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Rochester cops make arrest in 36-year-old homicide case using familial DNA searching

Queens jogger Karina Vetrano was killed while running

Queens jogger Karina Vetrano was killed while running in a Howard Beach park in August 2016.   Credit: Karina Vetrano

Investigators in Rochester made the first homicide arrest in New York State using familial DNA searching, an emerging forensic technique which gained traction in the state following the August 2016 killing of Queens jogger Karina Vetrano.

At news conference, Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley and local police officials disclosed that the DNA methodology led to the arrest of Timothy Lee Williams, 56, for the Thanksgiving Day killing of 14-year old Wendy Jerome 36 years ago.

"We have finally the first step in finding justice for Wendy Jerome," Doorley told reporters Friday.

Wendy's body was found in a school alcove after she had left home to deliver a birthday card. When she didn’t return for her 8 p.m. curfew, her family called police who found her beaten and sexually abused body, police said.

Williams, who was 20 years-old in 1984 at the time of Wendy's death, left New York State shortly after the crime and went to Florida where he was arrested Wednesday at his home in Melbourne, Rochester Police Sgt. Gus Venosa told Newsday.

Williams waived extradition and should return to Rochester in a few days to face second degree murder charges, Capt. Frank Umbrino said.

Familial searching allows investigators to take an unidentified DNA sample from a crime scene and run it through law enforcement genetic databases to come up with similarities to possible relatives of a suspect. Police then try to get a DNA sample from a suspect to look for potential matches.

Rochester officials submitted a DNA sample in 2017, right after New York State approved familial testing, and a lead was obtained in July 2020 that allowed investigators to match it to Williams’s DNA, officials said.

The genetic technique wasn’t used in New York when Vetrano, 30, was killed as she jogged in Spring Creek Park near her home in Howard Beach. Investigators had a good DNA sample from that killing but no leads.

But Vetrano's parents became ardent supporters of the technique after reading a Newsday story about it in November 2016. Philip and Catherine Vetrano began lobbying state regulators to consider approving the DNA methodology. In late 2017 state officials approved familial searching.

"I am so grateful that all our hard work has paid off to allow a family to know who killed their daughter," Philip Vetrano told Newsday. "Very grateful, grateful, happy... but sad at the same time."

The Vetrano case was solved with an arrest in February 2017 using DNA but without the use of familial searching.

Chanel Lewis, the suspect in Karina's killing, gave investigators a DNA sample and was later convicted of the Vetrano's murder in 2019, officials said. He is appealing his conviction.

Currently, familial searching in New York is used only in homicide and rape cases. But state officials are considering a change in rules to allow DNA in unidentified homicide cases — such as the Gilgo Beach killings — to be submitted for familial testing.

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