Traffic Ticket Case DNA Solved a Cold Case Murder

“Court Case Friday”

Body Burned and Dumped by the Side of a Road

In 2009, a burned body was dumped overnight in an office parking lot in Irvine.

Police Sketch of Murder Victim

The victim was an African-American female, in her mid-20’s

Because the lungs were smoke-free, it was clear that the body was burned after her death. The killers tried to hide the crime and destroy the evidence by burning the body.

Despite their best efforts, detectives could not discover the identity of the woman. They tried to match dental records, missing persons reports, and DNA. They distributed police sketches to the media and public. All without success.

CSI found a tiny fragment of DNA under one of the woman’s fingernails. This was not her DNA. It was a man’s, probably the killer. There were no DNA matches in the local, state, or federal systems.  

So, the case went cold.

O.C. District Attorney’s DNA Database

The O.C. District Attorney’s Office started a local DNA database. Non-violent first offenders could get their case dismissed if they voluntarily gave a DNA sample. This was nicknamed the “Spit-and-Acquit” program.  

In my misdemeanor arraignment court, dozens of defendants “earned” dismissals by giving their DNA.

One defendant volunteered a DNA sample to get his driving-without-a-valid-license ticket dismissed. There was a “familial match” to the suspected killer. The police had their first lead.

Focus on Familial DNA

Familial DNA” identifies close relatives of an alleged perpetrator. Irvine PD focused on “my” DNA volunteer.  He had no criminal record.  He didn’t own a car, and he didn’t have a driver’s license.  They expanded the scope of the investigation.

The DNA volunteer had a cousin with a criminal record for assault and solicitation of prostitution. This cousin didn’t own a vehicle. The police confidentially interviewed “known associates.” They learned that the cousin and his brother always hung out together. The brother drove a cargo van, a perfect vehicle to transport a body.

Search and Arrest

I issued a search warrant for the van.  The van had been cleaned and scoured with bleach, but there were still traces of the victim’s blood in the “nooks and crannies.”

I issued an arrest warrant for the cousin and his brother. I also issued a search warrant for their blood. The brother’s DNA matched the DNA under the victim’s fingernail.


The brothers confessed. They explained that late one night, they were trolling Harbor Blvd. in Santa Ana in the van looking for “hookers.” The brother was the driver and the cousin sat on the floor in the back. The brother solicited a “street walker,” and they agreed on a price.

The “hooker” got into the front seat. She was startled when she saw the cousin behind her. She freaked out, grabbed the door handle, and started screaming.  The cousin wrapped his forearm around her neck to get her to stop screaming. She fought back. 

He applied pressure until she finally stopped screaming and moving.  She also stopped breathing.  She was dead. The cousin had broken her neck.

The brothers burned the woman’s body to destroy the evidence, and they dropped the body in Irvine to hide the crime from Santa Ana Police. They didn’t know the woman’s name, and they tossed her cellphone onto a street.

Prosecution and Conviction

The last I heard, one brother was convicted of capital murder and the other brother is awaiting trial.

Postscript: Still No ID

Tragically, the ID of the woman is still unknown. In 2016, and again in 2022, the O.C. Register printed follow-up articles, “Who is Jane Doe? Woman found burned 7 years ago in Irvine still unidentified.” and “Her name is still unknown, but California man convicted in strangling death of ‘Jane Doe.'”

Aside: “John Doe” DNA

DNA “Portrait”

When the DNA from the perpetrator can’t be matched in the database, the D.A. will file the case under the DNA sample profile sequence (“portrait”), instead of the name. This satisfies the statute of limitations. For example, instead of: “People vs. John Doe,” the complaint will read: “People vs. abcdcdaabdabcddabccabdacdb.” Hopefully, the perpetrator’s DNA, or the DNA of a close relative, will automatically trigger a match when it is entered into the system.


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