DNA used to help people trace their ancestry to be used in hunt for killers

MORE than 20 of the Hunter’s most shocking murder mysteries are part of a NSW Police cold case review that will include the kind of DNA matching that led to charges against a notorious American serial killer in April.

“It’s a massive shake-up of about 570 murders, suspicious deaths and unsolved cases and it’s absolutely huge,” said University of Newcastle forensic criminologist Dr Xanthe Mallett.

“It’s a huge commitment by police and I’m very hopeful we’re going to see some significant results come out of it. I think we’re also going to see retrials of people who’ve been acquitted in the past because of new evidence using technology that wasn’t available only a short time ago.”

The technology includes a genetic genealogy DNA database only available to NSW police in the past two weeks. It is similar to a system that led to charges against former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo in April for murders in 1978 that formed part of the Golden State Killer investigation in the US.

The DNA system available through a company represented by Dr Mallett allows police to legally access genetic material in a process similar to people finding relatives on ancestry websites. DNA provided by people on public access ancestry websites is closed to police, Dr Mallett said.

It’s a massive shake-up of about 570 murders, suspicious deaths and unsolved cases and it’s absolutely huge.

University of Newcastle forensic criminologist Dr Xanthe Mallett

In the Golden State Killer case DNA from one of dozens of the killer’s murder and rape crime scenes was matched to genetic material from his relative who was registered on a genealogy site. Authorities later obtained a discarded sample of DeAngelo's DNA as part of an investigation that led to his arrest and charges for two 1978 murders.

The DNA genealogy matching has only been available for about one year. DNA phenotyping – where a person’s facial likeness can be developed based on their genetic code – has only been available in Australia through a company represented by Dr Mallett for about one year.

“This is all very, very new technology in Australia,” said Dr Mallett, who has already worked with NSW Police on a number of murder cold cases.

The NSW Police initiative will look at cases back to the early 1970s, including some of the Hunter’s most shocking and baffling murder mysteries.

They range from the disappearance of three Lake Macquarie girls in a 16-week period in 1978-79 – Leanne Goodall, 20, Robyn Hickie, 18, and Amanda Robinson, 14 – to the rape and murder of Singleton’s Margaret “Peggy” Howlett, 85, in April 1994, and the 11-year mystery of a woman’s body found in the bush in 1987. It was not until the late 1990s that the body was identified as Susan Isenhood, who was last seen alive in October, 1986.

The Hunter cold cases also include computer operator Geoff Peters, 43, who collapsed and bled to death metres from his home in December, 1997 after he was attacked in the early hours of the morning. The review should also include the abduction and probable murder of Charlestown schoolgirl Gordana Kotevski in 1994, the murder of Cooks Hill grocer Frank Newbery, 87, in 2007 and the stabbing death of Newcastle woman Roslyn Reay in March, 2005.  

NSW Police homicide squad commander, Detective Superintendent Scott Cook, said police were committed to ensuring the most effective allocation of resources to maximise the chance of providing justice for victims and answers to their families.

Since a dedicated unsolved homicide unit was established in 2004 police had resolved more than 30 cases, with another five matters before the courts. An additional 17 cases are currently being re-investigated.

Dr Mallett, who started work with the University of Newcastle in February, 2017 and established the university’s first criminology major as part of a social science degree, said police were committed to solving cold cases because unsolved cases meant people who were a danger to the public remained at large.

The commitment was also essential for families and friends of the dead who struggled with not knowing what happened to their loves ones, sometimes for decades. In many cases people died not knowing, she said.

Hunter man Ivor Balmain died in 2010 without ever finding out what happened to his daughter Revelle, who disappeared in 1994.  

“Police have committed to regular reviews of all cases so that every six months families will be kept advised. That’s really important. They don’t want to feel their loved one has been forgotten,” Dr Mallett said.

This story More than 20 Hunter unsolved deaths in cold case review first appeared on Newcastle Herald.