Taking a cue from the infamous Golden State Killer probe, authorities in Alabama used a private genealogy site to test DNA evidence found at the crime scene of two murdered teenage girls — a tragic case that went unsolved for two decades.
Coley McCraney, a 45-year-old truck driver with no criminal record, was arrested Saturday after genetic testing matched his DNA to evidence collected in 1999 from a car trunk that contained the bodies of two girls shot to death, authorities said.
Tracie Hawlett and J.B. Beasley, both 17, had headed out to a party on July 3, 1999, but never arrived. They became lost, and Hawlett called her mother to say they had gotten directions and were headed home. They never arrived there, either.
Their bodies were found the next day in the trunk of Beasley's car, less than a half-mile from the pay phone Hawlett used to talk to her mother. Both had been shot in the head, authorities said.
Despite hundreds of interviews and seemingly endless hunting, a suspect was never found.
But last year, after California authorities announced the arrest of the suspected Golden State Killer, who terrorized the state for decades in a spree of rapes and murders, the small police department in Ozark, Alabama, found renewed hope in the unsolved killings of Hawlett and Beasley.
Investigators on the West Coast had used the DNA databases of private genealogy companies to match evidence samples to James DeAngelo Jr., who was arrested in April 2018 and charged with at least 13 murders and numerous sexual assaults. He has not yet entered a plea.
So Ozark Police Chief Marlos Walker thought, if that worked for California investigators, why wouldn't it work for Ozark's cold case, which left open wounds for two sets of parents and an entire community.
Last week, that effort paid off, Walker said.
"For this community, it's a long time coming," Walker said at a Monday press conference. "People just have a sigh of relief to know who was responsible for this crime."
McCraney's attorney, David Harrison, said Monday his client is an "outsanding member" of the community who is cooperating with investigators.
Walker grew up in Ozark and knew McCraney and his family, he said. "I was very surprised when I saw the (DNA) results," Walker said. "And everyone I talked to said the same thing. But the DNA doesn't lie."
McCraney was arrested during a traffic stop and later submitted to a DNA swab test, Walker said. That swab matched the genetic material evidence taken from the crime scene, he said. He declined to identify what type of evidence had been used as a comparison to Walker's sample.
But he did say the forensic evidence had been preserved in a refrigerator in the department's evidence room.
McCraney has been charged with two counts of murder, murder committed during rape, murder where two or more persons are involved and murder committed with a deadly weapon while in a vehicle, Dale County District Attorney Kirke Adams said at the news conference.
Adams said his office will seek the death penalty.
The police chief released no details on a possible motive or what the suspect said to investigators following his arrest.
McCraney is being held without bail and a preliminary hearing will be scheduled within two weeks, Adams said. McCraney has not entered a plea.