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Crime and Courts

DNA testing leads to break in decades-old Colorado murder case. But privacy questions are being raised.

Police used a DNA database and a fast food cup to zero in on a suspect in the 1987 death of 20-year-old Fort Carson soldier Darlene Krashoc

Michael Whyte and Darlene Krashoc. (Photos courtesy of El Paso County Sheriff's Office and the Krashoc family)
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Michael Whyte drove out of a parking lot, his belly full of fast food lunch, oblivious that police detectives had been watching him eat. 

Now, they were gingerly collecting the cup they had seen him drink from just minutes earlier. The two were eager with anticipation because, after more than three decades of fruitless leads, they hoped that the answer to the mystery of who killed 20-year-old Darlene “Krash” Krashoc might be in the saliva that lined the rim of an abandoned fast food cup. 

The story of how Whyte surfaced after 32 years is one of hope and resilience on the part of a generation of investigators and a set of parents who still carry their daughter’s picture in their Bible.

Paul and Betty Lou Krashoc traveled from their home in West Virginia to Colorado Springs for Whyte’s first appearance in June. It was the first time they had been just feet away from the man accused of killing their daughter.

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Whyte was arrested on June 13 after police realized that the DNA of three distant relatives who had used one of those at-home DNA kits offered important clues about the identity of the person believed to have killed Krashoc, an Army specialist stationed at Fort Carson.

The treasure trove of DNA that those tests are turning up has been a gift to cold case detectives who had nearly given up hope of ever solving long-ago murders. 

But Whyte’s arrest — the first by Colorado Springs police using forensic genealogy — comes amid a growing national debate about privacy concerns and whether people realize how much data they surrender, not only about themselves but about relatives they may never have even met.

“The work done by these detectives has been nothing short of exceptional,” said Colorado Springs Police Chief Vince Niski. “Throughout these last 32 years, they never lost sight of what was most important: Finding answers for Ms. Krashoc’s family.”

If not for the detectives’ determination and the DNA test results, Whyte might have faded away, without ever being questioned about where he was and what he was doing late into the night on St. Patrick’s Day in 1987. 

Colorado Springs police detectives worked with an online database called GEDmatch to develop a DNA profile of the suspect in Darlene Krashoc’s death. (Courtesy of Parabon Labs)

Unknown Person #1

Darlene Krashoc was assigned to the 73rd Maintenance Company stationed at Fort Carson. The Monday night before she was killed, she had been partying off-post with members of her unit at Shuffles, a popular bar on Colorado Springs’ South Academy Boulevard that soldiers frequented when they wanted to blow off steam. 

This being a work night, her friends left early without her. The last known person to see her alive reported that she left some time between midnight and 1 a.m. 

Just before dawn on March 17, 1987, two Colorado Springs patrol officers on routine rounds stumbled upon Krashoc’s body in a snow-spotted alley by a dumpster behind a Korean restaurant. The condition of her battered body suggested a long and painful torture, leading them to conclude that she had been sexually assaulted, strangled and brought to that location from elsewhere. 

Despite an intensive manhunt and hundreds of interviews done by the Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) and the Colorado Springs Police Department, no one was arrested for her murder.

Further, investigators concluded that the killer was not one of the millions of prisoners and arrestees in the FBI’s national DNA database. Her unsolved murder put fear into the Colorado Springs community for several years, but the evidence languished in a storage locker. 

Paul and Betty Lou Krashoc had their daughter buried in a civilian cemetery in case anyone needed to exhume her body for evidence, but they worried that they would not live to see her killer brought to justice. They filled their home office files with newspaper clippings of similar murders that happened all over the world and did their own detective work. 

Before Whyte’s arrest, Betty Lou told a reporter she felt she was on her own. The investigation happened so long ago that there are no original detectives left working the case. 

“I look them up, call the police in charge, and let them know about Darlene,” she told an interviewer in 2016. 

But as the decades rolled on, science and forensic techniques did, too.

