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NYPD says Cold case killing cracked using familial DNA method

A relative of Minerliz Soriano, who was 13

A relative of Minerliz Soriano, who was 13 in 1999, when, police said, she was killed by Joseph Martinez, of New Rochelle, wipes away tears at a news conference Tuesday to discuss the case. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

NYPD detectives for the first time employed an emerging search technique using familial DNA to break a 22-year-old cold case killing of a Bronx schoolgirl, officials announced Tuesday.

The familial search method took effect in New York State in late 2017 and is also used by police on Long Island. A familial DNA search by NYPD detectives led them to suspect Joseph Martinez, 49, of New Rochelle, in the February 1999 slaying and sexual abuse of Minerliz Soriano, 13, authorities said. The teenager's body was found wrapped in trash bags by a garbage bin at Co-Op City in the Bronx.

The familial search technique is used by checking a suspect's possible DNA match with relatives, if the family members are listed in a criminal DNA database of convicted offenders.

Law enforcement officials said the technique is being used to pursue leads in 10 other cases, including a number in Suffolk County.

State Sen. Philip Boyle (R-Bay Shore), an early proponent of employing the familial technique after the 2016 murder of Queens jogger Karina Vetrano, applauded the development.

"For those who may question whether we should use familial DNA searches to solve violent crimes in New York, this case demonstrates exactly why we must," said Boyle, alluding to criticism that the methodology could target innocent family members of suspects.

The investigation that led detectives to Martinez picked up in 2019 after Bronx prosecutors and detectives submitted a DNA sample from semen found at the Soriano crime scene for familial search analysis, the NYPD said. The sample closely matched Martinez’s deceased father, who was in the state convicted offender DNA base, said NYPD Chief Emanuel Katranakis, head of the department's forensic investigations.

Investigators then developed a Martinez family tree, Katranakis said, eventually zeroing in on the defendant through a closer DNA match.

Authorities said Martinez is known as "Jupiter Joe" for teaching astronomy to children on the Bronx streets. He was indicted by a Bronx grand jury on two counts of second-degree murder, one involving strangulation and another involving sexual abuse, said Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark at a news conference Tuesday.

"The DNA science and technology advance over the years, and familial DNA in particular, was instrumental in linking the defendant … to the murder," Clark said.

Martinez was arraigned and ordered held without bail Tuesday. He is set to appear again in court on Jan. 21. His defense attorney, Troy Smith, didn’t immediately return a call for comment.

Familial searching gained traction after Vetrano’s murder in 2016 when detectives had DNA but no database match. Her parents, Philip and Catherine Vetrano, advocated for familial searching, as did police and the Queens prosecutor. The state Division of Criminal Justice Services now regulates the procedure. Vetrano’s murder was solved by conventional methods.

"All our hard work and effort to make this happen has finally helped another family have closure," Philip Vetrano said Tuesday.

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