Relative justice: how kinship DNA analysis is reopening and shutting cold cases

A forensic scientist at work at the Netherlands Forensic Institute. Photo: Netherlands Forensic Institute

On the warm, sunny morning of 8th August 1998 Nicky Verstappen boarded a bus along with 36 other children in the village of Heibloem in the Dutch province of Limburg. It was a big day for the freckle-faced 11-year-old boy. The year before, anxious he would get homesick, he had not attended the annual local summer camp. This time he had decided to go. As the packed bus pulled away, the children pressed their faces against the windows and waved goodbye to their families. It was the last time Nicky’s parents would see him alive.

The camp was being held in Brunssummerheide, a sprawling national park nestled against the Netherlands’ border with Germany, 40 kilometres south of Heibloem. During the day, the camp leaders ran a programme of games, activities and entertainment. At night, the children slept in large military-style tents, split between girls and boys.

It was from one of these tents that Nicky would vanish. Two nights into the camp, at around 10pm, the children headed to bed. When one of the boys rose in the early hours of the morning to go to the toilet Nicky was still tucked up in his sleeping bag, but when his tent-mates awoke at 6am, he was gone.

The initial hours after the discovery that 
Nicky was missing were chaotic. At first the camp leaders thought Nicky had run away or gone exploring. Much to the distress of Nicky’s parents, who had arrived at the camp in a state of panic shortly after being informed, the police didn’t arrive on the scene for several hours.

By the time a team of search dogs were brought in the next morning, more than 24 hours after Nicky went missing, it was probably already too late. That evening they found the young boy’s remains hidden in a thicket, less than a mile from the camp. His body had been stripped down to his waist and showed signs of sexual assault. His bare feet were clean, suggesting he didn’t walk to the spot, and his Ajax football team pyjama bottoms were on back to front. It was on these that forensic examiners would later find a trace of DNA that police believed belonged to the killer.

 

“A village that kept a secret”

Heibloem is a small and sleepy village, only around a mile or so long from end to end. Neat rows of houses are fronted by well-kept gardens. There’s a bakery, a local school, a church and a community centre. It’s the kind of place where the postman waves when you pass by, where local children bike down the street together and neighbours pop in and out of one another’s houses.

Nicky’s death sent shockwaves through the rural village’s tight-knit community. His body, cleverly hidden, suggested that the perpetrator had intimate knowledge of the area and his parents insisted that the shy young boy wouldn’t run away or leave with a stranger.

The villagers suddenly found themselves at the centre of a police investigation. Some were convinced a child-killer was living in their midst. Others just wanted to move on. They became weary of the parade of visiting journalists and the provocative headlines they wrote about Nicky’s murder. In 2003, five years after their son’s death, the Verstappens moved away from Heibloem.

There was a widely held feeling that someone in Heibloem must be hiding Nicky’s murderer”

The unsolved murder cast a cloud of suspicion over the whole community. A popular local folk band wrote a song in memory of Nicky. The lyrics of ‘Vlinder’ (meaning ‘butterfly’ in Dutch) alluded to the widely held feeling that someone in Heibloem must be hiding Nicky’s murderer. It was, the band sang, “a village that kept a secret”.

It seemed it would stay that way. Over the years, lead after lead turned into a dead end. An anonymous letter-writer who left notes on a memorial for Nicky, claiming to know more about the murder, turned out to be a psychiatric patient with no connection to the case. Sex offenders known to live in the area were questioned, some repeatedly, but none was ever charged. Around 200 men were asked to voluntarily provide DNA samples, most of whom did, but none was a match. In 2011, the Verstappen file was officially handed over to the cold-case unit.

For a while, the police worked on a theory that a German serial killer carried out the murder – Martin Ney, who was known to stalk youth camps. But there was no evidence he had ever come to the Netherlands, and even after being convicted of three other murders – all of young boys – he always denied killing Nicky.

 

“Someone must know something”

Dutch crime reporter Peter R de Vries has spent more than half of his 40-year career investigating Nicky’s murder. De Vries’s office is above a television studio in an industrial park on the outskirts of Amsterdam. The décor is stylish and modern, but De Vries is an old-school journalist who has built a formidable reputation in the Netherlands for his boots-on-the-ground investigations.

