Aurora cold case investigators seek genealogy DNA link to solve notorious hammer murders

Similar efforts broke Golden State Killer case

AURORA, Colo. -- Weeks after cold case investigators used DNA sent to popular genealogy websites to catch the notorious suspected Golden State Killer in California, a detective in Aurora is hoping for the same kind of break to find the killer behind a string of violent hammer attacks that have been unsolved for more than 30 years.

Detective Steve Conner confirms he is in the process of attempting a similar method used by the Golden State Killer investigators to use genealogy DNA databases to locate family members of the hammer-wielding murderer who terrorized the Denver metro for a 10-day period in 1984. 

During that time, investigators say they believe the same man brutally attacked Donna Holm in Aurora, murdered Patricia Smith in Lakewood, and murdered three members of the Bennett family in their Aurora home. Bruce and Debra Bennett were killed, along with their 7-year-old daughter, Melissa. Their younger daughter, Vanessa, survived but suffered permanent injuries. Holm also survived her very serious injuries.

The killer left semen behind at two of the three crime scenes and Aurora cold case investigator Steve Conner believes that DNA profile will ultimately lead police to the murderer’s identity. 

“I think there's probably a 75 percent chance I will solve it personally. But there's a 100 percent chance it will be solved eventually,” Detective Conner said.

Last year Conner commissioned a sketch created by DNA profilers to show what the killer may have looked like. He also worked with a forensic genealogist who determined a possible last name for the murderer: Ewing. But those clues have not led to any breaks in the case.

The name is not tied to a specific family tree, Conner told Contact7 investigative reporter Jace Larson.

Now, Detective Conner has worked with two experts from different companies who have access to public genealogy DNA databases in hopes of finding the killer’s relatives and following a trail to the killer’s doorstep.

It’s something he says he has wanted to do for years, but said he was dissuaded from doing until the suspected Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. was arrested in California late last month.

“I'd thought about that a couple years ago, and was told I couldn't do it,” Conner said.

At the time, Conner thought he would need to serve a search warrant on the popular genealogy DNA websites and he said prosecutors were skeptical of his chances of success.

“I was told also that, and I've read it in the news, that they're not obligated to comply with any kind of court order because the information is privileged,” Conner said. “Then I found out, no, it's online and available.”

The detective said he understands the debate over whether it is ethical to use DNA people are voluntarily submitting to learn more about their heritage to solve crimes.

“Now you have Big Brother looking into the most minute details of a person's life,” Conner said. “I'm not uncomfortable with it because they're not uncomfortable with releasing the information to databases that they should know allows for the sharing of that information.”

Conner said he has already heard back from one DNA expert who reported his research showed zero matches to the hammer suspect.

Conner is holding out hope a second company's database search will lead him to the clue he needs.

“Before I retire, yes, I hope to get an answer,” Conner said.

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