The coroner found plenty of DNA from the crime scene on Krashoc’s body and on cigarettes left behind, but in 1987, forensic DNA was in its infancy. 

Swabs taken from Krashoc’s pubic area, from her neck and from the cigarette butts led to a partial profile in 2003. Investigators concluded that the killer was not in the FBI’s national DNA database, but it did eliminate a few suspects.

In 2016, a stronger DNA profile was developed from Krashok’s pants leg and body. It was the creation of the profile for Unknown Person #1.  

The Golden State Killer

Genetic forensics is developing so quickly, the bad guys can’t keep up. It’s a lot like the infancy of DNA in the 1980s and early 90s, before the OJ Simpson and CSI TV shows informed the world that a drop of blood or a sneeze was like leaving a calling card.

It’s the forensic tool that Sacramento authorities used to identify and arrest suspected Golden State Killer Joseph James DiAngelo, a former cop who police say eluded them for more than 30 years until April 2018.

“Prior to DNA technology, individuals would wear gloves. That really was the only way to identify who had touched an item,” said Paul Holes, the superstar investigative genealogy expert who helped crack the case, which investigators refer to as GSK. “That and covering their face, like the GSK. He always had gloves and a mask on, but he put his semen everywhere. He wasn’t even thinking about DNA.” 

Holes was a district attorney investigator who was in the right place at the right time with the right attitude and a bunch of 30-year-old DNA from one unknown person to use in a genealogical search. 

DiAngelo is now accused of committing 13 murders and 50 rapes. The case has not yet gone to trial. 

“It is a lot of family-tree building,” Holes told The Colorado Sun. “We’re just searching each person the list going back in time to see if we can get two of them to intersect.” 

Holes was brought in to consult with Colorado Springs police on the Krashoc investigation. He also wrote a book about his work on the GSK case called “Evil Has a Name.”

A breakthrough in forensic genealogy has been to match crime-scene DNA with genetic material stored in an online database called GEDmatch. It creates a match list from people who have been genealogically tested by companies such as 23&Me and Ancestry.com and then voluntarily surrendered their genetic information to the site. It’s a way to reverse-engineer family trees.

GEDmatch sounds like it could be a major company with networks all over the world, but, it’s actually just two men who communicate by computer between a historic home in Lake Worth, Florida, and an office in Houston.

In just one year since the GSK suspect’s capture, GEDmatch has helped sleuth at least 80 other crimes, so many that co-founder Curtis Rogers has stopped counting. 

“I have come to realize that there are literally millions more investigations out there just like the Krashoc case,” Rogers said. “Go to any little town police station and ask if they have any cold case violent crimes. They will undoubtedly tell you of dozens.”   

Three relatives

Parabon Labs used the DNA profile in the Krashoc case to identify some of the suspect’s physical characteristics. 

Michael Whyte in his LinkedIn profile.

The killer, according to Parabon, was likely a white male of European descent, with hazel to green eyes and brown to black hair. The Army offered a $10,000 reward for anyone who could identify the person released two sketches: one depicted what Unknown Person #1 may have looked like in his 20s and  the other, in his 50s. It turned to be another dead end until January, when detectives again turned to Parabon to begin the painstaking work of tracking down genealogical information with the help of GEDmatch. 

The genetic search pinged on three people, two of whom were described in an arrest affidavit as “promising”: a second cousin once removed on Unknown Person #1’s maternal grandfather’s side, and another second cousin once removed on his maternal grandmother’s side.  

Parabon Labs had a bingo. Unknown Individual #1 had a common ancestor in two family trees, a genetic situation Holes calls “strong. That’s what you really want, to have both sides because when you triangulate, your guy is a likely descendent of the common ancestors of those two.” 

Because Michael Whyte was his parents’ only son, the affidavit says, Parabon concluded that establishing him as Unknown Person #1, was a “high confidence identification due to genetic connections identified on both sides of his family tree.” 

But finding the first match through GEDmatch was only the beginning for detectives. 

