How DNA and genealogy are helping CMPD solve cold cases
A series of sexual assaults in south Charlotte and Pineville put the area on edge in the 1990s. The suspect became known as the Myers Park rapist. He’d sneak into houses in the middle of the night, kidnap girls and assault them. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police identified the man they believe was the rapist in December. In all the years detectives spent investigating these cases, his name had never come up. But thanks to DNA and genealogy, detectives say they were finally able to identify him.
It’s easy to see why David Edward Doran never came up in the investigation — not as a suspect, not in the case files at all. He had no connection to any of the 15 victims police say he assaulted.
“We were as blown away as we could be when we finally started looking at David Doran,” said Darrell Price, who supervises Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s Cold Case Unit.
He remembers how much fear these assaults stirred up in the '90s.
“We were having young children taken out of their houses in the middle of the night and raped, as young as 3 years old and all the way up to 29 years old. This was a very high-profile situation.”
Only two of the victims were over 18. Most lived in affluent parts of south Charlotte. Most of the assaults happened between 1990 and 1992 with a few in the late '90s. The attacker wore gloves, a mask and left very few traces.
“It wasn’t like your average, ordinary, everyday sex assault where you have a sexual assault kit that’s loaded with evidence. You have saliva, semen, other things, hairs. We had none of that,” Price said.
Trying to find a DNA sample
Cold case detectives began reviewing the case in 2006. They began examining secondary evidence like victims’ clothes and sheets, inch by inch.
They spoke to victims to get details that matter with today’s technology like where the attacker grabbed their clothes and possibly left behind skin cells. They would submit a sample, then wait. There were many failures, but they finally found a solid sample in 2019 after thirteen years. They submitted it to the national DNA database of convicted felons known as CODIS. But to their surprise, there were no matches.
“If we get a person who’s committed that many crimes, the odds of them not being in CODIS is phenomenal. I mean, it’s just crazy,” Price said.
That’s when they turned to genetic genealogist CeCe Moore. She’s with Parabon Nanolabs based in Reston, Virginia.
“My work spans all different types of mysteries that DNA can help unravel,” Moore said.
She started out as an amateur genealogist and helped create the field of crime-solving genetic genealogy.
Building an unknown suspect's family tree
Parabon turns these cold case samples into data that can be run through ancestry databases. Its analysis can also predict skin, hair, eye color and face shape. That helped eliminate suspects in this case. Then Moore and her team look through the database results to find people who may share some of that DNA.
“We can detect very distant relationships,” Moore said.
For example, a third cousin, which means people share a great-great-grandparent.
“Then we can build the family trees of those individuals and use that information to reverse engineer the family tree of the unknown suspect.”
To do this, Moore and her team go through public records like census data, marriage notices, birth announcements and obituaries.
Law enforcement agencies are increasingly turning to genetic genealogy. Parabon Nanolabs says it’s made about 200 positive identifications over the last four years.
Moore relies on two private databases — direct-to-consumer testing company FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch. People load the results of their DNA tests to GEDmatch trying to fill in family trees. Moore says they’re the two smallest databases available to law enforcement with an estimated 1.8 million profiles altogether , but that there’s still a good chance that someone has a third cousin that has uploaded to them.
Since 2019, users of GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA can choose whether they want their profiles open to law enforcement searches.
“If we can get enough data from multiple cousins, it creates a genealogical web that eventually can close in on that specific person’s identity,” Moore says.
This takes some explanation. Cousins may lead to a set of common ancestors from 200 years ago, for example, a set of great-great-grandparents. Moore and her team start building that family tree through public records. Other DNA matches allow them to narrow descendants down by connecting different family trees by marriage. They keep doing that until there’s an identification or no more clues to continue building the tree.
Here’s how that web went in this case:
“We were able to triangulate between a genetic network couple back in the late 1700s, early 1800s and an ancestor of another match in the early 1800s and, then, find a marriage between their descendants that happened in the early to mid-1900s,” Moore said.
Another family tree was connected to this one through a marriage. After that, Moore says they were able to narrow it down pretty quickly because the couples didn’t have many children. Parabon gave CMPD a family tree and said David Edward Doran was the one they could tie to the Charlotte region.
“Now, of course, what we do is just a lead. It’s just a tip — highly scientific tip. Law enforcement then has to take that information and do a full investigation,” Moore says.
Investigating the scientific tip
Sergeant Price said it was hard to believe it was Doran. He was in his 50s at the time of most of the rapes. That was much older than police thought the person capable of these crimes would be. For one, he climbed into second-floor windows. So they looked at younger relatives.
But the closer they looked at Doran, the more convinced they were it was him. He had died in 2008 of throat cancer. A detective drove to Ohio to talk with those who knew him. Distant family members described him as a cat burglar, stealing from homes in the middle of the night. Investigators saw that as a precursor to sexual crimes. He pleaded guilty in 2002 for an attempted burglary in south Charlotte.
“It really just evolved into we need to start trying to find a DNA sample from this guy so that we could compare it to our suspect sample,” Price said.
Doran was cremated, so that ruled out exhuming him. They called around to people who knew him, trying to collect items they knew were his.
“We had several people tell us in a very unpolite way to pound sand, but some did give us items because they just had a hard time believing he could be responsible for this type of action,” Price said.
They collected clothes, books, journals, hoping that something he was in contact with more than 12 years before would have enough of his DNA to determine whether he was the suspect. And after several tries, they found a good sample. It was a match.
Prosecutors determined they would have prosecuted Doran if he was still alive. That gave the cold case unit the all-clear in December to publicly announce Doran as the rapist, one they could only identify thanks to science and genealogy.
Genetic genealogist CeCe Moore is used to hearing that.
“The vast majority of the time the people that we end up identifying through genetic genealogy were strangers that were never in the case file. They were never on the agency’s radar.”
CMPD is now putting Doran on the radar of agencies in California, Texas and Ohio, where he also lived, to see if they have any cases fitting the profile.
The cold case unit has secured a federal grant to use genetic genealogy on about 12 more cases. It costs about $5,000 a case. Price says he expects they could solve half of them that way.
“Sometimes I’ll have to tell a parent, ‘I can’t say your son or daughter’s case can’t be solved. It can’t be solved today. We never know what science will come about tomorrow,” Price says.