in the release.

Genetic insights about health risks limited by back of diversity

For consumers, the idea of getting a genetic test to determine risks for hereditary diseases is becoming an increasingly common proposition, but new research suggests that sometimes the accuracy of those results may depend on what ethnicity you are.

Take, for instance, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, one of the most common hereditary heart diseases. It is also a silent disorder that has caused countless young athletes to suffer sudden collapse or cardiac arrest during team practices or sporting events.

African Americans have traditionally been considered at higher risk for the disorder. But a study out Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that common ways to determine that level of risk may be skewed because studies have traditionally had low numbers of black participants. It turns out that genetic characteristics based on ethnic differences caused some people to be diagnosed with a predilection for the disease — even though those markers were actually benign.

The researchers suggest these findings indicate a need for diversity in genomic research in interpreting these differences.

“Historically we’ve had less African American representation in these studies,” said Arjun Manrai, lead author of the study and research fellow at the Harvard Medical School. “Our paper highlights ethnicity as a key way to get a handle on classification of genetic variants.” Genetic variants are differences in DNA structure that determine human features and are unique to every person.

Manrai first looked at the data from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Exome Sequencing Project, which includes genomic data from 4,300 white Americans and 2,204 African Americans. He expected to find that 1 out of 500 individuals would have the genetic variants that cause the disease — that’s the rate at which the disorder occurs in the general population. But instead, he found that 1 out of 4 individuals had those mutations and those individuals were disproportionately African Americans.

“This was the initial shocking revelation,” he said.

His team decided to figure out if those mutations were misclassified as harmful. They first looked at the initial studies that identified these genetic variants as disease-causing, focusing on five specific abnormalities that appear most frequently in the NHLBI population. They found that these studies had small sample sizes and none had representative samples of African Americans in their control groups.

They then compared genetic sequences of African Americans and whites through the 1000 Genomes Project, which has genome data from 14 populations worldwide, confirming the five variants they identified occurred most commonly among African Americans.

At the same time, they examined data from the Laboratory for Molecular Medicine operated by Partners HealthCare Personalized Medicine, a clinical lab that diagnoses and performs genetic testing for patients. By using the lab’s classification system that includes data regarding the frequency of genetic variants in control populations, they determined that these five variants were actually benign. Four had been classified by the Human Gene Mutation Database in the most pathogenic category.

In the Partners’ clinic records for the past decade, the authors found seven patients of African or unspecified ancestry between 2005 and 2007 who were told they had the disease-causing genes based on these misclassified variants. According to their calculations, inclusion of even a small number of African Americans in study control groups could have prevented the misclassifications.

In regard to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the misdiagnoses of risk may have resulted in unnecessary hardships for the patients and the families. But the lack of diversity in scientific studies and control groups can have other significant implications. Esteban Burchard, a professor at the University of California San Francisco, has studied how genetic differences can lead to higher rates of asthma among African Americans, but the drugs designed to treat diseases, he wrote, often work better in people of European origins.

Burchard published a study last year that showed less than 5 percent of lung disease studies funded by the National Institutes of Health in the last two decades have statistically meaningful number of participants from ethnic minorities.

“It’s like basing your whole world … on one opinion or one biologic resource,” Burchard said. “And that’s a problem because we miss the variation in genetics that is present worldwide.”

Genomic data from diverse populations is needed to find mutations specific to different ethnicities that indicate disease or in some cases, demonstrate responsiveness to treatments, he said.

Manrai points toward relatively new projects, such as the NHLBI Exome Sequencing Project and the 1,000 Genomes that now have genomic sequences from diverse populations, although there is still a need for data from Native Americans and Asian Americans.

“There is now an opportunity to use those resources to study hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and other diseases as well as reassess a lot of studies that support the genetic studies that might be decades old,” Manrai said. “Since studies in the past do not have perfect mixes and they shape the current literature, it’s important to evaluate those studies with current data.”

This story by Zhai Yun Tan was made available by Kaiser Health News, a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Who killed Brittany Zimmermann, Part 2: The suspect

Brittany Zimmermann became nationally known in the spring of 2008, after the University of Wisconsin-Madison student’s 911 call went unanswered and she was found murdered in her Doty street apartment.

Perhaps overshadowed by the controversy surrounding that call is the mystery of who took her life.

“Ever since somebody broke into Brittany’s house, everything has gone wrong in this investigation,” said Zimmermann’s mother, Jean.

Brittany Zimmermann was attacked and murdered inside her apartment, five blocks from the state Capitol.

But exactly what happened to the 21-year-old Marshfield native is known only to her killer — and to mute feline witnesses.

“We have her cats,” Jean Zimmermann said. They are the “children” her daughter shared with fiancé Jordan Gonnering.

“They were there that day,” the mother said. “They were so overwhelmed with what had happened. So many times, we don’t have people over to our home because it upsets them. If it’s loud here or a doorbell rings, or someone knocks on the door, they are extremely upset and they will go hide. And you cannot get them out.”

