The forensic excavation in 2019 of the grave in Richmond...

The forensic excavation in 2019 of the grave in Richmond Hill containing the remains of George Seitz. Credit: Queens District Attorneys Office

George Clarence Seitz, an 81-year-old World War I veteran, left his Jamaica, Queens, home on Dec 10, 1976, to get a haircut. He was never seen or heard from again.

In a Queens courtroom Tuesday, Martin Motta, 75, a former barber in the borough who had been friends with Seitz for years, admitted killing the Army vet, dismembering his body and burying the remains in the backyard of a house in Richmond Hill.

Police said the motive was robbery since Seitz usually carried large sums of cash. His remains were recovered in 2019 based on a tip, the NYPD said. It remained unclear whether Seitz was planning to visit Motta the day he disappeared.       

Motta's conviction on manslaughter charges for the killing of Seitz is the first in New York City obtained through genetic genealogy, a forensic technique that is proving to be a major development in solving cold cases around the country, including Long Island.

“No matter how much time has passed, we will use every tool at our disposal to achieve justice,” said Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz in a statement.

The technique, in which unknown genetic profiles are compared to samples from individuals who have submitted their DNA to public genealogical sites such as 23andMe, has been used successfully in two major Long Island cases.

Investigators matched the DNA of the remains found in 2019 to Seitz, a witness to the crime came forward, and Motta was eventually arrested.

Earlier this year, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney K. Harrison and District Attorney Ray Tierney announced that forensic genetic genealogy had identified the deceased killer of Eve Wilkowitz, a Bay Shore woman who was strangled and sexually assaulted in 1980. In 2020, Suffolk County police announced that the genealogical method had identified the remains of Valerie Mack, a victim of the Gilgo Beach serial killer who had been known as “Jane Doe No. 6.”

Last month, Suffolk Police said they were using the methodology in an attempt to identify the skeletal remains of a woman, known only as “Marie" and found in 1999 under a patio at a home in Bellport.

Chief Emanuel Katranakis, the retiring head of the NYPD's forensic operations, said Thursday that the department had used forensic genetic genealogy to solve a number of cases that are awaiting possible arrests. Katranakis said that the department has hired its own resident genealogist, supervisory criminalist Sarah Sciortino, to handle cases.

“It is a valuable tool,” Katranakis said of the genealogy method.

“It is the first major human development in human identification in about 30 years, “ said Colleen Fitzpatrick, a well known genealogist, about the importance of genetic genealogy in forensic work.

While the methodology has been used in the past 20 years in searches by people seeking their birthparents, genetic genealogy is gaining wider use among law enforcement and is considered a “game change,” in forensic identification, said Fitzpatrick, who runs the California company, Identifinders.

In the Gilgo Beach case, Suffolk officials confirmed earlier this month that genetic genealogy is being used in an effort to identify the remains of a victim known as “Peaches,” whose body parts were found within the jurisdiction of Nassau County. The search to identify Peaches prompted the FBI, in conjunction with police in Mobile, Alabama, to put out a Facebook post asking for assistance in identifying relatives of Elijah “Lige” Howard/Howell, who lived from 1927 to 1963 in Prichard, Alabama., and had a wife named Carrie. In the Facebook announcement, officials attached an image of the tattoo found on Peaches' body.

Federal officials believe relatives of Howard/Howell might be able to pinpoint the true identity of Peaches, as well as that of her toddler, whose remains were also found separately along Ocean Parkway in Suffolk County.

Archived news reports showed that Howard/Howell died of apparent carbon monoxide poisoning while sitting in a car. What his exact familial relationship to the woman known as Peaches is, is unclear. Assuming Peaches died in 1997 at the age of 30 — the year her remains were found — and of was born in 1967, Howard/Howell would have already been dead and wasn’t her father. Fitzpatrick said the difficulty with genealogy searches is that sometimes the chain of family relationships is missing for investigators.

Meanwhile, Motta faces 20 years in prison when he is sentenced on Nov. 7. Defense attorney Russell Rothberg didn’t return a call for comment.

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