The mother of a man who was accused in 2001 of murdering a student in Florida says investigators have obtained her DNA sample that led them to her son under false pretenses.
In November 2018, the Orlando police announced the arrest of 39-year-old Benjamin Holmes Jr. for the murder of Christine Franke after comparing DNA samples from the crime scene to those of the suspect’s relatives through a genealogy website.
The long list of family members whose DNA was tested was Holmes’ own mother, Eleanor Holmes, 79, who lives in Valdosta, Georgia.
Benjamin Holmes Jr., 39 (left), was arrested in November 2018 for the murder of Christine Franke, 25 (right), who was shot in Orlando in October 2001
A marker of evidence can be seen at the place where Franke was shot, where sperm was collected from her body
Researchers found her empty wallet, telephone and backpack on the floor of Franke’s apartment
In an interview with NBC News, Eleanor claimed that when a few Florida detectives showed up at her home in October 2018, they told her they were trying to identify a woman who was found dead years ago, and asked for a DNA sample from her .
The detectives explained that they had already obtained DNA samples from Eleanor’s sister and aunt to make a pedigree of the victim.
Eleanor, who suspected the deceased woman might have been her cousin, agreed to have her cheek swabbed by the police in her driveway.
Only a few days later, when she received a phone call from her son Benjamin’s girlfriend in Florida, who told her about his murder arrest, did the mother learn the true purpose of the detective’s visit.
“When they arrested him, I knew they were lying,” Holmes said. “They lied to us.”
Holmes Jr. has argued not guilty of the charges of murdering Franke, and his parents say they are convinced that he is innocent.
The police gave this composite of DNA that had been left on the site, but it did not lead to tips
He will stand trial in June when his defense is expected to raise questions about the use of fraud by investigators to collect DNA samples from innocent people who are not suspected of a crime.
His mother told NBC that if the investigators had indicated the real purpose of their visit, she would have refused to give her her DNA sample.
Her husband, retired chef Benjamin Holmes Sr., refused to submit to testing.
“To give me my DNA, you have to get some kind of papers from lawyers or something,” he told the station.
From a legal point of view, the police may lie to people to obtain evidence, but secretly collecting DNA is unknown territory.
In federal cases, a policy recently introduced by the US Department of Justice requires authorities to request informed consent from people who are not suspected of a crime to obtain DNA samples from them.
If obtaining permission could endanger the investigation, federal officials can secretly obtain the sample with a court order.
But that policy does not apply to the investigation into Franke’s murder, which is a state affair.
Franke, a 25-year-old student working as a waitress, was shot dead in her apartment in Orlando on October 21, 2001, during a failed burglary and sexual assault.
Detectives used this chart to predict how closely the suspect was related to family members who had provided samples of their DNA
Researchers extracted sperm from the victim’s body and submitted a sample of it to the state crime lab.
On the basis of this evidence, a DNA profile was developed and entered into a national database, where it languished without producing an agreement for more than 15 years.
That all changed in the spring of 2018, when police detective Michael Fields from Orlando joined forces with Parabon Nanolabs, a DNA test website, which got the DNA sample from the crime scene tested.
The site found a match with two cousins on the GEDMatch website, an open data personal genomics database and genealogy website, and reported to the police who had contacted the people who submitted the samples.
After collecting voluntary DNA samples from a dozen family members, the police limited their search for Benjamin Holmes Jr. and his brother Reginald.
In at least two cases, detectives told the family members of the suspect a familiar story about looking for a deceased woman in Florida.
The police first focused on Reginald Holmes and followed him to work at a construction site where an undercover agent was talking to him and offering him a bottle of Gatorade.
The officer later followed Holmes and took the empty bottle from a garbage bin for DNA testing, thus excluding a suspect in Franke’s murder.
The police then founded his brother Benjamin, who in 2001 was a Wendy’s restaurant manager with a criminal record.
Investigators put Holmes Jr. outside a friend’s house and collected his discarded empty beer bottle and cigar.
Both items were sent to the state crime laboratory for testing and produced a match with the DNA sample collected from the site of Franke’s murder, leading to his arrest on November 2, 2018.
Holmes defender said his client told him that he never met Franke and does not know how his DNA ended up in her apartment.
The lawyer admitted that the police did not break any law by resorting to an excuse to get the DNA sample from Benjamin’s mother, but he will try to block the evidence from his trial and raise questions about a possible contatminaiton in the crime laboratory.
However, state officials stated that DNA samples were analyzed a second time under sanitary conditions.