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'A national disgrace': Holes in DNA databases leave crimes unsolved for decades

"If I had to put the blame on something, I would put blame on the system,” a murder victim's mother said.
Toni Cassano
Toni Cassano was upset to learn that her daughter's killer had dodged DNA collection and lived so close without drawing suspicion. Rick Danzl / News-Gazette

The man who murdered a young mother in central Illinois eluded investigators for nearly a decade. When they finally caught him in August 2018, they discovered he’d repeatedly dodged attempts to put his DNA into a criminal database.

The killer, Michael Henslick, had grown up in the same neighborhood and attended high school with the 22-year-old victim, Holly Cassano. He’d been arrested several times since the November 2009 attack, and twice a judge ordered him to provide a DNA sample. Henslick blew the orders off.

“If he’d given his DNA, we wouldn’t have had to wait nine years,” said Champaign County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Dwayne Roelfs, who worked the case from day one.

The break finally came when Roelfs and his colleagues turned to genetic genealogy, a technique that allowed them to expand their search to direct-to-consumer DNA websites.

When they found Henslick, who was later convicted of murder, they also exposed a weakness in the government’s vaunted national system of criminal DNA databases.

Similar revelations of missed opportunities to solve crimes sooner have occurred across the country, as new investigative methods have led authorities to suspects who should have had their DNA collected and uploaded years ago.

The national DNA database, known as CODIS, is arguably the most powerful crime-fighting tool in modern history. It holds more than 18 million people’s profiles and has produced more than 500,000 hits since it went fully online in 1998, according to the FBI. The database has also been used to reveal the true suspects in cases of wrongful conviction. But the system lacks thousands of profiles from convicted offenders and suspects — information that could hold answers to innumerable unsolved crimes, researchers and law enforcement officials say.

Authorities in several states are now trying to go back and collect this missing DNA, a lengthy and expensive undertaking that has already led to arrests in dozens of cold cases. But expanding criminal DNA databases — many of which include people arrested but not necessarily convicted of crimes — also comes with risks.

Black people are far more likely than white people to have their DNA profiles collected and stored in government databases — a reflection of a justice system that disproportionately targets people of color, researchers say. Rather than amplify those disparities by expanding the databases, they say, the government should spend more money on providing support to victims and improving police investigations.

Holly Cassano.
Holly Cassano.Toni Cassano

Holly Cassano’s mother, Toni Cassano, doesn’t blame anyone in particular for failing to collect Henslick’s DNA. But she wants federal law changed to prevent convicted offenders from dodging similar orders in the future.

“I don’t believe anyone messed up,” she said. “I believe the system sucks. If I had to put the blame on something, I would put blame on the system.”

‘A wake-up call’

On the morning of Nov. 2, 2009, Toni Cassano was expecting an early visit from her daughter, who lived three streets away in a Mahomet, Illinois, mobile home park. Toni had been babysitting Holly’s 17-month-old daughter since the night before, and Toni needed to leave for work. But Holly didn’t show up or answer her phone. Assuming she’d overslept, Toni went to get her.

“I wanted to get her out of bed,” Toni recalled. “So I went to her house. And that’s when I found her.”

Holly Cassano with her daughter.
Holly Cassano with her daughter.Courtesy of Toni Cassano

Holly had been stabbed to death on the bedroom floor. Toni sat beside her and put a hand on her leg. Then she said a brief prayer and called 911.

There was blood all over. Some of it was the killer’s. Investigators obtained a DNA profile that went into the state’s criminal database, but there were no matches. Nor were there any for the dozens of potential suspects police questioned in the months and years that followed. Leads dried up. The case went cold.

Toni became an outspoken voice on her daughter’s behalf, staying in regular contact with detectives, handing out bumper stickers with Holly’s name and doing media interviews. She adopted Holly’s daughter.

