Familial DNA, Search Highlight Finalist Cases in 2020 DNA Hit of the Year Program

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 Familial DNA, Search Highlight Finalist Cases in 2020 DNA Hit of the Year Program

On Wednesday, Gordon Thomas Honeywell reveled 2020’s DNA Hit of the Year—a wild case out of Brazil that included the generation of more than 580 DNA profiles. Out of the 50 submitted cases from 20 countries, six finalists were chosen. The criteria for submission and selection is the generation of a cold hit against a reference database in the last 60 months.

The runner-up, a case out of France, and the 3rd place case, one from California that Forensic has previously reported on, is detailed in this article. Part III of our 2020 DNA Hit of the Year series will continue next week with the 4th and 5th place cases.

2nd Place—The Little Martyr of the A10 Highway

At 3 years old, when his mother allegedly beat and murdered his slightly older sister, he had no idea that getting arrested for assault 31 years later would be the key to solving what was considered one of France’s biggest ever investigations. But thanks to the advances in phenotyping and familial DNA, that’s exactly what happened.

On Aug. 11, 1987, the beaten body of a 4-year-old girl was found wrapped in a blanket in a ditch along the A10 motorway near Blois, France. The girl has died from exhaustion after suffering more than 20 bone fractures, mutilating bites and iron burns. The bites—determined by an expert to match that of a female—were so bad that investigators even believed the case could be cannibalism.

In the days following, investigators visited thousands of schools, questioned 6,000 medical doctors, circulated the girl’s photograph in public places and sent alerts to more than 30 countries. Nothing hit—everything was a dead end. So, investigators buried the “Little Martyr of the A10” in a small village whose inhabitants visited and flowered the grave regularly. They inscribed the gravestone with “Here lies an angel,” and never gave up the search for her identity and killer.

In 1993, her body was exhumed to perform a new autopsy in which her DNA profile was determined. In 2008, a phenotype analysis indicated she had North African roots. Further investigations done at this time on the girl’s clothes and blanket revealed the genetic profiles of both her parents. They were sent to the national database, but no result was found.

Given technological advancements, investigators analyzed the blanket a second time in 2013. This analysis revealed three new DNA profiles compatible with two brothers and a sister. However, these did not yield a DNA database hit, either. The story abruptly changed four years later in 2017 when routine testing finally revealed a hit—the second blanket profile matched that of a 34-year-old man who was just entered into the DNA database for assault. He is the brother of the Little Martyr, who would have been 3-years-old at the time of his older sister’s murder.

A year after a DNA hit on their 30-year-old cold case, French police arrested the parents of the child for suspected murder. In the meantime, police discovered her name—Inass Touloub. At the time of arrest, the mother claimed the girl (then woman) was living in Morocco, but eventually admitted she was deceased when presented with the DNA test results. The father served one year in prison but was released under judicial supervision, but the mother is still incarcerated. The father claims Inass died at the hands of her mother.

“This case is a model case that has crossed generations of investigators,” said Marie-Gaëlle Le Pajolec of the Genetic Institute of Atlantic Nantes, who submitted the case for consideration. “The work of the entire chain of investigation has been without fault, particularly those of the investigators who, in 1987, discovered the body and collected the evidence while DNA testing was not yet known. This proves that one should never lose hope to solve cold cases.”

3rd Place—Newborn Bloodspots

The first kinship search of unidentified remains in an attempt to identify a close relative nabbed third place in the 2020 DNA Hit of the Year program. This is a case out of California that recently came to light, as investigators employed a method never before used.

On March 29, 2007, a deceased infant with blunt force trauma evidence was discovered by a fisherman in a waterway in Yolo County, California. The baby was found in a sealed container that was weighed down with heavy objects. The California Department of Justice Missing Persons DNA Program was only able to recover a partial DNA profile from the remains. It was uploaded to CODIS where it was searched weekly against profiles from other unidentified remains, missing persons, relatives of missing persons, and convicted offenders, but no hits were generated for more than a decade.

When familial search emerged as a technology option, investigators hoped it could help, but they needed additional DNA. Y-STR DNA typing was successfully performed to obtain a more complete DNA profile from the infant remains. Then, in 2018, the Yolo County Sheriff, prosecutor, and California State Police developed a first-ever proposal for familial search to identify human remains against the California criminal DNA database—and the state government approved it.

The familial search hit to the infant’s father, Paul Allen Perez, who was about to be released from prison for an unrelated offense, but he refused to confirm the identity of the infant. Investigators then turned to an unusual method of confirmation—DNA lifted from the infant’s newborn blood card.

Almost all 4 million babies born in the U.S. annually receive a heel prick 24 to 48 hours after birth as part of the Newborn Genetic Screening program. The program tests newborns’ blood for between 17 and 60 genetic diseases. In some states, after the genetic markers are analyzed, the card with the newborn’s blood becomes property of the state—California is one such state.

The blood card confirmed the infant’s identity as Nikko Lee Perez. With that lead, investigators were able to sketch out a family tree that included four additional siblings. One sibling, Kato Allen Perez, was born in 1992 and known to be deceased. Three other siblings—who were never reported missing and were thus unknown to law enforcement—are now also believed to be deceased. This includes: Mika Alena Perez, born in 1995; Nikko Lee Perez, born in 1997; and Kato Krow Perez, born in 2001. The remains of these three victims have not yet been located, but are believed to have been murdered by their father when they were younger than 6-months-old.

On January 27, 2020, Paul Allen Perez was charged with five counts of murder.

Photo: Police on A10 in 1987. Credit: Genetic Institute of Atlantic Nantes

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