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Sebastopol-based DNA Doe Project solves cold case tied to serial killer John Gacy

Margaret Press jokes that she should take a picture of Box 114 at The UPS Store on South Main Street in Sebastopol.

“Because that’s our corporate headquarters,” she wisecracked.

Press, 74, is a linguist, computer programmer and crime novelist who attempted to retire in 2015, but it didn’t take. Four years ago she cofounded the DNA Doe Project. The all-volunteer nonprofit is a pioneer in investigative genetic genealogy, a relatively new and highly promising field of forensic science.

In its short life, working with law enforcement agencies all over North America, this modest, 65-member troupe of citizen scientists has solved a remarkable 70 cold cases — using a combination of DNA and genealogy to discover the identities of previously unidentified John and Jane Does.

At an Oct. 25 press conference in Chicago to announce the solving of a cold case tied to the notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart heaped praise on the DNA Doe Project, for its leading role in cracking the case.

“They’re an amazing organization that does amazing work, mostly volunteers who help connect the dots,” he said.

Connecting those dots, in this case, led to the announcement that the person known for 45 years as Gacy victim No. 5, found in the crawl space under the murderer’s house, had at last been identified.

After moving to Chicago in 1975, Francis Wayne Alexander, a native of North Carolina who went by his middle name, disappeared between February 1976 and March 1977. No missing persons report was ever filed. “They loved him,” said Dart of Alexander’s family, “but they thought he wanted nothing more to do with him.”

In early 2020 the Cook County Sheriff’s Office turned to the DNA Doe Project for help identifying the six remaining John Does found on Gacy’s property.

They first settled on Gacy victim No. 5, “based on the quality and quantity of the remaining biological sample,” Press told reporters in Chicago.

DNA extracted from one of the victim’s molars was sent for sequencing to the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechynology in Hunstville, Alabama. Next, Doe Project volunteer Kevin Lord, an expert in a field called bioinformatics, uploaded an edited subset of that massive file to the third-party site GEDmatch.com, which allows users to upload their DNA samples from competing companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe to be compared.

It took GEDmatch about 24 hours to generate a list of people who shared DNA with Gacy victim No. 5. That’s when the DNA Doe Project’s small army of sleuths got to work.

“In some cases, those matches are very distant, and we just start scratching away, it’s going to be a long haul,” said Press. “In other cases we’re lucky and there’s someone who could be a second cousin. Second cousins are wonderful.”

Building out family trees, the team’s amateur sleuths quickly determined that the DNA of Gacy victim No. 5 matched that of a second cousin, through his maternal great-grandparents. Working the paternal side of Alexander’s family tree, other volunteers found a third and fifth cousin, each once removed.

Equipped with those names, the team Googled public records and news archives to zero in on the correct candidate. Eight hours after starting the search, the volunteers were all but certain they had their man. Gacy victim No. 5 was Francis Wayne Alexander.

The next day, they emailed Cook County Sheriff’s Lt. Jason Moran, who was leading the investigation.

“We told him we were ready to talk,” recalled Press, “and sent him a rudimentary (family) tree, so he could follow along with what we said.”

They also sent information on Alexander’s next of kin. After months of doing his own legwork, poring over old records, collecting evidence supporting the DDP’s conclusion, Moran reached out to Alexander’s relatives. He didn’t’ mention Gacy, but told them he was working on some unidentified-remains cold cases, and wanted to rule Wayne Alexander out.

The family members were swabbed for DNA, which, once tested, proved a match for Gacy victim No. 5.

Several days before that Oct. 25th press conference, Moran flew to North Carolina to give Wayne Alexander’s surviving family — his mother and two siblings — the news in person.

A statement from the family was read aloud by Sheriff Dart:

“It is hard, even 45 years later, to know the fate of our beloved Wayne. He was killed at the hands of a vile and evil man. Our hearts are heavy. Our sympathies go out to other victims’ families. Our only comfort is knowing this killer no longer breathes the same air as we do. We can now lay to rest what happened and move forward by honoring Wayne.”

While the Alexander case may stand as the DNA Doe Project’s highest profile “solve,” it is one of dozens of cases the team is working on. At least two are in Sonoma County. One involves a Jane Doe from the Healdsburg area.

“It’s an interesting case and I can’t wait to get it,” said Press, ‘but it’s been so hard to get DNA from her.”

She is more tight-lipped about a cold case that comes from Rohnert Park.

“I think the most I can say is that we’re very optimistic about it. It’s a very promising case.”

Despite being an abject failure at retirement, Press is excited about the future of the DNA Doe Project and of investigative genetic genealogy, which has “exploded since 2018,” she said, “when the first cases were announced.”

This field of forensic science, she believes, could be “as big as fingerprints.

“I think 1/3 to 1/2 of all cold cases out there have the potential to be solved this way.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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