Photo: Contra Costa County Office of the Sheriff

Familial searching, and the exhumation of a man dead more than two decades, solved a cold case rape and murder from 1985 in the San Ramon Valley, according to California authorities.

Joey Lynn Ford died in 1997 at the age of 36 and was buried in a cemetery in Fairfield, California. Over the summer of 2018, Ford was dug up and his DNA was compared to that from the crime scene: the apartment and body of 57-year-old Virginia Vincent.

It proved a match, according to authorities.

“Because the suspect Joey Ford is deceased, there will be no prosecution in this case,” said David Livingston, the Contra Costa County Sheriff, adding that it was the first successful familial search (FS) hit on a cold case in the Bay Area.

Vincent’s body was found raped and strangled in her Danville home on Sept. 20, 1985. The biological evidence at the scene produced a DNA profile in 2002 – but there was no hit in genetic databases like the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), according to the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office.

But the Sheriff’s Office submitted a request to conduct a familial search in November 2017 to the California Bureau of Forensic Services. The state’s authorities have a rigorous protocol to determine how to screen potential partial matches through databases like CODIS.

In June, the results came back with a possible match to Ford.

So Ford’s body was exhumed. His DNA was tested – and proved a match to the Vincent crime scene, the sheriff’s office announced Tuesday.

Ford had been arrested for a DUI in Danville the day before Vincent’s killing, just a short distance from the crime scene.

At the time of the fatal encounter, Ford had been working as a plumber in the area and Vincent was a real-estate agent. Authorities believed that was the “likely connection between them,” but they remain uncertain.

Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office was the progenitor of the biggest breakthrough in recent cold case history back in April, with the arrest of the alleged Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo. That arrest was made using forensic genealogy, which used the public ancestry website GEDmatch to produce leads that triangulated on DeAngelo, believed to have been the culprit behind 12 homicides, 45 rapes and more than 100 burglaries in the 1970s and 1980s.

FS has been implemented in California for the better part of a decade. The practice involves an active and deliberate searching of databases using specialized software and algorithms to find close relatives. This kind of search is still not permissible at the national database level, as per FBI policy. Recent federal reports have found that 11 states have used FS, and 24 have used partial database matches to assist criminal investigations.

The biggest breakthrough so far in the use of FS was the arrest of the California serial killer known as the Grim Sleeper. Lonnie Franklin Jr., 63, was found guilty in 2016 of 10 females over a 22-year period. Police detectives found him in 2010 when they ran a familial search—and found Franklin’s son, who was added to the DNA database for an unrelated crime. Follow-up investigative work confirmed Franklin as a Sleeper suspect, leading to detectives posing as waiters at a restaurant collecting an eating utensil from Franklin to procure his DNA.

California had vigorous debate over the use of FS when it was first used. But the Sleeper arrest, and other successes, have appeared to satisfy most of the state’s critics. Marguerite Rizzo, the deputy district attorney in Los Angeles who worked the DNA parts of the case against Franklin, told Forensic Magazine in 2016 that California carefully calibrated their FS protocols.

“Our program appears to be so tightly controlled, that we’re taking every step to guarantee the correct person will be identified and arrested,” said Rizzo. “We don’t take any of this lightly. We want everyone’s privacy rights to be respected, and no shortcuts to be taken.”