The family has been frustrated with the lack of resolution in the case, especially since a DNA match became known this year.

“The truth is that the police had their current suspect the same day as the murder and released him soon after,” Gonnering said. “The DNA collected at the scene matches this suspect, but they cannot bring this to trial because of unknown issues.”

POSSIBLE SUSPECT

Zimmermann’s family is referring to David A. Kahl.

Kahl was born March 28, 1966. He has blue eyes, thinning gray hair and is right-handed. He stands 5-feet, 6-inches tall and lately weighs about 200 pounds.

Kahl is incarcerated at the Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun, serving time for his seventh conviction for driving under the influence.

He formerly lived in Madison and his most recent address was in Oregon, Wisconsin.

Kahl has a long list of convictions going back to 1992, including for the manufacture and/or delivery of controlled substances and theft. He’s been registered as a sex offender since Sept. 16, 1993, following conviction for second-degree sexual assault.

A search warrant unsealed in June revealed that in December 2014, the Wisconsin State Crime Lab found Kahl’s DNA on the right sleeve of the shirt worn by Brittany Zimmermann when she died.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out it was him, especially when he told the media he had contact with her the day she was murdered,” said one of Zimmermann’s aunts, Lisa Zimmermann Walcisak. She is a legal secretary in the Price County office of the district attorney.

‘I CAN’T REMEMBER’

On the day of the murder, April 2, 2008, Kahl was, by his own admission, looking for money in Brittany Zimmermann’s neighborhood to buy cocaine.

Barely three months earlier, he had been released from prison. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, “He looked for work while at a halfway house and was taking medication for paranoid schizophrenia. He said he quit taking the drug because he was doing well without it.”

Kahl had just turned 42.

Very early that day, at 1 a.m. and on the other side of the Capitol Square, neighbors of UW senior Rachel Krueger opened their front door and found a male asking for $40 to fix a flat tire.

It’s a story others would hear throughout the day. Krueger’s roommates also heard a knock on their door around 1 a.m., but they did not answer.

Eleven hours later, John Lange observed a “very intoxicated” stranger “getting in people’s faces” for money. Lange was a maintenance worker at the Mental Health Center of Dane County and he knew most of the homeless in Brittany Zimmermann’s neighborhood.

Krueger had a friend who lived on the odd side of the 500 block of West Doty Street, just like Zimmermann. At around noon, the friend went to her door after hearing a doorbell ringing incessantly. She saw an older male, lightly complected with gray hair, walking away.

At about that time, Zimmermann was returning to her home at 517 W. Doty St. after an exam.

Kahl later would tell Madison’s WKOW-TV that he and two other men visited Zimmermann. But, he said, “I never entered that house. I was at the door when all of us approached her and borrowed the money.”

Kahl also told the station his companions plotted a return. “They were going to go back, rob her or get the rest of the money,” he said.

So how was Kahl’s DNA found on Zimmermann’s clothing?

“I had a glass of water from her,” he told the station. “I can’t remember if I shook her hand, gave her a hug, thanked her for loaning me the money.”

IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD  BEFORE AND AFTER

If that visit took place, the three men almost certainly were the last to see Brittany Zimmermann alive.

Shortly after noon, the outside and inner doors of Zimmermann’s apartment were kicked in. She called 911 at 12:20 p.m. Though her screams and a struggle can be heard on the recording of that call, the dispatcher heard nothing intelligible and did not follow up.

Zimmermann was beaten, strangled and repeatedly stabbed. Half the wounds penetrated her heart. Gonnering, Zimmermann’s fiancé and roommate, found her body and called 911 at 1:08 p.m. Zimmermann’s body was cold and her fingers were stiff — signs of rigor mortis.

Kahl, according to witnesses, was in the neighborhood shortly after the murder.

Holly Davis was on the second floor of 525 W. Washington Ave., two streets away and nearly parallel to Zimmermann’s flat.

At about 1 p.m., Davis heard someone call “hello,” from the ground floor. She stepped out of her bedroom and saw “an older, white male” climbing the stairs. He told her he had a flat tire and needed $40 for repairs. She asked him to leave and he did.

Across the street, barely around the corner, at about 2 p.m., a man approached Matthew Plutschack at his residence, 119 N. Bedford St. The stranger said he needed money to fix a flat.

Plutschack gave $20 to the man, who left as collateral a Wisconsin Department of Corrections identification card. It was Kahl’s ID.

That evening, Davis worked with a police artist to sketch a composite drawing of the man she saw on the stairs.

The officer inadvertently walked Davis past a holding cell. Kahl was inside, having been taken into custody pending charges of criminal trespass and theft by fraud, and suspicion of violating probation.

Davis identified him as her intruder.

Kahl told police a story about two other homeless men, “Hank” and “Mitchell,” who were breaking into houses and “running scams” that day.

Kahl said he wasn’t involved in their crimes and he didn’t know their last names.

