A Minnesota man was eating a hot dog at a hockey game when, authorities said, he wiped his mouth with a napkin and tossed the remains in the trash.
It was the moment cold-case investigators had been waiting for.
The authorities, who had used a genealogy company to identify the man as a suspect in an unsolved murder from 1993, dug the napkin out of the trash and used DNA on it to tie him to the case, court records show.
The man, Jerry Westrom, 52, was arrested last week by the Minneapolis Police Department and charged with murder in the death of Jeanne Ann Childs, a 35-year-old woman who was stabbed to death in a Minneapolis apartment nearly 26 years ago.
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Westrom has denied involvement in the case, according to the authorities. A representative from a law firm representing him declined to comment Sunday.
Federal and local authorities used genealogy to identify a suspect and then worked surreptitiously to retrieve a DNA sample from Westrom, a businessman who lives in Isanti, Minnesota, and has a wife and three children, according to The Minneapolis Star Tribune.
The strategy was popularized last year after authorities used an online genealogy database to make an arrest in the case of the Golden State Killer, who had burglarized, raped and murdered people across California over decades. Since then, genealogical sleuthing techniques have led to arrests in cases in Washington state, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
But the tactic has also raised ethical concerns about using genetic information from people who might have uploaded their DNA to find information about their heritage, without knowing it could help law enforcement officials track down family members.
More than 15 million people have offered up their DNA to online genealogy services in recent years. While they represent a small fraction of all people, the pool of profiles is large enough to allow 60 percent of white Americans — the primary users of DNA sites in the United States — to be identified through the databases, according to researchers. Researchers believe that in coming years, 90 percent of Americans of European descent will be identifiable, even if they have not submitted their own DNA.
At a news conference last week, Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney, did not specify which service investigators had used but said “it was a genealogy company you see advertised on TV.”
He said he did not know whether it was Westrom himself or a relative who had uploaded the genetic information.
In June 1993, Childs was found dead in a flooded Minneapolis apartment. She was lying on the floor, wearing only a pair of socks, with the shower still running, according to the statement of probable cause in the case.
Childs, who had been working as a prostitute, was stabbed repeatedly, including after she had died, the authorities said. The authorities collected DNA from the crime scene, including from a comforter on the bed, a towel in the bathroom and a washcloth on the toilet seat, according to the statement.
But for a quarter of a century, the case remained unsolved.
A break came last year, when investigators entered DNA from the crime scene into genealogy websites and identified two possible suspects. One of the suspects, Westrom, had lived in the Twin Cities area in the early 1990s and had been convicted of soliciting prostitution in 2016, the probable cause statement said.
In January, officers began following Westrom and eventually tracked him to the hockey game. They watched him order food from the concession area and then wipe his mouth with a napkin, before placing the napkin in a cardboard food container and throwing it away, the authorities said.
DNA found on the napkin “was consistent with” samples taken from the 1993 crime scene, according to the probable cause statement.
The police arrested Westrom at his office last Monday.
Once he was in custody, authorities collected another sample of DNA, which matched sperm found on the comforter and the towel in the bathroom, and could not be excluded as a match for the washcloth on the toilet seat, the probable cause statement said.
“We all hope Jeanne’s family can finally find peace as a result of this tenacious effort by officers and agents,” Jill Sanborn, the special agent in charge of the Minneapolis division of the FBI, said in a statement.
Westrom told authorities that he did not know Childs and had not been at the apartment, and he denied having had sex with any women in Minneapolis in 1993, according to the probable cause statement.
In a court appearance Friday, Steven J. Meshbesher, a lawyer for Westrom, said the arrest had been premature and said his client intended to plead not guilty, MPR News reported. Records show Westrom was released on bail Friday night.
At the news conference last week, Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney, recalled how he had talked with the district attorney in Ventura County, California, about the genealogy used in the Golden State Killer case.
“I said, ‘You know, I bet we have some cases back home we can use this on,’” he said. “Well, we just found one.”