He has more than a few high-profile successes under his belt. In 1994, he successfully tracked down one of the kidnappers of brewery boss Freddy Heineken. The kidnapper had evaded Dutch authorities by hiding out in Paraguay, but couldn’t evade De Vries. In 2008, he revealed a secret recording of Joran van der Sloot, the prime suspect in the disappearance of American teenager Natalee Holloway, confessing to his involvement in her death. Although the tape was ultimately deemed inadmissible by a court, the victim’s mother said she believed De Vries had found the truth.

It was this kind of magic that the Verstappen family hoped the crime reporter could also work for them. Concerned about how the police were conducting the investigation, the family contacted De Vries, then aged 41, just a couple of weeks after Nicky’s body was found. After a brief conversation, he recalls promising “to stay with them until the end. So that was it, there was no way back.”

Nicky Verstappen’s mother, sister and father sit with Dutch crime reporter Peter de Vries (right) as police announce a breakthrough. Photo: Marcel van Hoorn / AFP / Getty Images

He was as good as his word. De Vries’s relentless reporting about Nicky’s murder kept it in the headlines for more than 20 years. During that time, he and his team have trawled through the police files countless times, following up any leads that came to light, no matter how small. The crime reporter also raised money to double the 25,000-guilder reward (around £50,000 in today’s money) being offered by the authorities for information leading to the murderer. They got plenty of tips, but none led to Nicky’s killer.

For a long time, De Vries’s prime suspect was Joos Barten, the founder of the Heibloem camp that Nicky attended. Barten was found to have previous convictions for sexual offences against children, yet despite interviewing him on several occasions police never took a DNA sample from him. Barten died in 2003 aged 85. In 2010, under pressure from De Vries’s reporting – which included a television segment focused on the camp leader and his murky past – the authorities eventually agreed to exhume his body. “We hoped that would be it, case solved,” remembers De Vries. But the DNA results came back as ‘no match’.

While De Vries describes Nicky’s murder as one of his “most challenging” cases, he didn’t give up. He kept investigating and pressuring the authorities to do the same. “We believed that someone out there must know something about what happened to Nicky,” he says. “You can’t stop, it’s just not an option.”

On De Vries’s office wall is a signed, framed shirt from Ajax, the team Nicky had dreamed of playing for one day. It was meant to be buried with the young boy, but arrived too late to be put in his coffin, so the Verstappen family gave it to the crime reporter. “I hung it there so every day I would look at it and remember this case is still unsolved, that there’s still work to do,” says De Vries.

While De Vries and his team remained determined, over time the Verstappen case came to occupy a place in the Dutch public consciousness much like that occupied by the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Britain: high-profile, heart-wrenching and so ice-cold it seemed virtually unsolvable.

 

The match

Everything changed on 22nd August 2018. Twenty years after Nicky was murdered, police announced a major breakthrough in the case. They had a suspect and, more importantly, a DNA match.

Standing at a podium at the front of a conference hall packed with reporters Ferdinand Schellinkhout, a senior investigator on the Verstappen case, named the suspect: Jos Brech. In the front row, sitting alongside De Vries, Nicky’s mother Berthie Verstappen burst into tears.

Just five days later, acting on a tip-off, police found Brech in a tent in the Spanish countryside, around 30 miles from Barcelona. Arrested by local police, he was deported to the Netherlands and formally charged with Nicky’s manslaughter.

The chain of events leading to Brech’s arrest had been set in motion nearly a year before. In May 2017, the Limburg police announced they were setting up a ‘DNA dragnet’ and some 21,500 men in the province were later sent letters requesting them to provide a sample of saliva. The tests were voluntary and participants were assured that it would be used only in the Verstappen case before being destroyed. Since there was no legal obligation to give DNA, it seemed unlikely that Nicky’s killer would be among those who came forward. But that’s not what the police were hoping for. They were planning on conducting familial analyses on the samples. All they needed was a relative of the murderer to 
come forward.