He was held as a material witness to the Zimmermann murder. In a police statement, he wrote that “Hank” and “Mitchell” used drugs “at a crack house on Wilson Street” and then separated.

“I also know they were going into houses that were unsecured and stealing things like cellphones and laptop computers,” he wrote.

Kahl helped police sketch one of the men and led police to a homeless shelter to search — another dead end.

THE INVESTIGATION

Within a year of the murder, Madison police interviewed — and cleared — more than 700 people in the Zimmermann case.

Kahl, in prison, was not immediately available to WiG for comment, and the police will not discuss in any detail an ongoing investigation.

However, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval did recently note that any future prosecution of a suspect has to exclude reasonable doubt. “There are legal thresholds of burden that have to be met,” he said. “We have to find more evidence that pushes us to that case outcome, (to that) of a conviction.”

As in any investigation, “we want to make sure we’re open to all possibilities,” the chief said. “If you lock and load, so to speak, on only one modus operandi, per se, then I think to some extent, at least on a subliminal level, you’re creating blinders to the possibility that others may be complicit.”

The possibility of false confessions is one reason why police departments regularly hold back facts of investigation. The $40,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Zimmermann’s murderer also might inspire lies or, among convicts, demand for special treatment.

In 2014, a Wisconsin man in federal prison in West Virginia, Andrew Scoles, claimed Kahl once “broke down and told me what all happened.” But according to a search warrant, Scoles refused to say more “without getting some deal that would benefit him in exchange.”

And that’s where things stand.

Chief Koval said he is hopeful the case will be solved.

“Sometimes you exhaust the logical leads and you feel like you’re at a standstill,” he said. “And then you’ll get a line to a tip. You’ll have someone who speaks out of carelessness or out of intoxication. It gets heard by another and that provides yet another mechanism to follow up.”

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series. Part 1 appeared in WiG’s July 14 issue.

Argentina’s ‘stolen babies’ seek truth, face ghosts

Pedro Sandoval stopped celebrating Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and even his own birthday after he found out the truth: The mom and dad he knew growing up had stolen him from his biological parents, who were kidnapped, tortured and never heard from again during Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

“I’m still jealous of friends who can hug or get into arguments with their parents,” said Sandoval, 38, alluding to the biological parents he never met. “But I’m also thankful that I could at least hug my grandfather and grandmother.”

Four decades after the ruling military junta launched a systematic plan to steal babies born to political prisoners, Argentina’s search for truth is increasingly focused on the 500 or so newborns whisked away and raised by surrogate families. Several hundred have yet to be accounted for.

This spring a visiting U.S. President Barack Obama and Argentine President Mauricio Macri announced, on the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought the junta to power, that Washington would open up a trove of U.S. intelligence files from Argentina’s Dirty War era, when an estimated 30,000 people were killed or forcibly “disappeared” by the regime. It may take a few years for the documents to be released, but the news gave families hope for word on the fate of other stolen babies.

For the children who have already been found, coming to grips with the past is a painful process.

Sandoval, known then as Alejandro Rei, never suspected anything was amiss growing up in a middle-class household on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. But in 2004, Victor Rei, a former border patrol officer and the man that Sandoval called his father, became the target of an investigation and his life turned upside down.

Sandoval said he felt both fury and crushing guilt after a childhood he describes as full of wonderful memories. And yet like others, he was torn over where his loyalties lay: At one point during the investigation Sandoval tried unsuccessfully to protect Rei by tainting DNA samples used to identify the older man.

“I made some mistakes,” he said. “It was part of a defense mechanism.”

Ultimately DNA matched Sandoval to Pedro Sandoval and Liliana Fontana, who were kidnapped by security forces in July 1977 when Liliana was two months pregnant. She gave birth to Pedro in captivity, and four months later he was taken away. His birth parents were never seen again.

“It’s still tough and bizarre,” Sandoval said. “But I found it beautiful that at least for four months I was in her arms.”

He has since severed ties with the people who raised him and has become close to relatives of his biological parents. His wife is expecting their first baby.

To date, 119 cases of stolen children have been resolved. Each discovery makes for banner headlines and prompts both personal and national soul-searching.

“These cases are moving because they are unique, painful and about suffering and trauma that doesn’t stop,” said Claudia Salatino, a psychologist who has treated some of the victims.

Guillermo Perez Roisinblit, 38, was Guillermo Gomez for decades before he was contacted by his biological sister and the Grandmothers of the Playa de Mayo, a human rights group that formed in 1977 to search for the disappeared. They showed him a family picture; Perez was shocked by his resemblance to the man who would later be confirmed as his real father.

“It took me 21 years to find my grandson and 15 years to win his love,” said Rosa de Roisinblit, 96, who is vice president of the Grandmothers.

“It was such a difficult process,” Perez said, sitting next to her.

Today both are plaintiffs in a trial that began last month against the former head of Argentina’s air force for the 1978 abduction and disappearance of activists Patricia Roisinblit and Jose Manuel Perez Rojo. Patricia gave birth to Perez at the Naval Mechanics School, where thousands of leftist dissidents were jailed and tortured during the Dirty War.

