Police: Family DNA from genealogy sites led investigators to mother who abandoned baby
GREENVILLE, S.C. — When a dead baby was found abandoned in a box in a vacant South Carolina field 29 years ago, every single detective on Greenville’s force poured themselves into the case.
There were solid leads — the vacuum cleaner box where the girl was found was traced back to a couple living nearby — but never enough to definitively identify the parents or charge anyone, Greenville Police Chief Ken Miller said.
But in November, DNA submitted to genealogy sites found a likely match to the baby’s father. Greenville detectives questioned him and he pointed them to his girlfriend at the time, Miller said.
Brook Graham, 53, was arrested Wednesday and charged with homicide by child abuse in the baby’s death. The charge carries a possible life sentence.
Detectives called the 6.5-pound (3-kilogram) girl Julie Valentine. She was born breathing in February 1990, but not in a hospital. The girl was found with her umbilical cord and placenta still attached wrapped in newspaper and bedding inside a vacuum cleaner box along with other trash, including an old sofa, Miller said at a news conference Thursday.
The box matched the model of vacuum cleaner Graham and the probable father had bought before the baby was abandoned, according to the arrest warrant.
“There’s a field. It’s undeveloped. There is a pile of debris. It doesn’t stand out,” said Miller, who thinks the baby died shortly after she was abandoned. The girl wasn’t found for three days.
The man who found her on Feb. 13, 1990, was picking flowers for his wife for Valentine’s Day, Miller said. The holiday combined with the name of the wife of one of the detectives who worked tirelessly on the case gave the baby her name, the chief said.
The cold case is the latest suddenly revived by DNA submitted by people hoping to find long lost relatives or clues to where their ancestors came from. Private genetic testing labs are taking police evidence, testing it and matching the results to the genealogy sites that make the results of their customers’ tests public.
The new police technique first popped up in April 2018, when investigators in California used DNA from genealogy sites to solve the dozen or so murders and 50 rapes in the 1970s and 1980s linked to the so-called Golden State Killer . In February, police said DNA sites helped link a boy’s body found in Spartanburg in 1998 to his mother also found dead alongside Interstate 85 in Durham, North Carolina, and led to the arrest of the boy’s father.
A growing outcry centers on the technique’s lack of vetting. There was a false positive in the Golden State Killer case. Also, privacy advocates said most people don’t submit their DNA to these sites to snitch on their relatives.
But Miller said DNA testing and other modern technology has been a boon to solving cold cases and may crack a few more in his department soon. He said he has no problems with using DNA from genealogy sites to help put criminals behind bars and give some comfort to people who have been hurt by unsolved cases for decades.
“People are consenting to connect and identify their lineage,” the chief said. “People are consenting to the public use of their DNA.”
The Greenville investigation continues, and more charges may be filed. Miller credited the baby’s probable father for leading them to Graham but said detectives still aren’t sure how much he knew about what happened to his daughter. Both continued to live in the Greenville area after 1990, the chief said.
Graham has two adult children, and investigators are reviewing how they were raised as a part of the case, said Miller, declining to give additional details.
Graham is being held without bond. Authorities said she requested a lawyer after her arrest, but jail and court records did not indicate she had retained one.
Graham and the probable father were living together as a couple at the time. He told detectives she was the only one he had a sexual relationship with at the time, according to an arrest warrant.
Authorities still don’t know why the baby was abandoned.
“We grieve the loss of what could have been — all the firsts Julie Valentine couldn’t experience,” said Shauna Galloway-Williams, executive director of the Julie Valentine Center, which helps victims of sexual assault and child abuse in Greenville.