Alaska’s cold case investigator retires after using mix of new science, old-school tactics to solve long-dormant cases
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - In 2017, Investigator Randy McPherron returned from retirement to re-join the Alaska Department of Public Safety as its lone cold case investigator, tasked with looking into homicides and suspicious missing persons cases that have long gone cold. This past Friday, he returned to retirement after spending more than seven years total on some of the state’s toughest cases, bringing answers to at least six families whose loved ones had been killed or gone missing.
The faces of some of those victims are framed above a now-empty bookshelf, where case files were stored. He’s spent the past weeks and months digitizing case files and whittling down duplicate copies so his replacement comes in with a good starting point.
“Working homicides here in Alaska is very difficult,” McPherron said in an interview shortly before his retirement. “We have a lot of (cases with) particularly an outdoor scene, exposed to bad weather, animals, you name it.”
McPherron was an Alaska State Trooper, including homicide detective, for 26 years before taking on cold cases in 2013, retiring first in 2015, and returning to the cold case unit on a special commission in 2017.
Much of the job of a cold case investigator, he said, is going over already-discovered evidence and investigation notes, looking for tips that may have been overlooked, or people who may have a different attitude about talking with police after years have passed.
“We love to talk to exes,” McPherron said. “They often provide us some information now that they were reluctant to before. You just continue to cycle through and every now and then, something new forensically comes along and we’ll say ‘let’s try looking at it this way.’”
Something new in forensics did become available shortly after McPherron took on the cold case files: genetic genealogy.
“The news about the Golden State Killer came out, so I thought, ‘Wow, this looks interesting. Let’s give this a try,’” McPherron said.
Genetic genealogy in Alaska
Genetic genealogy is a relatively recent development in law enforcement investigations. McPherron describes the process as using a different type of DNA profile from a suspect than those used in the past. Genetic genealogy uses a SNP profile — pronounced “snip” — a single nucleotide polymorphism.
Systems like CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System, use an STR profile — a short tandem repeat. STR profiles, McPherron said, are specific to an individual. SNPs, he said, include shared genetic information that is common to relatives.
“The way it’s described to me,” said McPherron, who admittedly is not a geneticist, “is an STR is like a genetic fingerprint; it’s the DNA that makes you and only you. Whereas the SNP is all the genetic information that comes from your family that makes up you, it’s like a blueprint of you.”
He describes the SNP DNA profile as the DNA shared among siblings, parents, grandparents and so on.
The State of Alaska works with Parabon NanoLabs to generate the SNP profile, which is then uploaded into publicly available genealogy databases. Not all sites used by the public to find genetic information are included in this search. Some sites, McPherron said, do not share customers’ genetic information on a publicly accessible database, but some, like GEDmatch or Family Tree DNA warn users that their information may be available to law enforcement agencies.
How much genetic information is shared between a suspect sample and a person in the database determines how closely they are related.
“Through those identified individuals you can put that into a family tree and start trying to figure out who this person might be,” McPherron said.
Another case identified using genetic genealogy in Snohomish County Washington caught McPherron’s eye as well. The case was the first using genetic genealogy to go to trial. McPherron and the state’s crime lab DNA experts looked through the cold case evidence to find a suitable case to try.
“We decided to go with the (Sophie) Sergie case,” he said. “It had a very good sample of DNA to work with and it went from there.”
In 1993, Sophie Sergie was found dead in a bathtub in a University of Alaska Fairbanks dormitory. She’d been raped, stabbed and shot. The 20-year-old from Pitkas Point, on the Yukon River, was visiting a friend in Bartlett Hall on the UAF campus. She went out for a cigarette in the evening, and was found dead the next afternoon.
In 2019, genetic genealogy investigation in the case led detectives to identify an aunt of Steven Downs, who had been a student in Bartlett Hall at the time of Sergie’s death. Investigators got a warrant for Downs’ DNA to compare to DNA from Sergie’s body. Downs was convicted of the rape and murder of Sergie in February of this year, the only Alaska case using genetic genealogy to go through a trial so far. Downs’ attorneys have asked for a new trial.