Francisco Gomez, the man who raised Perez, served time for stealing Perez when he was an infant and is now accused in the same trial involving the ex-air force chief, who is charged in the kidnapping of Perez’s parents.

Perez said he visited Gomez in prison in 2003, and Gomez angrily blamed him for his confinement.

“When I get out,” Perez recalled Gomez saying, “I’m going to put a bullet in your forehead, in your two grandmothers and in your sister.”

During the dictatorship, the Grandmothers marched weekly at Buenos Aires’ main square to demand the return of their loved ones. Since Argentina’s return to democracy, they have lobbied the government to create a DNA database and dedicate judicial resources to the search.

“They’re the closest to real heroes,” Perez said. “They fought against a dictatorship risking their own lives. … And that’s how I see my grandmother, as a hero.”

 

Study finds pit bulls at shelters frequently mislabeled

In a study that could eventually spare more dogs from euthanasia, a University of Florida veterinary professor found that DNA analysis of canines labeled as pit bulls at shelters often had little genetic link to the breeds that spawned the generic pit bull classification.

A team headed by Dr. Julie Levy of the UF College of Veterinary Medicine’s Maddie’s Shelter Medicine program found that shelter workers often mislabel dogs as pit bulls. That can be a death sentence in cities or counties that ban pit bulls.

The label can also make it difficult for shelters in general to find people to adopt the dogs, leading to euthanasia.

“In Florida the impact is greatest in Miami, where it is illegal to own a pit bull, so they can’t be adopted out. That shelter will adopt them out to other counties but usually those counties often have a lot of pit bulls, too,” Levy said. “They start out with a difficulty in that they are the most common type of dog in a shelter. They come in in high numbers and they don’t go out in proportion to which they come in.”

The term ‘pit bull’ is loosely used. Dogs derived from the recognized breeds of American Staffordshire terrier and Staffordshire bull terrier are often labeled as pit bulls because they may have some of the physical characteristics of those breeds.

But the UF research found the dogs classified as pit bulls are typically mutts with many different genetic lines. Sometimes, the percentage of Staffordshire DNA was at or near the bottom.

The researchers took DNA from 120 dogs assessed by 16 shelter staffers, including four veterinarians, in four shelters in Jacksonville, Tallahassee and Marion County. Three of the shelters were government run.

Alachua County Animal Services was not included, Levy said, because it does not have a full-time veterinarian — something the research team wanted.

Blood was drawn from each dog to develop a DNA profile. That profile was then compared to the classification of the dog given by staff.

Dogs that had DNA from pit bull ancestors were identified just 33 to 75 percent of the time, depending on the staff member who judged them. Dogs lacking any genetic evidence of the breeds were labeled as pit bull-type dogs as much as 48 percent of the time.

The results mean it’s difficult to label a dog based on looks, yet dogs are banned or euthanized based on exactly that.

“Sometimes they look like a pit bull to us but they are a lab mix. It’s just the kind of random way that genes arrange themselves. They can create an image that doesn’t look anything like the parents,” Levy said. “It’s kind of a fallacy when we look at a dog and say, ‘Oh, that’s a shepherd mix.’ We really can’t say that. It just looks like a shepherd, but it might not have any shepherd at all.”

Breed-specific legislation, such as the pit bull ban in Miami, is controversial in the canine world. Ban supporters say pit bulls are responsible for attacks and maulings, and are fought. Opponents contend problems arise not from the breed, but from the way owners treat the dog.

Dogs labeled as pit bulls or pit mixes are common in Alachua County and are routinely adopted at both Animal Services and by rescue groups such as the Alachua County Humane Society.

Humane Society operations director Chrissy Sedgley said breed information is not mentioned on the dogs’ kennels. It is cited online because that is a direct feed from Animal Services, which lists the breed on rabies certificates.

“I feel a lot of dogs are mislabeled. We’ve tried to move away from that and focus on their age and their personality. When people ask us what we think, we tell them that it is just a guess. We know there is no true way of knowing without a test,” Sedgley said.

She added that only occasionally does a prospective adopter turn down a dog labeled as a pit bull.

“It definitely happens but we are so fortunate to live in a progressive town. I’m from South Florida where there are restrictions,” she said. “When people from down there move here and see all the pit bulls in our shelters, they are surprised by it.”

While adoptions of dogs classified as pit bulls are allowed here, they still face bias.

Levy said some apartment complexes won’t rent to pit bull owners and some insurance companies charge higher rates for homeowners with the dogs, or won’t insure them at all. Some government-subsidized housing bans them.

The study was prompted through the shelter medicine program’s work with Animal Services to help find ways to better market dogs awaiting adoption.

Labeling dogs gives us little useful information about their personality or behavior, Levy said.