Limburg police officer Paul Emmen speaks in January 2018 about the operation to test DNA samples from around 21,500 men. Photo: Ralf Roeger / DPA / PA Images

That’s not quite what happened – but the dragnet still led them to their new suspect. Brech, 55, a ‘bushcraft expert’ who worked with young boy scouts, was already among the names in the Verstappen case file. On the night that Nicky’s body was found, he was biking in the area and police had checked his identity documents. But when he was stopped, Brech had said he was just out for a ride on a hot summer’s evening. Although briefly questioned on two occasions, he had never been considered a suspect by police.

That is until he was reported missing by his family. A few months after the DNA dragnet was announced, Brech disappeared. In October 2017, he told friends and relatives he was leaving on a several-week-long hiking expedition in France and would sometimes be out of contact for a while. That in itself was not unusual. Brech often spent long periods walking alone in the wilderness, but this time he didn’t resurface. The timing of his disappearance, combined with his presence near the crime scene, aroused the police’s suspicions. In collaboration with the French authorities they searched Brech’s chalet in the Vosges region and obtained personal possessions from family members in the Netherlands to compare to the trace from Nicky’s nightclothes. It was a match. The passer-by had become the prime suspect.

 

The DNA detectives

The Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) is located in a nondescript industrial area in a suburb of The Hague. From the outside it’s a squat, gloomy-looking building next to a car dealership. Inside, however, it’s an impressive maze of glass-fronted, futuristic laboratories where scientists in hair nets and white lab coats peer down microscopes. Wall-mounted television screens show a live-stream of sealed freezer interiors. Maintained at minus 80 degrees Celsius – the optimum temperature for preserving DNA – each freezer shelf can store hundreds of samples. In one of them sits the sample found on Nicky’s body.

In August 2018, I travelled here to meet Dr Arnoud Kal, a senior forensic scientist at the NFI. Kal is an expert in familial DNA, and as we tour the facility’s laboratories I notice what appears at first glance to be a family tree. It is, of sorts. The wallchart details the connections between victims of MH17 – the passenger jet downed by a surface-to-air missile fired by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine – and the genetic samples provided by their family members. So far, the NFI team have identified 296 of the 298 people killed when the missile hit the aircraft on 17th July 2014. They won’t stop working on it, Kal says, until they get the final two.

Kinship analysis isn’t just being used to identify victims, it’s also being used to catch killers”

Familial DNA has long been used to identify victims of disasters. Since the 1980s scientists specialising in “kinship research” have helped thousands of families bury their loved ones. Among them are those killed in the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, the Madrid bombings in 2004 and the Christchurch earthquake in 2011. Increasingly, however, kinship analysis isn’t just being used to identify victims, it’s also being used to catch killers.

It’s not a straightforward process, however. DNA taken from crime scenes is often imperfect. Samples are usually small, frequently degraded from exposure to the elements and regularly contain mixed profiles. These factors affect which tests it’s possible to do and the likelihood that contamination, or technical processes, will produce anomalous results. Re-testing, sometimes repeatedly, is a way to eliminate these issues. However, samples are finite: at some point they run out, and that means investigators often have tough decisions to make. “Sometimes it’s time to say okay, we have to stop testing for now and hope the method we have improves,” says Kal. “It’s difficult to do, but sometimes you have to wait for technology to catch up.”

Nicky’s murder is a case in point. His body had been lying in the sun for several hours before it was found and the DNA sample discovered on it was small. Brech is yet to face trial, so Kal can’t go into too many details, but he says that in 1998 it wasn’t possible to extract a DNA profile from Nicky’s pyjamas deemed usable in a direct comparison, let alone one that was usable in kinship research.

As the years passed, however, science did just 
what Kal had hoped – it caught up with the case. In 2008, technological developments meant a more complete profile could be extracted from a DNA sample on 
Nicky’s pyjamas. It was sufficient to run direct comparisons. Although this yielded no matches, by 2015 further advances meant another crucial line of inquiry opened up to investigators. Scientists were able to extract a profile that allowed kinship research to be carried out.

On top of this, the “kits” used to run familial testing had more than doubled the number of reference points they used – from ten in 2003 to 23 in 2018. And the kinship-analysis software used to calculate the likelihood that a partial match was a blood relation used ever more complex algorithms — meaning fewer false leads. All in all, these developments meant Nicky’s case had finally become a viable candidate for kinship research.

