The Santa Fe Police Department used genetic genealogy to make an arrest in the 2018 murder of Robert Romero, a 52-year-old husband and father killed at his home in an apparent attempted burglary. Police say it is the first homicide in New Mexico to lead to an arrest using genetic technology and the 111th in the country.
SFPD detectives arrested Joseph Jones, 26, of Santa Fe, on May 14 and charged him with murder, tampering with evidence, attempt to commit a felony, aggravated burglary and residential burglary.
Romero was shot on July 30, 2018, around 2am in his backyard as he allegedly confronted Jones.
Jones was not on SFPD’s radar at all as a suspect before the break in the case using investigative genetic genealogy, according to Police Deputy Chief Paul Joye, although he said Jones had been arrested previously for property crimes, including stealing firearms. The motive and other aspects of the crime remain unclear to investigators.
"We don't believe there's other suspects at this time…but there is some other information involved in the case we're confirming and verifying and trying to put together to get a total picture on how this took place and what happened," Joye said in a news conference late Thursday.
Police compared DNA collected at the crime scene to a voluntary genetic database to narrow possible suspects in the case to three related people in Santa Fe. One of them was Jones. The test cost the department $7,405 and it took about two months to get the initial results back, from the beginning of the year until March, Joye explained.
After using “traditional policing methods,” including three search warrants, officers later identified Jones as the suspect. Joye said the weapon used in the murder has not been recovered.
Investigative genealogy uses DNA submitted to databases by people usually hoping to learn more about their ancestry. The technology has helped to solve murders and rapes across the country, including Joseph James DeAngelo, accused of being the prolific Golden State Killer.
However, serious privacy concerns came to light as people realized the databases were using their information, including their DNA, to work with law enforcement without telling them.
SFPD hopes to use the genetic technology from Virginia-based company Parabon NanoLabs, Inc., on other unsolved cases, including sexual assaults. SFPD contracted with Gene by Gene, a commercial genetic testing company based in Houston, Texas, to use one of its DNA databases to run a comparison against its own DNA database. Parabon then uses those results to narrow down possible matches.
“With the success of this case this has opened the door for us,” Joye said. “We’re going to evaluate what cases to use the technology on.”
“Law enforcement agencies across the country have been using this company and the company’s Snapshot DNA Analysis service to advance investigations when traditional DNA methods fail to produce a match,” Joye said.
The first case in New Mexico to see success from Parabon’s technology was the brutal 2008 shovel-beating of Brittani Marcell by Justin Hansen. Albuquerque detectives arrested Hansen after his DNA matched blood left at the crime scene.
An earlier version gave the wrong information about which entity contracts with Gene by Gene.
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Katherine is a Florida native in Santa Fe to cover the texture and life of the city's Southside using writing, photography, videography and audio. She's a grant-funded fellow in the Report for America program and her work is underwritten by the Brindle and McCune foundations, Enterprise Bank and Hutton Broadcasting.