“If you get a new dog and tell a friend, usually the first question they’ll ask is ‘What kind?’ We are hard-wired to imagine what a dog looks like. Then we might take it one step farther and want to think that the breed will tell us how it will behave and its personality, and that’s even more unreliable,” Levy said. “We might read a horoscope and look for coincidences that match with the horoscope, but it doesn’t mean the horoscope really knew what was going to happen. Talking about breeds is a fun pastime that we are stuck with.”

Reported by CINDY SWIRKO for The Gainesville Sun.

Unintended result: John Wayne Gacy probe clears 11 unrelated cold cases

His task was to solve a cruel mystery decades after a serial killer’s death.

Sgt. Jason Moran’s work began in a graveyard, his first stop in his quest to identify the eight unknown victims of John Wayne Gacy. More than 30 years had passed since Gacy had murdered 33 young men and boys.

Investigators now had more sophisticated crime-solving tools, notably DNA, so the Cook County sheriff’s detective was assigned to find out who was buried in eight anonymous graves.

Moran quickly helped a family confirm Gacy killed their brother.

Since then, though, Jason Moran’s search has led him down a totally unexpected path: He’s cleared 11 unrelated cold cases across America. After eliminating these young men as Gacy victims, he’s pored over DNA results, medical and Social Security records, enlisted anthropologists, lab technicians and police in Utah, Colorado, New Jersey and other states — and cracked missing person’s cases that had been dormant for decades.

Most recently, Moran identified a 16-year-old murder victim in San Francisco who’d been buried 36 years ago.

He’s brought comfort to some by proving, through science and dogged research that their missing loved ones are dead.

He’s brought joy to others, finding long-lost brothers and sons still alive.

Marveling at this remarkable detour from the ghastly Gacy trail, Moran says he recently told his boss:

“Is it possible that an evil serial killer has done some good?”

Moran’s work began four years ago after Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart publicly urged anyone who thought a relative was an unidentified Gacy victim to submit to a DNA test.

Moran prioritized about 170 tips from more than 20 states, representing some 80 missing young men.

He focused on those similar in age (14 to 24) and background to Gacy’s victims: Many had troubled families or substance abuse problems. Some were gay. Others had worked construction for Gacy, a building contractor. He was executed in 1994.

Authorities had long ago removed the jaw bones and teeth of the eight unknown victims, hoping for eventual identification. Decades later, they were buried, only to be exhumed in 2011. Moran took them to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, where lab workers developed solid DNA profiles for four victims. For the other four, the entire remains had to be exhumed.

Within weeks, Moran cracked one case.

William Bundy’s mother had suspected Gacy killed her son, but the case was stymied because his dentist had destroyed his patients’ records after retiring.

Three decades later, Bundy’s mother was dead, but his sister and brother provided DNA, resulting in a match to the unknown victim. It wasn’t enough for a firm identification.

Moran then studied the man’s dental records, noticing empty spaces where his upper canine teeth had been removed. Bundy had those same teeth removed, saved them — and his sister kept them all those years.

Case cleared.

Bundy is the only Gacy victim Moran has identified. But he’s helped other families who feared their loved ones died at Gacy’s hands.

In every case involving DNA, Moran told families the results would be entered in CODIS, the federal Combined DNA Index System. If a genetic link emerged, he’d call.

It took almost four years for Willa Wertheimer to get that life-changing call.

In 2011, she’d told Moran about her half-brother, Andre Drath. Their mother died when both were very young.

When the grief-stricken little boy began getting in trouble, his stepfather turned him over to the state. Drath was abused in foster homes. Then one day he disappeared.

“I used to fantasize about finding him,” Wertheimer says. “I just wanted to hold him and tell him I love him and say I’m sorry about everything that had happened.”

Her DNA eliminated any link to Gacy victims, but last fall, a Texas lab worker notified Moran it was associated with an unidentified body found in San Francisco in 1979. That DNA hadn’t been submitted to CODIS until late 2014.

Moran reviewed the San Francisco police and medical examiner’s reports, which showed the man had been shot multiple times. It also disclosed an all-important detail: A tattoo — Andy — on his right shoulder.

Moran found more evidence in files from the Illinois agency that supervised Drath as a state ward — including dental records matching those of the teen buried in Ocean Beach.

It was bittersweet news for Wertheimer.

“I was relieved that he wasn’t hurting,” she says, “but knowing how he died … I felt awful.”

San Francisco police have reactivated their investigation. Moran hopes to soon have Drath’s remains exhumed from a California cemetery.

“I brought her to this point,” he says, “now I’d like to help bring him home.”

___

Jason Moran cradled an urn as he arrived at the North Side home.

It had been 36 years since Edward Beaudion left that house, a 22-year-old heading to a wedding. Now, the detective was delivering his cremated remains to his sister, Ruth Rodriguez, and elderly father, Louis.

DNA and old-fashioned police work brought this mystery to a frustrating end.

The case had a suspect: A petty criminal named Jerry Jackson told police in 1978 that he’d fought with Beaudion in downtown Chicago, dragged his body into a car, then dumped him in a suburban forest preserve, according to Moran.