It was decided that the net would have to be cast very wide indeed”

In the Netherlands, the first step in familial searching is to run the crime-scene sample through law-enforcement databases. If that fails to produce a relative of the suspect, investigators prepare to move on to the next stage: a dragnet. Due to the total lack of leads in Nicky’s case at the time, it was decided that the net would have to be cast very wide indeed. In fact, the call for 21,500 samples was among the largest ever requests for voluntary DNA samples in a criminal investigation. Here too, technology played a role. Until recently, DNA reference samples in the Netherlands were gathered using a swab; now they are taken using a sponge. While it may seem a small difference, the latter method can be processed up to ten times faster and at around half the price – a game changer for a budget-strapped justice department.

 

Near misses and genetic informants

The methods used to catch criminals matter, particularly when it comes to using the most personal information about us – our DNA. Since DNA profiling was accidentally discovered in 1984 by Alec Jeffreys, a geneticist at the University of Leicester in the UK, scientists, lawyers, politicians, criminologists and human rights activists have debated the ethics of using genetics to solve crime. Whose DNA should be stored? For how long? Where should it be kept? When and how should it be used?

The situation becomes even trickier once you throw family into the mix. Detecting kinship ties in DNA is much more complex than just comparing two samples. The technique works by broadening the parameters of a DNA database search to include ‘partial matches’ or near misses – people who are not a match but who share many common reference points with the entered sample. The basic premise is straightforward: relatives share more genetic traits than unrelated individuals.

Poor use, or just sheer bad luck, can result in innocent people becoming suspects”

But while that’s true in general, it’s not always the case. A child inherits half its DNA from its mother and half from its father. At each genetic locus, each parent contributes one ‘allele’ of genetic information to form a pair. However, which allele is passed on by a parent from their own pair at each of the sites is pot luck. Therefore, while full siblings will on average share half their alleles, it is also possible for them to share none at all.

This random element of DNA inheritance means a familial search is more akin to an intelligence gathering mission than a direct comparison of two samples. The results it generates require investigators to sift through family trees and cross-reference results with human intelligence. Poor use, or just sheer bad luck, can result in innocent people becoming suspects – as Michael Usry found out to his cost.

In December 2014, three police officers knocked on Usry’s door in New Orleans and asked him to accompany them to the station. They said they wanted to talk about a hit and run in his neighbourhood. The 36-year-old filmmaker had nothing to hide so agreed to come along, but the questioning quickly took a nasty turn. The police actually suspected a bewildered Usry of having killed teenager Angie Dodge in Idaho Falls in 1996. The filmmaker had become a person of interest in Dodge’s murder after investigators ran DNA from the cold case through Ancestry, a popular family-searching website.

Usry’s father, who had submitted DNA to the website as part of a Mormon Church project, was a close ‘near miss’, matching on 34 out of 35 of the genetic reference points tested. This made his son a potential suspect. Investigators’ suspicion of Usry intensified further when, scouring Facebook, they found that in the late 1990s he had made trips to Idaho to visit two of his sisters.

But Usry didn’t do it. After an agonising month-long wait, a direct comparison of his DNA to the crime-scene sample came back as a ‘no match’. Dodge’s murderer remains at large.

False leads aren’t the only risk in kinship research, however. The technique also means that a close relative can unwittingly become a genetic informant.

Cells from a smear test conducted on a young woman five years earlier were obtained by law enforcement and tested”

In 2005 cells from a smear test conducted on a young woman five years earlier – and which had been kept by the clinic as standard practice, as insurance against medical malpractice suits – were obtained by law enforcement and tested. They ultimately helped prove that the woman’s father, Dennis Rader, was the notorious “bind torture rape” serial killer and he was sentenced to a minimum of 175 years in prison without a chance of parole. The sample’s seizure was legal in the US under the ‘abandonment’ principle, and while few would argue that putting Rader behind bars is a bad thing, there’s also a sense of unease at an innocent young woman’s most intimate medical privacy being breached – an experience she said left her feeling “violated”.