Henslick lived with his parents in the same mobile home park and had gone to high school with Holly. They did not know each other well, but had common friends, Toni said. He avoided suspicion, even after getting charged with other crimes.

In 2015, Henslick was caught during a traffic stop with pot and cocaine, according to court records. If convicted, he’d have to provide his DNA. But Henslick failed to show up for court hearings. Eventually he pleaded guilty and was put on probation, a sentence that required him to give a DNA sample. But he never went to the probation office to provide it. He continued to miss court dates, and was arrested again, sentenced to more probation and ordered to give his DNA. Again, he ignored the order.

A request to revoke his probation — along with domestic violence charges related to an alleged 2017 attack on a woman — were pending in court when detectives working the Cassano murder caught a break.

Police in early 2018 turned to a Virginia company, Parabon NanoLabs, which specialized in a newly available investigative technique that was used to crack the Golden State Killer case. The method, combining consumer DNA databases and traditional genealogy research, allows investigators to find relatives of a suspect, then build family trees to identify the person.

Parabon’s chief genetic genealogist, CeCe Moore, tried the technique with the Cassano murder and identified Henslick as a likely suspect. Investigators followed Henslick, picked up a cigarette he discarded and sent it in for testing. The DNA from the cigarette matched the profile from the murder scene. Detectives took him in for questioning, and he confessed, according to authorities.

Henslick went to trial anyway, arguing that the confession had been coerced. He was convicted in February, and at sentencing, Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz cited Henslick’s skipping DNA collection, saying it had allowed him to hide “in plain sight here in our community.” A judge sentenced him in June to life without parole.

Michael Henslick
Michael Henslick during a pre-trial hearing at the Champaign County Courthouse in Urbana.Robin Scholz / News-Gazette

Rietz considers the case a lesson in how easy it is for offenders to avoid giving their DNA. Now, when people in Champaign County are sentenced to probation, they are ordered to go straight to the office to give their DNA, she said.

"This was definitely a wake-up call as to how we need to be on top of whether we are collecting DNA or not,” Rietz said.

‘A national disgrace’

Henslick’s is one of a growing number of cases in which investigations have revealed suspects with criminal histories who could have been caught earlier if their DNA had been taken. They slipped through the cracks for a variety of reasons: miscommunication among agencies, paperwork errors, lack of resources, flawed protocols. Many are already in prison, doing time in states that collect DNA from offenders when their terms are complete. Some are out on parole or probation. Some are no longer under any kind of law enforcement supervision.

Robert E. Koehler, an electrician and handyman from South Florida, pleaded guilty to a sex attack in 1991. That was the year after Florida began collecting DNA from people convicted of sex-related crimes. He was put on the state’s sex offender registry, and had been there for decades. But his DNA was never collected.

That’s how things remained until last year, when Koehler’s adult son was arrested on a domestic violence charge, prompting the collection of his DNA. The younger Koehler’s profile was uploaded into CODIS, where it triggered a partial match with a series of sexual assaults in South Florida in the 1980s by an unknown attacker dubbed the “pillowcase rapist.” The partial match was the result of familial DNA searching, a relatively new technique that allows investigators to scan criminal databases for people related to someone whose DNA was found at a crime scene. Investigators examined the son’s family tree, then focused on his father, secretly obtaining his DNA from a grocery store he visited.

That DNA matched a 1983 rape — and linked him to more than two dozen others attributed to the pillowcase rapist, authorities said. Koehler was charged in the 1983 case and is awaiting trial; he has pleaded not guilty.

In another case, in Vancouver, Washington, authorities announced in April 2019 that they’d used genetic genealogy to solve the 25-year-old rape and murder of a young mother. They also revealed that the suspect, Richard Knapp, had served time in prison for rape years before the murder, and had given a court-ordered “biological sample” that was destroyed in 2000 without anyone uploading his DNA into a criminal database.

