It’s one of Santa Rosa’s most-critiqued murder investigations. Genetic genealogy tracing might help solve it
The Santa Rosa Police Department has zeroed in on a suspect in a 1991 cold case using a rare DNA matching technique first popularized in 2018 after it was used to identify the Golden State Killer.
The mystery of who killed Sarah Hutchings, a 35-year-old Korbel Winery host found dead in the bathtub of her Santa Rosa apartment on Aug. 17, 1991, remains unsolved. Investigators have little information about their suspect, who died in 2001, or his potential link to Hutchings.
And yet, they are hoping a break in the 30-year-old cold case may be contained in a sample of semen retrieved from Hutchings’ body during her autopsy. The department sent the sample to a private lab for genetic genealogy tracing in late 2018, according to Santa Rosa police Sgt. Ryan Cogbill, who first took on the cold case in 2017 while he worked as a detective in the department’s Violent Crimes Unit.
The use of familial DNA tracing, in which law enforcement agencies attempt to pair DNA left at a crime scene with DNA samples voluntarily submitted to a commercial genealogy website, such as GEDmatch, was a first for the police department, Santa Rosa police spokesman Sgt. Chris Mahurin said.
Authorities hope the technique will lead them to likely relatives whose DNA samples match the one sent to the company for testing. The process is all part of their hunt for Hutchings’ killer.
Since the process was used to identify the Golden State Killer, familial DNA tracing has been employed by law enforcement agencies as well as independent sleuths across the country to solve cold cases. Investigators have typically turned to this process after the federal law enforcement DNA database has failed to locate a match.
The technique does have its detractors — mainly privacy advocates, who contend the practice is largely unregulated and is an imperfect science.
In October, Maryland and Montana became the first states in the nation to restrict how law enforcement use genetic genealogy, though no such restrictions exist in California.
In the Hutchings case, the technique led Cogbill to a man named James Steven Jobe. Jobe, 43, had been estranged from his family for several years when he died of an overdose in Clark County, Washington, Cogbill said.
A sample of Jobe’s blood, stored by the coroner’s office after his death, was compared with the semen retrieved from Hutchings’ body and the two were a virtual match, Cogbill said.
Jobe had prior contacts with local officers in connection with two domestic violence cases, but had never been questioned or even mentioned in the Hutchings case, Cogbill said.
Two traffic cases, one from 1990 and the other from 1991, also place him in this area, online Sonoma County Superior Court records show.
Other than that, Cogbill said, police know little else about Jobe.
“We’re not crossing the line of saying James Jobe killed Sarah Hutchings,” Cogbill said. “We are saying that James Jobe is a suspect in the killing of Sarah Hutchings and we want to know more about him.”
It’s unclear whether the genetic genealogy tracing will put the department any closer to solving the cold case, an investigation that came under intense scrutiny in the years after Hutchings’ death, leading to rumors of a police cover-up.
A coroner’s investigator initially deemed Hutchings’ death was the result of natural causes, despite clues of potential wrongdoing found at the home.
Hutchings’ family was allowed to enter her apartment after her body was removed, though an autopsy later revealed she had likely been strangled and near death when she was placed in the tub and drowned.
Detectives were also accused of having a tunnel vision-like focus on a single man Hutchings had briefly dated, Mark Marsh, while ignoring other suspects, including police officers Hutchings had known.
Marsh met Hutchings while he was briefly separated from his wife, two months before her death, through a Press Democrat personal ad. He was arrested in her killing in 1993 after a criminal grand jury decided Marsh should be indicted.
Marsh’s defense attorneys argued police withheld information from the grand jury that pointed away from Marsh, specifically that Hutchings had been seeing other men at the time she was killed.
After a judge determined the case against Marsh was flawed, the indictment was thrown out.
Marsh, in 1994, sued the city of Santa Rosa and its police department contending malicious prosecution. Ultimately, he gave up his legal fight when he ran out of money to pay for the continued court costs.
“I think the whole prosecution was very devastating for him and his family,” said attorney Steve Gallenson, Marsh’s defense lawyer at the time.
The case was then reassigned to a senior homicide investigator with the police department, and he learned witness interviews were not taped and there were no notes for others.
As the investigation dragged on, Hutchings’ family waited for information that would lead to her killer and determine a motive, said Diane Parker, Hutchings’ sister, now 69.
Joyce Whalen, Hutchings’ mother, clung to the belief that her daughter’s case would be solved, Parker said.
Whalen was persistent about pressing the Santa Rosa Police Department to solve the case and kept articles about the investigation in an album, which Parker inherited when her mother died in 2007, she added.
“She never lost hope,” Parker said of her mother. “I guess I did. I resigned myself that since they didn’t have the evidence, it wouldn’t happen.”
Then, in late December, Parker received a call from Cogbill, who said he wanted to talk to her about her sister’s death.
On New Year’s Eve, Cogbill drove to Parker’s Ukiah home and shared what he had learned after contracting Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company based in Virginia, to conduct the genetic genealogy tracing.
“He said that this James Jobe — they had tracked it back to him,” Parker said. “It was pretty spectacular, something you’d see on TV.”
While Cogbill said he is certain he has found a prime suspect in the case, unanswered questions about Jobe’s potential connection to Hutchings and what led to her death mean he is unable to solve the case, he said.
Now, Cogbill is calling for the public’s help to learn more about Jobe in an attempt to learn more about who he was.
“It gives us a face and a suspect, but as far as what happened in that apartment that night, it’s unknown,” Cogbill said.
The Press Democrat attempted to find Jobe’s relatives for comment but was unsuccessful. Anyone with information about Jobe can reach Cogbill at 707-543-4013.
You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @nashellytweets.