Modern Forensics Solves 37-Year-Old Cold Case

A 37-year-old Brazos County homicide case has been solved, authorities said Monday.

A man executed by lethal injection two decades ago is responsible for the 1981 death of Virginia Freeman, Brazos County Sheriff Chris Kirk said.

Kirk said an analysis of DNA recovered from beneath Freeman’s fingernails provided “clear and convincing evidence” linking James Otto Earhart to the woman’s death.

Earhart was executed Aug. 11, 1999, for the 1987 kidnapping and murder of 9-year-old Kandy Janell Kirtland of Bryan.

Freeman was killed Dec. 1, 1981, after a man called the real estate agency where Freeman worked and said he was interested in buying a home on Greens Prairie Road, then a rural part of College Station. Freeman’s body was found behind the still-locked home later that evening. Freeman had been struck in the head by a blunt object, possibly a slab of concrete, stabbed repeatedly in the neck and shoulders and had suffered a broken neck as a result of strangulation.

The case frustrated investigators for decades.

“This unsolved case has been continually on our minds, and any potential lead that has come to our attention has been followed up on,” Kirk said.

Thirty-five years later, Travis Bryan III remains haunted by her eyes.

In 2017, the case received national attention when the television documentary series National Geographic Explorers agreed to pay for a DNA analysis in exchange for permission to air a show about the investigation.

“We were blessed with opportunities to take advantage of emerging technologies in forensic sciences that led to a breakthrough,” Kirk said.

The DNA phenotyping tool from Parabon NanoLabs used the DNA found under Freeman’s fingernails to create composite sketches of the face that may have belonged to her killer.

Following the DNA analysis that showed authorities a likeness of the killer and described the likely phenotypes of the killer’s eyes, hair, complexion and freckling, Parabon informed the Sheriff’s Office that it could use genetic and ancestry research to create a DNA profile of the killer’s family.

James Otto Earhart, who was sentenced to death and executed for the 1987 killing 9-year-old Bryan girl Kandy Kirtland, has now been proven to also be the killer of Virginia Freeman.

The 37-year-old cold case was cracked with the use of modern forensic technology. 

Ellen Greytak, director of bioinformatics at Parabon, said Monday that the company used public DNA databases available for ancestry and adoption research to help solve the Freeman case.

Parabon, based in Virginia, describes its work as developing “next-generation therapeutic and forensic products, which leverage the enormous power of DNA.”

Greytak said the recent DNA research that helped identify a suspect in the “Golden State Killer” case provided the company with motivation to use its own tools to help law enforcement on criminal cases. 

Kirk said the DNA ancestral analysis identified two female samples in the database, both second cousins of the suspect. Parabon researchers then identified the great-grandparents of the top DNA matches. The great-grandparents had six children, Kirk said, and the scientists determined the suspect would likely be the grandson of one of those children.

Last week, Parabon officials notified Brazos County investigators that based on ancestry genetic research, Earhart was the likely suspect in Freeman’s death.

“We are all elated to finally close this case,” Kirk said. “The one regret I have is that we weren’t able to put handcuffs on the suspect and prosecute him for the vicious killing of Virginia Freeman,” Kirk said.

Kirk said investigators have filed paperwork to exhume Earhart’s body to confirm the DNA connection.

“Earhart was already on our list” of suspects, Kirk said.

Kirk credited former Investigator Dick Gulledge, who, in 1981, secured the hands of the victim and collected fingernail clippings during the autopsy. DNA technology did not exist in 1981, but Kirk said the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office helped preserve the DNA found underneath Freeman’s fingernails.

No DNA sample was collected from Earhart while he was alive, but a DNA sample provided by Earhart’s son in April 2017 was analyzed by the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Austin lab, and the testing indicated a match, Kirk said.

Freeman’s children said in a statement Monday that they were grateful to Kirk, Investigator Kenny Elliott, the Brazos County Sheriff’s Department and others involved in the case. “We hope that this brings some closure to all who were affected by this crime,” the statement said.

Jan Brown knows that it's almost impossible for people to understand how she can't hate the man who shot her 9-year-old daughter at point-blan…

Earhart was arrested in Walker County in May 1987, two weeks after Kandy Kirtland was last seen walking to her Bryan home after getting off of her school bus. Kirtland’s body was found in the woods off Villa Maria Road at what is now Blinn College’s Bryan campus.

He was found guilty of capital murder a year later and sentenced to die.

Earhart made no final statement prior to his August 1999 execution in Huntsville.

Following the wishes of Virginia Freeman’s husband, Charles, the Girl Scouts dedicated a plot of land in Ginger’s name, installing a plaque in a secluded part of Bryan’s Camp Howdy and deeming it “The Ginger Freeman Primitive Area.” Since 1982, the space has been where young campers learn how to backpack and set up their own campsites.

“The solving of this cold case, after 37 years of investigating, brings relief and closure for the Freeman family, Virginia’s friends, the local real estate industry and our community,” Kirk said Monday.

STORY PROVIDED BY THE EAGLE

Lee France

Lee France

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