To further establish Whyte as Unknown Person #1, Army CID stepped in with a review of his military service records. This got them closer. 

Whyte had been stationed at Fort Carson from September 1986 until August 1987, months after Krashoc was killed on March 17, 1987. The target narrowed further when investigators learned that he lived just three blocks from where her body was found in Colorado Springs.

In the years after Krashoc’s death, Whyte moved from base to base and was an Army signal operations manager for 19 years (1979-98), according to his LinkedIn profile. He spent 20 years in Colorado at CenturyLink, working his way up to senior network engineer. His retirement was in sight, and he was living an ordinary life with his wife in the Denver suburbs. He did not have a criminal record. 

In June, Krashoc’s parents traveled from their West Virginia home for a five-minute hearing in an El Paso County courtroom to see the man accused of killing their daughter. They say Darlene never mentioned Michael Whyte to them.

Still, her last phone conversation with Paul and Betty Lou was mysterious. Days before her murder, she told her mom there was “something going on at Fort Carson.”

“I asked her ‘What the hell’s going on out there?’ and she just said ‘I can’t tell you right now,’” Betty Lou said. “The weird thing is, just a week before that phone call, Darlene was talking about re-enlisting.” 

“A week later, the guy was at the door in uniform to tell us she was dead,” said Paul Krashok, Darlene’s dad.

In an undated photo, members of Fort Carson’s 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment salute during a memorial ceremony on post to remember all Cavalry Troopers killed during the squadron’s history. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

DNA testing enters the mainstream

Since at-home DNA kits became a thing, 26 million people have purchased them, according to the most recent numbers from MIT Technology Review. Mostly, this is a fun experience for folks to find out where they’re from or to discover lost relatives. 

Critics, though, say consumers should think as they sign up for an ancestral journey.

“These ancestry kits are more than a stocking stuffer. These are extremely important pieces of information,” warned Pete Pitts, a former FDA associate commissioner, now with the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest. “So many people are concerned about how their Social Security number might be stolen; but this is identity theft on a molecular level.”

Pitts advises at-home DNA kit customers to do something no one likes to do: read the fine print. There, companies like 23 & Me and Ancestry.com have privacy policies under account settings pages where there are options to delete data. 

“At 23andMe we do not voluntarily share data with law enforcement,” company spokesman Andy Kill said. He provided a link to its “transparency report.” 

Ancestry.com also says it also never shares DNA data with law enforcement. Still, both companies make it possible for hobbyists to download a digital copy of their DNA and upload the file to databases like GEDmatchwhere police can search. 

These databases aren’t currently regulated. Holes said it’s the Wild West.

“The big concern with genealogy is more of the Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure issue … is government violating privacy rights by exploiting genetics?” Holes said. “Right now there are really no laws on the books to address it.” 

Holes predicts those laws will happen. Today, the law is racing to keep up with a science that is moving at light speed.

In an email, GEDmatch’s Rogers said some relatives are actually happy to genetically tattle on relatives who may have committed a crime. 

“From emails I get from family members of criminals, they want to make sure their information is on GEDmatch so that if there are any unsolved cases the victim families can get closure,” Rogers said.

Added Holes, “If one of my relatives is committing crimes like this, have at me.” 

Michael Whyte didn’t have a profile, and neither did the accused Golden State Killer.

Still, Pitts believes that too many people are not paying attention. He suggests there should be an extra last-minute caution before genetic kit-consumers dig out their credit cards:  “Are you SURE you don’t want to delete your DNA?”

And although there are already millions of people who unknowingly got thrown down the DNA rabbit hole, he said it’s not too late to demand changes.  

“We are in the early days of this technology,” Pitts said. “It’s exactly the right time to get rules in place to move forward and make good things happen.” 

Privacy advocates acknowledge the crime-fighting strength of genetic genealogy databases, but they don’t want to see law enforcement’s most exciting new tool misused. 

Holes agrees.

“We want to make sure it’s understood and applied appropriately, instead of some rogue cop showing up and doing something stupid before he understands it.”


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