 

The world’s largest family tree

The first ever conviction resulting from a familial match was made by accident in 2004 in the UK. During a probe into the killing of a lorry driver who died after a brick was thrown into his moving vehicle from a bridge, investigators ran a blood sample through their database. They didn’t find the culprit, but they did find someone with a remarkably similar DNA profile.

Further inquiries revealed that this person had a brother, Craig Harman. When confronted by the physical evidence Harman confessed to throwing the brick and was later sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter. Kinship research had put its first killer behind bars.

That the UK, where DNA was discovered, pioneered the use of familial searching in a criminal case is unsurprising. The country has the largest proportion of its citizens’ DNA on record in the world – around 5.43 million people, almost 10 percent of the population. Since Harman’s conviction, kinship research has been used in at least 200 cases in the UK, with suspects identified on some 40 occasions.

In both the UK and the Netherlands, however, law enforcement’s use of familial searching to identify the relatives of a suspect is tightly regulated. Although kinship research has been used to identify victims for several decades in the Netherlands, it wasn’t legal to use it in criminal cases until 2012. Even now, familial searching in law enforcement’s existing DNA database is restricted to the most serious crimes, like rape and murder. And to progress to the next stage, setting up a dragnet, investigators must prove to an independent panel that they’ve exhausted all other lines of inquiry. At present these rules are so rigorously enforced that to date only three cases, including Nicky’s, have met those standards – the other two both also led to suspects being identified, one of them was convicted while the other is currently on trial.

Serial killer Dennis L Rader on trial in Wichita, Kansas for multiple murders in April 2005. Cells from his daughter’s smear test were used to prove his guilt. Photo: Bo Rader-Pool / Getty Images

At the opposite extreme is the US, where law enforcement has stepped up its use of genealogy websites to crack open cold cases. Its latest tool is GEDMatch, a volunteer-run website that allows users to upload raw DNA data from genealogy testing companies like Ancestry and 23andMe. What makes GEDMatch attractive to law enforcement, as well as genealogy enthusiasts, is the sophisticated array of tools it offers. These include functions that let users triangulate the profiles of partial matches to establish familial ties between them, and to set their own parameters for a search — for example to include more distant matches. In simple terms, this means that with GEDMatch, investigators can use a DNA sample left at a crime 
scene to identify much more distant relatives of a potential suspect.

The first suspect successfully identified using GEDMatch was announced by US law enforcement earlier this year. In April 2018, police in California announced they had caught the notorious ‘Golden State Killer’, believed to have carried out more than 100 burglaries, 50 rapes and 13 murders in the 1970s and ’80s. The clue that ultimately led to ex-cop Joseph James DeAngelo’s arrest came from a distant relative who had posted a tube of saliva to a genealogy website. Once investigators had the lead, they started searching for a male member of the family who lived in the right area and was the right age. It led them to DeAngelo’s door. With a suspect in their sights, police set about seizing a DNA sample from a discarded personal item in his rubbish bin. The test confirmed the lead gleaned from the genealogy website: DeAngelo was a match. He is in prison awaiting trial.

Since then, the founders of GEDMatch have allowed law enforcement to run a further 200 crime-scene stains through their software, leading to the identification of at least 11 more suspects in cold cases.

The vast pool of online DNA data in genealogy websites, the world’s largest open-source family tree, is a potential goldmine for investigators. However, it’s also ethically troubling. Currently, at least 12 million DNA profiles, mainly people from north America and western Europe, have been submitted to genealogy sites. Most were likely unaware, at least when they sent in their sample, that their data could one day be accessed and used by law enforcement.

 

Sequence and lies

Issues of consent are not the only dilemma facing the new DNA detectives. Another problem with using ancestry websites like GEDMatch to solve crime hinges on a highly technical, but ethically very important difference.

In both the UK and the Netherlands, criminal investigators only use ‘forensic’ tests, which work using short tandem repeat (STR) sequences. As is suggested by their name, STRs are short sequences repeated as many as dozens of times in a genome. These repetitions are highly variable between individuals, and it is these differences that are used to identify DNA samples as belonging to the same person or possibly belonging to a family member. Importantly, however, STRs reveal no information about a person’s characteristics – for example skin colour, eye colour or health issues.

