Even amid mountains of evidence—eyewitness accounts, composite sketches of a suspect, or DNA left behind by a killer—sometimes, cases go unsolved, leaving already grieving families with more questions than answers and without any closure for decades.
Thanks to advancements in technology and forensics, such as the CODIS database, which allows law enforcement and laboratories to collect and share information about convicted criminals, and forensic genealogy, which uses DNA collected from a crime to trace and create a family tree for the suspect, more and more cold cases are finally being solved.
However, even with these advancements, that does not guarantee a criminal will be brought to justice, especially if they manage to evade DNA collection. Thankfully, after the killers in these cases carelessly discarded their cigarette butts, that was enough to finally crack these 10 cold cases wide open.
10 Patricia Barnes
In August 1995, the body of a 61-year-old homeless woman named Patricia Barnes was found naked with two gunshot wounds to the head after her killer dumped her body in a ditch in Seattle, Washington. Despite over 100 pieces of evidence collected from the scene and a witness who provided details of a suspect to sketch artists, there were no leads in the case.
In 2018, Barnes’s case was reopened, and the evidence was sent to crime labs in Washington, Texas, and Florida that specialized in forensic genealogy in hopes of locating a relative of the killer. In 2021, one of the labs was able to locate a cousin of the suspect and later provided police with a name—Douglas Keith Krohne. Krohne was a resident of the Seattle area during the time Barnes was killed and also had a criminal history of robbery and kidnapping. However, Krohne died in 2016 during an accidental electrocution.
Once authorities had a name, they were able to cross-reference the DNA from their evidence, specifically the cigarette butts, and match it to a blood sample taken during Krohne’s autopsy, which confirmed he killed Barnes. After nearly three decades, Barnes’s family finally got closure, knowing her killer was found.
9 Paul Aikman
In 1985, 35-year-old Paul Aikman was stabbed to death at a rest stop in Oklahoma. While both fingerprints and cigarette butts were collected as evidence in the case, police were unable to identify any possible suspects.
In 2019, detectives got a break in the case when an impromptu search of the national DNA database, CODIS, linked the DNA from the cigarette butts to Earl Wayne Wilson. At the time, Wilson was already in an Oklahoma prison for the sexual assault of a 20-year-old woman. While Wilson originally denied any part in the crime, he later pleaded guilty to Aikman’s murder in 2021 in an agreement for a reduced charge and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
8 Tonya McKinley
Twenty-three-year-old Tonya McKinley had gone to Darryl’s Bar & Grille in Pensacola, Florida, to celebrate the upcoming new year of 1985 but never returned home to her 18-month-old son. Her body was found half-naked after being sexually assaulted and strangled to death on January 1, 1985. Police interviewed those who had visited the restaurant and McKinley’s friends and family, but no suspects were ever found.
However, due to advances in technology and so many online laboratories that process DNA for those looking to find long-lost family members, police were able to take the DNA from bodily fluids left behind and create a family tree that would lead them to McKinley’s killer—Daniel Wells. Once police had a name, they were able to track Wells, and when he made the mistake of throwing a cigarette butt out the window, that was all the evidence they needed to match the DNA and arrest him for McKinley’s murder.
Wells was arrested on March 18, 2020, and was charged with first-degree murder and sexual battery. However, before McKinley’s family could receive any formal justice, Wells hung himself inside his cell.
7 Roxanne Woods
Roxanne Woods and her husband Terry had spent the evening of February 20, 1987, together bowling but had driven home separately. Roxanne arrived home first, but when Terry arrived, he found his wife dead in their kitchen with her throat slit. Police suspected a man named Patrick Gillhem but never had any concrete evidence to prove his involvement.
Police did reopen Woods’s case in 2001 but never made any progress, and it wasn’t until 2021 that they would get the break in the case they had been looking for. Investigators received a “credible tip” that they should indeed investigate Gillhem as a suspect. Even though he had previously been convicted of rape in 1979 and lived in the area, he had no DNA available in the CODIS database. Police then brought in MSP Forensic Laboratories to take over the task of analyzing the evidence previously collected, but much of the DNA was degraded due to its age.
However, using a combination of their sample and reconstructing a family tree through genealogy, they were able to match the DNA collected the night of Wood’s murder to a cigarette butt Gillhem discarded during the time he was under surveillance. Gillhem was arrested on February 17, 2022, and was sentenced to 23 years in prison.
6 Michael Lee
Twenty-nine-year-old Michael Lee, an ironworker and Indiana native, was visiting Arizona when he was found shot in the head on October 21, 1980. While cigarette butts and other items were taken as evidence, police were never able to make any progress in identifying Lee’s killers.
However, in June of 2018, the Yavapai Sheriff’s Office reopened the case and sent the cigarette butts out for testing in hopes of establishing a solid lead. The DNA results came back and were identified as David Ellsworth Widmer. Once DNA results had been established and detectives continued their investigation, they were also able to discover that Widmer—along with an accomplice, Rocky Crabtree, both of whom had extensive criminal backgrounds—had intentions of robbing Lee. However, when they were unable to locate Lee’s money, they shot him instead. While both Widmer and Crabtree died before this evidence was brought to light, Lee’s family was thankful to finally have answers.
