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3 cold cases, including Pullman rapes, solved using state DNA program, AG says

Dan LeBeau, chief deputy prosecutor at the Whitman County Prosecutor’s Office, speaks at a news conference about a state Attorney General’s Office program aimed at solving cold cases using genealogical DNA. Last Friday, a man in Whitman County pleaded guilty to charges stemming from two violent home invasion sexual assaults in Pullman in 2003 and 2004. The case was solved using the state program. Standing in the background is Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins, left, and Attorney General Bob Ferguson.  (TVW)
Dan LeBeau, chief deputy prosecutor at the Whitman County Prosecutor’s Office, speaks at a news conference about a state Attorney General’s Office program aimed at solving cold cases using genealogical DNA. Last Friday, a man in Whitman County pleaded guilty to charges stemming from two violent home invasion sexual assaults in Pullman in 2003 and 2004. The case was solved using the state program. Standing in the background is Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins, left, and Attorney General Bob Ferguson. (TVW)

OLYMPIA – A state forensic genealogical test for cold cases has resulted in its first convictions and sentencings, Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced Monday.

The program has now helped solve three cold cases, all of which were unsolved for nearly two decades, according to Ferguson’s office.

One of the cases involved two violent home invasion sexual assaults in Pullman in 2003 and 2004. Kenneth Downing pleaded guilty to four counts of first-degree rape and one count of assault in the second degree on Friday regarding those cases.

The other two cases that were solved using this technology include a 2003 violent rape of a 17-year-old in McCleary in Grays Harbor County and a 1995 murder in Kitsap County. Paul Bieker was sentenced last week to 30 years in prison for the 2003 rape and abduction of a Grays Harbor County teenager.

“On Friday, two cold cases from opposite sides of our state resulted in convictions and justice for survivors,” Ferguson said Monday.

The forensic genealogical program, funded by the Attorney General’s Office, uses DNA profiles from unknown offenders and public databases to locate family members and identify potential suspects.

Ferguson announced the new convictions at a news conference in Seattle. He was joined by Darrin Wallace, chief investigations deputy at the Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Office; Jason Walker, chief criminal deputy prosecutor at the Grays Harbor Prosecutor’s Office; Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins; and Dan LeBeau, chief deputy prosecutor at the Whitman County Prosecutor’s Office.

The forensic genetic genealogy program is part of the attorney general’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative.

Through federal grants from the Department of Justice, the Attorney General’s Office has dedicated more than $292,000 to assist local law enforcement agencies. Of that amount, about $120,000 has been allocated to 23 cold case investigations, three of which have been solved. There is still about $170,000 remaining for agencies that may want help with additional cold cases.

To be eligible, cases must have no active leads and no matches in a national DNA database for convicted offenders.

Cases that are eligible can use the genealogy program, which uses a public database of DNA to construct a family tree to help identify suspects who don’t otherwise have a DNA profile.

Those unknown details of family or place of residence for possible suspects can help lead law enforcement to other suspects.

“These previously unknown details provide an important suspect lead … where the case has gone cold,” Ferguson said.

In the Pullman case, for example, the genealogy program used DNA from the crime scene to identify two brothers from Spokane as possible suspects. From there, detectives found that one of the brothers worked for a construction company that was in Pullman at the time of the crime.

From there, Jenkins said Spokane detectives used surveillance while Downing was at a local restaurant and did a DNA test on items he touched. The Spokane Police Department then arrested Downing, who pleaded guilty Friday.

“Without the assistance and funding, these crimes would have never been solved,” Jenkins said.

In 2003, Downing broke into a Pullman home and threatened a woman at gunpoint. He sexually assaulted her three times. In 2004, Downing broke into another apartment with a gun, tied up one roommate and raped the other.

Downing is now facing from 17 to 23 years in prison. He will be sentenced Aug. 19.

LeBeau thanked the survivors who worked with law enforcement throughout the investigation.

“It is due to the courage and the tenacity of those survivors that we are here today,” LeBeau said.

Similar to the Pullman case, Grays Harbor County detectives sent DNA for genealogical testing. The test came back with a list of names of people who could possibly be the suspect. One of the names was Bieker who lived in McCleary and near the survivor’s home at the time of the rape.

A 1995 murder in Kitsap County was also solved using the same technology. The Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office announced a match for the DNA left behind by the killer of 61-year-old Patricia Lorraine Barnes. The suspect, Douglas Krohne, died in 2016, and law enforcement closed the case.

LeBeau said they would not have been able to solve the Pullman case without the forensic genealogy. Downing did not live in the area permanently, and without the genealogy lead, LeBeau said he doesn’t know that investsigators would have come across him.

“Without the genealogy research and the grant from the AG’s office, Mr. Downing would still be at large, may likely never have been caught, and we would never have been able to bring justice to survivors and peace to the community.”

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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