“In the Sophie Sergie case (the evidence) pointed squarely at one individual,” McPherron said. “In the (Shelley) Connelly case, it whittled it down to one of three brothers.”
Shelley Connolly, 16, was raped and killed in 1978. Investigation of the brothers revealed that one was not in Alaska at the time, and another was in jail. The third brother, Donald McQuade, is now awaiting trial for rape and murder charges.
Connolly disappeared from an Anchorage bar. Her body was found alongside the Seward Highway. It appeared she had been dumped from a moving vehicle and tried to crawl up the embankment where she died from hypothermia and internal bleeding. McQuade, who had been living in Oregon at the time of his arrest in 2019, is now awaiting trial.
The technique has brought answers to three other families as well, even without a prosecution or trial.
Robin Pelkey, 19, was known for 37 years only as “Horseshoe Harriet.” She was a victim of serial killer Robert Hansen. The site of her body was pointed out by Hansen to investigators in 1984 after he pleaded guilty to four murders, though he admitted to killing 17 women. Pelkey had never been reported missing, as far as investigators can tell. She was identified using genetic genealogy and named in 2021.
Jessica Baggen had just turned 17 when she left a family member’s home in Sitka late at night in 1996. She didn’t make it back to her own home. Her body was found buried in a shallow grave. In 2020, investigators identified Steve Branch, then living in Arkansas, as a suspect.
When investigators visited him to question him about the case, he denied any knowledge of it, and refused to provide a DNA sample. Shortly after investigators left Branch’s home, he fatally shot himself, after which investigators were able to confirm the DNA match.
Michael Allison Beavers was 40 years old in November of 1979 when he left his home in Chugiak to drive to Seattle. He never arrived and was reported missing by his spouse in early 1980. In 1989, human remains were found on the shore of Fire Island in Cook Inlet, near Anchorage.
Investigators determined that the person’s death was criminal in nature, but until 2021, the unknown remains were nameless. McPherron used genetic genealogy to locate possible relatives of the remains, leading to the likelihood that the person was Michael Beavers. A DNA sample from a close blood relative confirmed that Beavers was the person found dead on Fire Island.
Keeping cold cases on track
As McPherron sifted through case files in late April, including photo slides, audio cassettes from interviews and more, he said his final actions as cold case investigator were to leave his successor with organized, well-kept case files. A high closure rate for homicide cases in the past two decades has meant most of the cold cases are older, though McPherron said he’s worked on one as recent as 2006.
Out of roughly 100 or so unsolved homicides and suspicious missing persons cases, McPherron would usually have between three and five cases in active investigation at a time, he said. McPherron says there are more cases to come where he hopes genetic genealogy can be applied.
“There’s a few more we’re still looking at, we’re hopeful we might be able to do something with,” he said, “but unfortunately there’s a number of cases there’s just no DNA evidence available, so those are going to be much more harder to work with.”
“Eklutna Annie,” the moniker given to one of Hansen’s still-unidentified earliest victims, discovered near Eklutna Lake Road in 1980, is one of those on the list. Her and Pelkey’s remains were exhumed in 2014 to get a DNA sample. An updated sketch of what she may have looked like was released in 2020, along with photos of handmade jewelry she was wearing.
Bringing answers to grieving families is a satisfying part of the job, McPherron said, but the support of a team is what has made the unit so successful recently.
“I get to work with a lot of really great people and it’s hard working and dedicated folks, and it’s just been a very, very rewarding experience,” he said. “Part of me doesn’t want to go, but enough’s enough. It’s time to move on.”
Part of that success has been due to the new genealogy developments, but in the field of forensic science, McPherron says there’s still hope for the future.
“Forensic science has changed a lot in the last 30 years or so, and it’s amazing what we couldn’t do back then and we can do now, and who knows what the future holds.”
Austin McDaniel, a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Public Safety, said the Alaska State Troopers intend to fill the position as soon as possible. As for advice to a successor, McPherron says just don’t give up.
“Be persistent,” he said. “I mean, I’m just an average guy you know, it doesn’t take a lot of smarts, but it does take a lot of persistence. Keep looking, keep trying and hope if something breaks you never know what may come down the road.”
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