5 Marilyn Hickey
On the evening of September 9, 1992, Marilyn Hickey and an unknown man were dropped off at her apartment in Bremerton, Washington, by a cab driver. This was the last time anyone would ever see her. She was later found strangled in her apartment. Police did recover a piece of paper in Hickey’s purse with the name Lee Miller on it, but they were never able to locate him.
However, in 2006 police officers in Boise, Idaho, were working on a separate cold case when they discovered the DNA evidence they found matched that of Hickey’s killer. Additionally, the police in Boise also were given the name Lee Miller, so at this time, they began cross-referencing evidence and also monitoring Lee. They obtained a cigarette butt he left outside his residence, proving he was indeed the killer in both cases.
Lee pleaded guilty to killing Hickey and was sentenced to 17 years in prison for second-degree murder. He also pleaded guilty to the Boise killing of 49-year-old Cheryle Barrat and was sentenced to an additional 25 years in prison.
4 Jerri Ann Jones
Jerri Ann Jones was only 19 years old when she was abducted in July 1987 while waiting for a ride outside the Harris-Teeter supermarket in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she worked. In hopes of getting anyone with information or the killer to come forward, Harris-Teeter President Robert Goodale even offered a $10,000 reward, but no new evidence came to light.
In 2003, the Charlotte Cold Case Squad was established in hopes of using advancements in technology and forensics to solve old cases. Once cigarette butts and semen specimens from Jones’s case were entered into the CODIS database, they matched the DNA to Terry Alvin Hyatt. Luckily, they knew exactly where he was; Hyatt was already on death row at the time for killing two other women. Hyatt pleaded guilty to killing Jones on August 2, 2005, and was sentenced to life in prison.
3 Anita Piteau
Anita Piteau left her home in Maine in the 1960s, hoping to make it big in Hollywood. However, on March 14, 1968, her body was found beaten, raped, and with a slit throat. What made Piteau’s case even more disturbing was that for the next 52 years, both she and her killer would go unidentified.
Police collected clothing, jewelry, and cigarette butts from the scene and distributed drawings of the “Jane Doe” in hopes that someone would or could identify her. Still, neither the drawings nor the evidence produced any leads.
Then, in 2019, using the DNA from the cigarette butt found along with genealogy research, police finally identified the killer—Johnny Chrisco, who died of cancer in 2015. In 2020, police enlisted the help of Colleen Fitzpatrick, an expert in forensic genealogy. She was able to track Piteau’s DNA to a relative who was still living in Maine. After 52 long years, “Jane Doe” was finally identified, and her remains were sent back to her family in Maine.
2 Angie Dodge
Eighteen-year-old Angie Dodge had moved into her first apartment in Idaho Falls in late 1996 but was later found beaten, raped, and with her throat slit so severely it nearly decapitated her. In 1997, Christopher Tapp confessed to killing Dodge; however, his confession only came after being coerced by police, who implied he would face the death penalty if he didn’t fess up. Even though Tapp’s DNA didn’t match that collected from the scene, and he later retracted his confession due to the circumstances, he spent 20 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.
Even with a conviction, Dodge’s case was still considered a cold case because the actual killer had never been found. Dodge’s mother, Carol, spent the next two decades refusing to give up on finding her daughter’s killer and exonerating Tapp. Finally, in 2017, through efforts of both Carol and the Innocence Project, Tapp was released.
In 2019, investigators began searching public genealogy databases and worked alongside genetic genealogist CeCe Moore at Parabon Laboratories, who was able to create a family tree based on the DNA collected. Through this process, they were able to locate a suspect, Brian Dripps, who lived across the street from Angie when she was murdered. He was also initially questioned during the investigation.
Police began following Dripps and collected cigarette butts as he carelessly discarded them. Once they had several samples, those were sent for testing and were a confirmed match to the DNA they found on Dodge. Dripp was arrested and confessed, stating he was under the influence of drugs at the time and never meant to kill Dodge. He was sentenced to life in prison on June 8, 2021.
1 Sarah Yarborough
Sixteen-year-old Sarah Yarborough was on her way to school in December 1991 in preparation for a drill team event. Her body was found near her high school in Washington later that morning, beaten and strangled to death. Witnesses in the area assisted police in making sketches of the person believed to be the killer. Over the next two decades, police regularly searched DNA databases in hopes of making a connection, but the case seemed to go nowhere.
However, in 2019 after using forensic genealogy searches, a suspect was finally identified—Patrick Nicholas. Nicholas was previously convicted of rape in 1983, but since his conviction was before CODIS was established, he went undetected by law enforcement. He was also later arrested in 1993 for child molestation, but the charges were pled down to a misdemeanor which meant he again avoided having to provide DNA.
With Nicholas on their radar, detectives then began close surveillance and were able to retrieve cigarette butts and a napkin he left outside of a local strip mall. The DNA on those items matched the samples collected in 1991. Nicholas was arrested in October 2019 and is still awaiting trial.