Jackson was arrested in Caruthersville, Missouri, with the car Beaudion had been driving. It belonged to his sister; she found a bullet inside.

A search of the woods, though, turned up no body. Jackson was convicted only of stealing the car and items inside.

Decades later, Moran started investigating. “I really felt the sadness and desperation in their voices,” he says.

Last year, their DNA was linked to skeletal remains that had recently arrived at the Texas lab. Some kids had spotted a leg bone in the woods where Jackson said he’d dumped Beaudion’s body.

That discovery was in 2008. Unfortunately, the remains sat in the Cook County medical examiner’s office five years before being sent to be tested. Studying the autopsy report, Moran noticed the leg bone contained a surgical screw in one knee. Beaudion had one, too. 

That was enough to confirm his identity — yet that five-year delay thwarted Moran’s bigger plan: While preparing to go to Missouri to arrest Jackson in Beaudion’s death, he discovered: Jackson had recently died.

Still, Moran sensed the family was relieved.

“His father told me when he dies, he’ll have Edward’s ashes in his casket and said, ‘All of three of us will be together in perpetuity.””

Thousands of miles away, a 75-year-old Army vet had his own lingering questions.

Ron Soden contacted Moran about his younger half-brother, Steven, who’d vanished in 1972.

He’d run away during a camping trip organized by the New Jersey orphanage where he lived with his sister, April. Their mother had placed them there.

Steven’s father lived in Chicago. Could he have traveled there looking for him? Moran thought it possible, and teamed with New Jersey State Police to work the case. 

April’s DNA was ultimately linked with skeletal remains found at New Jersey’s Bass River State Forest, about a mile from where Steven was last seen. That discovery was in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2013 — and more DNA tests from another half-brother — that Steven was identified. Hypothermia is suspected as the cause of death.

“We always held out that hope … then all of sudden you find out and it’s not there anymore,” says Ron Soden, who lives in Tacoma, Washington. “To realize he probably died at 17 … it’s just a shame his life had to be that way through no fault of his own.”

These poignant stories, Moran says, motivate him.

“You’ve got these young kids who struggle through their short lives,” he says. “Now they’re anonymous. They don’t have a headstone saying they were ever on this earth. I want them to have some dignity and respect so the world knows they once lived.

“I mean, everybody deserves a name.”

There are happy endings in Moran’s work.

Amazingly, he’s located five living men who’d vanished in the 1970s. “I scold them and say, ‘Why would you do this to a loving family?””

In 2013, Moran reunited Edyth and Robert Hutton — after 41 years.

Edyth had made numerous attempts to find her brother, including mailing about 300 postcards to various Robert, Rob, Bob and Bobby Huttons nationwide. 

A relative who is a private investigator thought he’d located Hutton in Colorado. But when Edyth and her father wrote letters to that address, they were returned as undeliverable. 

In a last-ditch effort she searched NamUs, a website featuring missing and unidentified people, narrowing her list to seven. She contacted the respective law enforcement agencies. One person replied: Jason Moran.

Using Hutton’s vital statistics, Moran thought he’d tracked him to Colorado but when police arrived, the man was gone.

Moran waited several months and when the sheriff’s analysts checked updated databases they found a match in Montana.

“Your brother is alive,” Moran told Hutton’s sister. The siblings re-connected the next day.

“I felt like a hole in my heart had been filled,” she says. 

Her brother, she says, told her he’d gotten involved with drugs, straightened out and returned to the family’s hometown in California but everyone had moved. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Robert Hutton recently moved to Nevada to live near his sister.

“We see each other almost daily,” she says, “and we love it.”

What do you know about the sperm bank industry?

Sperm banking is a huge industry that has been around for decades but one that is relatively loosely regulated in the U.S.

Here are some things to know about the industry:

HOW MANY BABIES COME FROM DONATED SPERM?

While anecdotal evidence might suggest that the use of sperm donors to conceive a baby is rising because of improvements in technology and its popularity among lesbian couples and single women, there is no way to know for sure. No federal agency or professional organization tracks the number of children born from sperm donations.

The last time a count was done was in 1988 by the now-defunct U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, said Rene Almeling, a sociology professor at Yale University who has done extensive research on sperm and egg donation.

WHAT THEY TELL YOU

Sperm banks generally tell clients about a donor’s family medical history; physical traits like hair color, eye color, height and blood type; some educational and professional information; and some personal social preferences.

Additional information that might also be available for some donors, possibly for an extra fee, includes childhood and adult photos, audio interviews and other personality attributes.

Much of the information comes from surveys that the donors fill out.

WHAT IT COSTS

It depends on the sperm bank and various options the recipient can choose from. Georgia-based Xytex Corp., one of the bigger players in the industry, provides free profiles with basic information including medical history, genetic testing results, physical traits, and limited educational and professional background. There is a tiered pricing structure to see more extensive information.