James Otto Earhart
James Otto Earhart, executed in 1999.Brazos County Sheriff's Office

The list also includes James Otto Earhart, who was executed in Texas in 1999 for murder, without ever giving a DNA sample. Two decades later, after he was identified through genetic genealogy as a suspect in a second killing, his remains were exhumed for DNA testing, which confirmed a match.

These cases point to systemic failures that leave victims and their families without justice and criminals free to commit more crimes, said Rockne Harmon, a retired California prosecutor.

“I think it’s a national disgrace,” Harmon said. The successes of genetic genealogy and familial searching in solving cold cases should prompt examinations of missteps that prevented the cases from being solved earlier, he said. Instead, “the celebrations drown that out.”

Closing DNA loopholes

Lindsey Wade has been trying to draw attention to the problem for years.

Wade was a homicide detective in Tacoma, Washington, in 2010 when she started working on a case that had gone unsolved for 50 years: the 1961 abduction of an 8-year-old girl named Ann Marie Burr. Investigators speculated that Ann Marie had been an early target of Ted Bundy, the serial killer who lived in Tacoma at the time. But Bundy denied responsibility before he was executed in 1989 in Florida.

Wade assumed that Bundy’s DNA was in the national criminal database. She called around and learned she was wrong.

“That’s when it hit me: We’re talking about one of the most notorious serial killers in American history, how in the hell is he not in the DNA database?” Wade recalled. “He’s the poster child for CODIS, a cross-country serial killer from the 1970s who flew under the radar.”

Wade pressed Florida authorities to find a sample of Bundy’s DNA, which was uploaded into CODIS in 2011. The profile did not connect Bundy to Ann Marie’s case, but may provide answers in other unsolved crimes.

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Wade uncovered another collection gap after checking for DNA taken from sex offenders committed to a state mental health facility. She was told that the state’s policy was to collect DNA at the time they were released. She lobbied for their DNA to be taken immediately, and got a hit matching one of those men, Michael Allan Halgren, with DNA found in the bedroom of Susan Lowe, a 19-year-old woman raped and murdered in 1980 in Bellevue, Washington. Halgren pleaded guilty in 2014.

Wade pressed Washington authorities to close loopholes in its DNA collection laws and to collect DNA from people who should have provided theirs already. She shared her concerns at a 2013 meeting with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, where a forensics specialist, Angela Williamson, took up Wade’s crusade. Together they spoke about the CODIS gaps at law enforcement conferences.

“People would stare at us like, ‘What do you mean there are guys in prison who didn’t have their DNA taken?” Wade recalled.

Wade now works for the Washington Attorney General’s Office, where she is guiding the state’s collection of DNA from offenders who have slipped through the cracks.

Williamson became a supervisor in the forensics unit at the Bureau of Justice Assistance, an arm of the Department of Justice, where she oversees federal grants for state and local agencies to close backlogs of rape kits and add missing DNA profiles to CODIS. The bureau has so far awarded eight grants of about $1 million each for the “lawfully owed DNA” program, with more expected to be announced in September.

Williamson estimated that most states are missing 40,000 to 50,000 lawfully owed samples. The meaning of “lawfully owed” varies by state. New York, for example, requires collection of DNA from people convicted of all felonies, from murder to drug possession, while California law covers not just felony convictions, but also people who’ve been arrested for suspicion of committing a felony. If a person refuses to provide their DNA, authorities can seek a court order, depending on the circumstances.

Washington state, one of the recipients of the DNA collection grants, estimates that more than 30,000 convicted criminals owe their DNA.

“To say that CODIS is not being used to its potential, which is vast, would be a significant understatement,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said. “We can catch bad guys based on their DNA, but only if we are putting that DNA into CODIS.”

A model for this effort is Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which includes Cleveland, where authorities have identified more than 15,300 missing DNA profiles. Authorities started with the easiest group, those still locked up or on probation. So far, they have collected more than 2,300 of those missing profiles and have gotten 87 hits in CODIS on unsolved crimes, including six homicides and 38 sexual assaults.