In contrast, the commercial tests used by genealogy websites use single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and compare far more reference points – up to 600,000 of them. While this has advantages – SNPs can identify a relation as far removed as a fourth cousin and are usually accurate about the familial relationship to within one degree – they can also reveal a wealth of personal information about a suspected perpetrator.

For these searches of genealogy databases there’s no legal framework and there’s no ethical oversight”

“At the moment, all ‘forensic’ tests deliberately look at areas which tell you nothing about the appearance of the person or any medical information,” explains Dr Sue Pope, a specialist in DNA analysis and evaluation with Principal Forensic Services, a UK-based company. “At the time that DNA forensics was introduced, this was very important, particularly in places like Germany. People didn’t feel it was reasonable or proportionate that this kind of information about a person could be revealed as part of an investigation of a crime.”

“But for these searches of genealogy databases [in the US] there’s no legal framework and there’s no ethical oversight. They’ve just totally bypassed the system: it’s not expressly forbidden, but that’s just because no one has gotten around to considering whether or not it ought to be,” says Pope.

As judges, jurors and scientists continue to weigh the legality and ethics of kinship research, technology strides ever forward. Both Parabon Nanolabs, a forensic company based in Virginia, and the Visage Consortium, a pan-European research outfit, are honing phenotyping technologies that can predict facial features from small DNA samples using SNPs. By the time courts make their decisions about kinship research it may already have become less relevant as police will be able to generate composite sketches of criminals from traces of their DNA.

 

The long wait for justice

While genetic crime-solving has evolved at breakneck speed since 1998, little has changed in Heibloem. Neighbours still gossip on street corners, children still bike together along the street: they even still go to the local summer camp. Except now there’s one big difference – the announcement of a significant development in Nicky’s case means the villagers feel they can once again hold their heads up high.

“It’s a great relief for everyone,” one elderly villager told me as she trimmed a hedge in her front yard. “I used to feel this hesitation before I said I was from Heibloem. People associated it with this bad thing. Everyone was under some kind of suspicion.” She doesn’t want to be identified by name – people here are still wary of journalists – but she asks me to let people know that everyone in the village is pleased.

Brech has denied any involvement in Nicky’s death. His lawyer has said he will contest the DNA evidence”

But while Heibloem may be breathing a sigh of relief, there’s still a long way to go before Nicky’s case can be considered solved. Brech, currently in police custody, has denied any involvement in the young boy’s death, meaning the case will go to trial. His lawyer has said he will contest the DNA evidence. The first court hearing is scheduled for 12th December 2018 in Maastricht.

As for Kal and his team, they have plenty to be getting on with. The last stop in our tour of NFI’s futuristic laboratories is rather more old-fashioned: dozens of 
filing cabinets lining a wall. Each drawer, crammed with folders, is labelled with a name and date. The oldest one is from 1986. All of them are cold cases, still open, unsolved – and waiting for science to catch up.

 


UPDATE

Brech’s trial began on 12th December 2018. He faces manslaughter charges, which in the Netherlands means that the killing was not premeditated, as well as charges of depriving of liberty, a sex offence and possession of child pornography. Brech has denied any role in Nicky’s death. He is being defended by Gerald Roethof, a lawyer known for taking on high-profile and controversial cases.

As expected, the defence has so far centred on the DNA evidence against Brech. Although traces of Brech’s DNA were found at least 17 times on Nicky’s body, his lawyer has said that these trace samples – which do not appear to be from blood or semen – as well as three hairs do not prove that Brech was involved in the boy’s death. One hypothesis put forward by Roethof was that Brech’s DNA may have been transferred onto Nicky before died, for example, by both parties using the same hand towel in a public toilet. The lawyer also pointed to the presence of trace DNA on Nicky’s body from three other unidentified people.

Investigators have never been able to definitively establish a cause of death (although police have long believed he was suffocated) and while Nicky’s pyjama pants were inside-out when his body was found, as highlighted by Roethof, none of Brech’s sperm has been found at the scene.

 

 

 

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