A single unit of sperm from Xytex costs between $395 and $795, depending on a variety of factors, including the method of insemination the recipient plans to use and whether the recipient wants her child to have access to the donor’s identity once the child turns 18.

DONOR ANONYMITY

Sperm donors are generally anonymous when the recipient buys the sperm and is inseminated. Some sperm banks, including Xytex, allow a donor’s identity to be disclosed with the mother’s permission once the child turns 18. The child could then use the information to seek out a relationship with the biological father, or simply contact the donor with questions about family history.

DONOR REQUIREMENTS

Donors are screened over a period of four to six weeks. The screening generally includes a blood test, a genetic test, a physical and collecting sperm samples. Donors are asked to provide three generations of family medical history, including mental health, as well as some social background and preferences.

Because of the expense of screening, donors are frequently asked to donate once a week for at least a year. To keep up their sperm count, they’re advised not to engage in any sexual activity for at least 48 hours prior to donating, to try to limit alcohol consumption and stress, and to exercise regularly and eat healthily. If the sperm count is too low, the sperm bank will throw out the sample and the donor won’t be paid.

‘Still Alice’ highlighting often hidden toll of Alzheimer’s

Her performance as a vibrant woman fading into the darkness of Alzheimer’s is doing more than earning awards for actress Julianne Moore. The movie “Still Alice” is raising awareness of a disease too often suffered in isolation, even if the Hollywood face is younger than the typical real-life patient.

Some things to know about Alzheimer’s:

ALZHEIMER’S IS INCREASING BUT THE EARLY-ONSET FORM ISN’T COMMON

The movie is about a linguistics professor stricken at the unusually young age of 50 with a form of Alzheimer’s that runs in her family. That type of Alzheimer’s accounts for a small fraction of the brain-destroying disease.

About 35 million people worldwide, and 5.2 million in the U.S., have Alzheimer’s or similar dementias. The vast majority are 65 or older. Barring medical breakthroughs, U.S. cases are expected to more than double by 2050, because of the aging population.

As many as 4 percent of cases worldwide are thought to be the early-onset form that strikes people before age 65, usually in their 40s or 50s, said the Alzheimer’s Association’s chief science officer, Maria Carrillo, who served as a scientific adviser for the movie. In the U.S., the association estimates that’s 200,000 people.

GENE TESTING ISN’T RECOMMENDED FOR MOST PEOPLE

Alice’s type is even more rare; she tells her three adult children in the movie: “It’s familial. It’s passed on genetically.”

With this autosomal dominant form of young Alzheimer’s, inheriting one of three genes with particular mutations leads to the disease. Children of an affected parent have a 50 percent chance of having inherited the family’s culprit mutation. As in other families, Alice’s children have to grapple with whether they want to be tested to find out.

But the vast majority of Alzheimer’s isn’t linked to a particular bad gene. There are various genes that can increase the risk, but people who never develop dementia symptoms can carry them, too. That’s why medical guidelines don’t recommend genetic testing for the average person.

MANY SYMPTOMS ARE UNIVERSAL REGARDLESS OF AGE OF ONSET

“I can see the words hanging in front of me and I can’t reach them, and I don’t know who I am or what I’m going to lose next,” Alice says.

To help with the movie’s first-person perspective, Carrillo’s group put actress Moore in touch with someone in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s who could describe how disorienting symptoms felt — that frustrating inability to retrieve a word or the fear that comes with suddenly not recognizing a familiar place.

Forgetting a word now and then happens to lots of people. The Alzheimer’s Association lists warning signs that may distinguish between normal forgetfulness and something you should discuss with a doctor. On the worry list: memory loss that disrupts daily life, difficulty completing familiar tasks, withdrawing from social activities and personality changes.

PEOPLE MAY COMPENSATE FOR A WHILE

If it seemed like the movie’s Alice suddenly declined fast, consider a concept that neuroscientists call “cognitive reserve.” People who have had more years of education are thought to have some protection because the extra learning increased connections between their brain’s neurons. When Alzheimer’s begins blocking those connections, the brain at first can choose an alternate route to retrieve a memory.

“Your brain’s kept buffered up,” explained Carrillo. But eventually, the brain reaches a tipping point and can’t compensate any longer, so “the change seems more dramatic.”

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, and today’s treatments only temporarily ease some symptoms. Scientists aren’t even sure what causes the disease, although a sticky brain protein called amyloid is one suspect.

Nor is diagnosis simple. There is no one Alzheimer’s test, but a battery of evaluations. Sometimes, doctors use PET scans to measure amyloid buildup, but only in carefully selected cases because plenty of people without Alzheimer’s harbor the gunk, too.

The Obama administration has declared a goal of finding effective Alzheimer’s treatments by 2025. Research suggests Alzheimer’s begins silently ravaging the brain up to 20 years before symptoms begin. One approach under study now is testing to see whether curbing sticky amyloid during that window period might at least postpone symptoms a few more years, if not prevent them.