One of those profiles was of Marquice Miller, who was arrested for theft in 2014, pleaded guilty and was put on probation, said Richard Bell, chief of the special investigations division at the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office. At any of those steps authorities should have taken his DNA, but did not. When that finally happened in 2017, there was an immediate hit in CODIS to DNA taken from the 2012 rape of a 14-year-old girl, Bell said. Miller pleaded guilty last year and is serving an eight-year prison sentence.

“These CODIS hits are only going to grow,” Bell said. “And that, to us, is pure gold.”

‘Racially skewed from the beginning’

If more hits in CODIS is gold, then what is the cost?

Over the years, as CODIS has expanded from a repository of people convicted of serious felonies to those accused of committing a wider range of offenses, privacy advocates and civil liberties groups have warned that the database increasingly reflects the racial disparities of the criminal justice system.

If police are more likely to pursue cases that include a hit, then they may be more likely to pursue cases against Black suspects than white ones, these critics say. They point out that a reported match in CODIS is not proof that someone committed a crime; their DNA may have been left at a scene earlier or been inadvertently transferred by someone else — or there may be a processing error.

The risks of disparate treatment rise in the 31 states that collect DNA from people who are arrested but have not been convicted of a crime, the critics say. Those concerns have heightened with the spread of familial DNA searches, which scan criminal databases for people who may be related to someone who left genetic material at a crime scene. That puts Black communities at greater risk of increased genetic surveillance, experts say.

“Because of the huge disparities and injustices in the way in which criminals laws are enforced, like rampant racial profiling by police, collecting DNA is a racist practice,” Dorothy Roberts, a professor of law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, said. “It embeds within it the racist practices for arresting people and charging them with crimes.”

Some scholars say that the money and resources used to find people who owe their DNA to solve a relatively small number of cold cases would be better spent expanding services for crime victims, particularly those who’ve been sexually assaulted, and training police to investigate rape accusations more thoroughly.

Erin Murphy, an NYU law professor who researches the expanding use of DNA testing in the criminal justice system, recently completed a study that showed that DNA profiles from Black people, who make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, are collected and stored at more than twice the rate of white people.

To change that, Murphy said, authorities should focus reform where those discrepancies begin: on the streets, where people are policed and arrested, and in the courthouses where they are prosecuted.

Murphy acknowledged that the lawfully owed DNA project presents a conundrum. DNA, and the effort to process more rape kits, has solved crimes against many victims who otherwise may have been ignored, she said. But there has been no cost-benefit analysis of expanding DNA databases.

“I want to hear more about why this is an efficient use of resources at a time of unprecedented austerity,” Murphy said. “I’m not sure it’s enough to outweigh the actual and perceived injustices of collecting dues on something that was racially skewed from the beginning.”

Finally, an answer

For most of the nine years that it took to find her daughter’s killer, Toni Cassano struggled with how to bear the weight.

She started going to church regularly, and had many conversations with her pastor about the importance of forgiveness. But Toni could not bring herself to do that for the murderer who’d gotten away.

Then, in the summer of 2018, she decided that if God forgave her for her sins, she, too, could find a way. It felt as if that burden had lifted.

Less than two weeks later, investigators knocked on her door to tell her they’d arrested Henslick.

She felt grateful for CeCe Moore and genetic genealogy. But it was painful to learn that Henslick had always been so close — and that he had eluded capture by exploiting loopholes in the system.

“The way that the judicial system collects DNA from felons is a big problem,” Toni said. “That’s where the failure was.”

The experience has made her an advocate for broader DNA collection. She wants to see a federal law, named after her daughter, that requires convicted felons to provide their DNA in the courtroom immediately after the judge orders it.

“I want to see stories about how to prevent this from happening again,” Toni said. “How putting your DNA in a database is helping in the future, helping in the present too, to solve these cases that have gone unsolved.”