It was during a 2019 hockey game that Jerry Westrom would unknowingly hand investigators the missing clue to an unsolved decades-old homicide case.
A napkin, used after eating a hot dog and smeared with Westrom’s saliva residue, linked the 56-year-old Minnesota man to the 1993 murder of Jeanne “Jeanie” Childs. The 35-year-old sex worker had been found stabbed to death in her Minneapolis apartment on June 13, 1993.
Westrom was found guilty Thursday of killing Childs. But for almost three decades, the case had left authorities stumped. They’d found a gruesome crime scene covered with DNA that couldn’t be traced to anyone at the time. Years dragged on with more questions than answers — until 2018, when law enforcement enlisted the help of a genealogist and a commercial genealogy site.
“Today’s guilty verdicts show that we will pursue convictions for serious crimes, even if it takes years to gather the evidence,” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said in a news release.
Westrom’s attorney, Steve Meshbesher, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post. He told CBS that “somebody sick, pathological” had killed Childs, adding that Westrom “isn’t the guy.” During the trial, he argued that Childs’s alleged pimp, who died in 2017, could’ve been the killer since some of his hairs were found in the woman’s hands.
“Very disappointed. The jury did not see all the evidence. We had presented all the evidence, the judge said no,” Meshbesher told the outlet, adding that he’d appeal the verdict. “Whatever happened was brutal, it’s a question of who did it.”
Authorities had tried to answer that question for nearly 30 years.
That day, a tenant at a Minneapolis apartment complex complained about a leak, according to a criminal complaint. The property’s supervisors saw water rushing out into the hallway from one apartment. Upon entering, they found a running shower, a body and a bloody scene.
Childs had multiple wounds across her chest, neck, back, arms, hands and buttocks, the complaint states.
Inside the apartment, evidence pointed to a prolonged attack that had moved from room to room, prosecutors said. A bloody footprint was left close to Child’s body. Several items — including bedding, a towel, a washcloth and a red T-shirt — were taken by investigators to test for DNA.
Genetic material was found, but it didn’t match anyone with a felony record. Childs being a sex worker widened the pool of possible suspects, officials said. With no witnesses and so few leads, police deemed the case “horribly difficult” to crack. For years, the DNA evidence remained in storage.
But in 2018, hope was kindled through a breakthrough in investigation techniques: DNA genealogy, or tracking family trees that are generated through public profiles. The tool is available to anyone who wants to find a DNA match or discover their ancestry. But — by allowing police to research beyond criminal databases — it has become a powerful law enforcement technique since it led to the 2018 arrest of the “Golden State Killer.”
A similar method was used to narrow the suspect list in Childs’s murder, the Hennepin County attorney’s office said. With information derived from commercial genealogy websites, investigators found two potential suspects — one of them was Westrom.
Other clues also led police to Westrom, like the fact that he had lived in the Twin Cities between 1991 and 1993 and that he’d been convicted of soliciting a prostitute in 2016. Starting on January 2019, investigators began to home in on Westrom and eventually launched a stealth mission at a hockey game that year, according to the complaint.
Investigators dug through the trash after watching Westrom throw out a used napkin and cardboard hot dog tray. Then, they compared it to the DNA samples that had been recovered at the murder scene. It was a match, officials said — and Westrom was later arrested.
When questioned by authorities, Westrom “denied having been at the apartment complex, denied having been in the apartment, denied recognizing [Childs], and denied having had sex with any women in Minneapolis in 1993,” according to the complaint. He also said he didn’t know why his DNA was found at the scene.
In June 2020, Westrom was charged with first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence under Minnesota law. His sentencing is expected in the coming weeks, Law & Crime reported.
“I know that the law is finally going to take care of him for what he did, and I hope he can sleep at night,” Childs’s mother, Betty Eakman, told CBS. “Jeanie was a wonderful person even though she had problems. She had a big heart.”
Before Westrom’s arrest, a DJ’s tossed chewing gum and a coffee cup thrown away at an airport helped authorities crack decades-old cases. A hot dog napkin now joins the list of trashed but valuable evidence.
“When you discard a thing in the trash, the Supreme Court says it is fair game,” Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney, said. “Saliva is one of the … ways to get DNA. The best I can tell, it was legitimate.”