On the Web

Information on volunteering for research: http://bit.ly/1dRZCv5

The government’s clinical trial database: http://www.clinicaltrials.gov

Wisconsin agency preps for big jump in DNA testing

The Wisconsin Department of Justice has hired nearly 20 more workers and begun a pricey renovation of its Madison crime lab so that it will be able to handle tens of thousands of additional DNA samples when new collection requirements take effect next year.

Wisconsin currently takes DNA samples from anyone convicted of a felony and certain sex-related misdemeanors. A Republican-backed law set to take effect on April 1 dramatically expands the grounds for collection.

The measure requires local police to take DNA from anyone arrested for a violent felony and to ship the samples to the DOJ, although the agency won’t be allowed to process them until a judge finds probable cause that a crime was committed in each case. The law also requires anyone convicted of any misdemeanor to submit a DNA sample.

The law’s supporters say collecting DNA samples will help solve more crimes.

Civil rights advocates, though, contend the expanded collection is an invasion of privacy.

The law means the DOJ will have to handle tens of thousands of additional samples. The agency already collects about 12,000 DNA samples from convicted felons annually and expects to receive 25,000 samples from felony arrests and 40,000 samples from misdemeanor convictions next year.

The DOJ operates crime labs in Madison, Milwaukee and Wausau, although only the Madison and Milwaukee facilities handle DNA testing. All the samples from the collection expansion will go to the Madison lab, said Brian O’Keefe, administrator of the DOJ’s Division of Law Enforcement Services.

Using money generated through DNA surcharges on offenders, the DOJ has hired and trained eight additional analysts and 11 technicians to handle the new samples. The agency also has tapped the surcharges to cover $5 million in renovations at the Madison lab to house the new workers and all the new samples. Construction began in July and is expected to be completed by March.

The DOJ’s crime labs struggled in the mid-2000s to keep up with extracting DNA profiles from crime scene evidence as police and prosecutors submitted more samples in hopes of finding enough DNA to identify the suspect. Evidence in nearly 1,800 cases was sitting on crime lab shelves waiting for testing when Van Hollen took office in 2007.

Van Hollen convinced lawmakers to let him hire 31 additional analysts and in 2010 declared he had eliminated the backlog. Currently, evidence in fewer than 500 cases is waiting for testing and the average turnaround time is 35 days, DOJ officials say.

O’Keefe said the new law shouldn’t extend waiting times.

The new personnel will be devoted to handling arrestee and misdemeanor convicts’ samples exclusively and they won’t have to spend time extracting DNA from them.

The agency plans to forward the samples to a private Texas lab that it already uses to extract DNA from samples from felony convicts. For $20 per sample analysts there will pull DNA from the saliva, build profiles and ship them back to Madison. Analysts here will upload them into state and national databases and look for hits with profiles of unknown suspects. If they get a match they’ll process the sample themselves to verify the profile, O’Keefe said. 

‘Bigfoot’ hair samples from wolves, cows, bears

DNA testing is taking a bite out of the Bigfoot legend. After scientists analyzed more than 30 hair samples reportedly left behind by Bigfoot and similar mythical beasts like the Himalayan Yeti, they found all of them came from more mundane creatures like bears, wolves, cows and raccoons.

In 2012, researchers at Oxford University and the Lausanne Museum of Zoology issued an open call asking museums, scientists and Bigfoot aficionados to share any samples they thought were from the legendary ape-like creatures.

“I thought there was about a 5 percent chance of finding a sample from a Neanderthal or (a Yeti),” said Bryan Sykes of Oxford University, who led the research, the first peer-reviewed study of Bigfoot, Yeti and other “anomalous primates.” The study was published online Wednesday in the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Sykes and colleagues tested 36 hair samples from Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Russia and the U.S. using DNA sequencing and all of them matched DNA from known animals. Most were from bears, but there were also hairs from a Malaysian tapir, horses, porcupine, deer, sheep, and a human.

While Sykes said they didn’t find any proof of Bigfoot-related creatures, he acknowledged their paper doesn’t prove they don’t exist.

“The fact that none of these samples turned out to be (a Yeti) doesn’t mean the next one won’t,” he said. The scientists did find two samples from ancient polar bears in the Himalayas, who are not known to live there. That suggests there could be a new or hybrid bear species out there, Sykes said.

Others said proving that Bigfoot is real requires significantly more than a mere hair sample.

“I would want visual or physical proof, like a body part, on top of the DNA evidence,” said Todd Disotell, a professor of anthropology at New York University. He warned Bigfoot enthusiasts not to make assumptions when they find weird things in the forest. “Every mammal in the forest leaves hair and poop behind and that’s what we’ve found,” he said. “Just not the big guy himself.”

Some experts said that if Bigfoot existed, there would be a lot more to find than just a few errant hairs.

“Those who believe in the Yeti, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster need basic instruction in sex,” said Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University, in an email. “Each Yeti has two parents, four grandparents and so on,” he said. “There should have been herds of (Yetis),” he wrote. “Where were they hiding?”