The Kiwi behind the biggest breakthroughs in US crime-fighting

2019-06-11 18:44:08

The first barrel was spotted in November 1985. It was lying on its side behind a spindly cluster of naked trees near the sprawling Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown, New Hampshire, US.

Inside, state authorities made a grisly discovery: the badly decomposed remains of a woman and a female child.

Without the victims' identities or any solid leads, the case went cold until 15 years later when investigators happened across an eerily similar scene.

Another dark-coloured barrel was found in the same heavily wooded area in May 2000. It contained the bodies of two unidentified young girls.

For more than three decades, law enforcement officials worked to not only find the person responsible but also identify the victims. In 2017, half of the mystery was solved when alleged serial killer Terry Peder Rasmussen, who went by several aliases, was named as a suspect.

Now, officials have announced that they've made another breakthrough - confirming the identities of the woman and two of the three girls.

They are Marlyse Elizabeth Honeychurch, 24, and her two daughters, Marie Elizabeth Vaughn, 6, and Sarah Lynn McWaters, 1, last seen in 1978. Rasmussen was believed to have been Honeychurch's boyfriend, New Hampshire Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin said.

"Together we have been able to uncover the identity of the Allenstown killer, a murderer who tried to erase his victims and hide in the process, tried to hide who he was and what he did, but ultimately he wasn't successful," Strelzin said at a news conference last week.

"We know what he was, we know what he did and now we know who his victims were."


It was a remarkable conclusion to the latest in a string of US cold cases cracked apart by DNA and genetics - and behind it all is a Kiwi.

Barbara Rae-Venter, brought up in Remuera, Auckland, is a retired patent attorney turned genetic genealogist. She started out researching her family history as a hobby in an attempt to help an adopted family member find his birth family.

She learned quickly. In her career, she had specialised in biotechnology inventions, the New York Times reported, and her ex-husband, J. Craig Venter, was a geneticist who would become known for his work sequencing the human genome.

But as a volunteer "search angel" for, a website that teaches adoptees to use DNA to find their birth parents, the 70-year-old mainly used her skills to find missing families. She also set up the Normanites DNA Project for people whose ancestors were followers of the Reverend Norman McLeod, who led her own relatives from Scotland to Nova Scotia, Canada, and decades later to Waipu, New Zealand.

All that began to change in March 2015 when Rae-Venter - who has lived in the US since her 20s - opened an email from a San Bernardino County detective hoping to track down the parents of an abducted child. She had no idea her involvement would eventually help solve a string of murders.

In 2003, Larry Vanner pleaded no contest to murdering his live-in girlfriend, Eunsoon Jun, in Richmond, Virginia the year before, dismembering her body and burying the parts under cat litter.

A Contra Costa sheriff's detective learned Vanner had many aliases and that he had been associated with a child abuse case where he abandoned a young girl at a Scotts Valley trailer park. The girl had long thought Vanner was her father, but a blood test determined they were not related.

In 2015, the San Bernardino detective worked with the now-grown little girl to find out who she was. After he contacted Rae-Venter, the first of many dominoes fell that would eventually unravel a series of mysteries.

Making exhaustive searches with the help of DNA genealogy sites, Rae-Venter found out the woman was actually Dawn Beaudin, an infant who went missing in New Hampshire in 1981 with her mother. Her kidnapper, investigators then concluded, must have been Vanner.

But that was only the first revelation. After placing Vanner in the area, authorities then linked his DNA back to the unsolved Bear Brook Murders, in New Hampshire.

Rae-Venter continued working to learn more about Vanner. After Vanner died in a High Desert Prison in Susanville, Rae-Venter obtained the DNA from his prison autopsy, using it to find his real name, Terry Peder Rasmussen.


Rae-Venter's participation in that intricate case caught the attention of police investigating the Golden State Killer.

The unidentified serial killer was thought to be responsible for 12 killings and at least 46 rapes from 1976 to 1986 in Northern and Southern California.

In March 2017, Paul Holes, a retired Contra Costa District Attorney inspector investigating the cold case, emailed Rae-Venter, saying that he needed help. "Paul said this would really be a feather in my cap if I could help solve this one," Rae-Venter told the Mercury News.

By October, she was on board. She would help Holes and an FBI team from Los Angeles use the public genealogy website GEDmatch to hit pay dirt again. She didn't know much about the Golden State Killer case but began poring over newspaper articles to develop a profile of the man to narrow down their search.

"I started doing research and was absolutely horrified," she said.

Right off the bat, she saw a team of investigators winging it. "She came in and was like, 'No, no, no, you need to do it this way,'" Holes said. "She gave us structure."

Using an untouched Golden State Killer DNA sample from a Ventura County crime lab, the FBI created a profile to load onto GEDmatch. Around January, the data came back. The team would have to dig as far back as the suspect's great-great-great-grandparents' lineage.

"My first response was we're gonna need to be building a lot of trees," Rae-Venter said.

Using family tree-building software, Rae-Venter worked on her laptop and iPad simultaneously from her Northern California home, creating a dozens of family trees together with the rest of the team.

By early April, the list had dropped to six men. The Golden State Killer DNA profile strongly indicated the man had blue eyes, so detectives ran the names through the DMV database and one had blue eyes - Joseph DeAngelo. They had their suspect.

"It's a pretty overwhelming feeling," Rae-Venter said. "You've been running on adrenaline and suddenly there's a name popping out and it's like, 'Whoa!'"

At that point in the investigation, law enforcement took over.

DeAngelo, 72, was living quietly in a suburb of Sacramento when he was taken into custody and charged with 13 counts of murder and 13 counts of kidnapping.

"I guess I was still a little numb. I had helped ID him," said Rae-Venter.


Meanwhile, work wasn't over on the Bear Brook case.

In 2017, Rebekah Heath, a librarian from Connecticut with "a hobby for missing persons," was on an ancestry website's message board when she noticed someone had shared a post about a woman named Marlyse McWaters and her daughter Sarah, who were both missing, the Washington Post reported.

Heath immediately posted a response asking if it was possible that the woman and young girl were the victims found in New Hampshire, but never heard back.

Then, a year later, as Heath was listening to a podcast about the murders, she recalled the post and reached out to the person who wrote it.

Heath was put in contact with one of Sarah's relatives, who said Rasmussen was the last person to have contact with McWaters, also known as Honeychurch.

"The relative was not aware of Terry Rasmussen's history, however, ... Ms. Heath was aware of the significance of Terry Rasmussen," New Hampshire State Police Sergeant Matthew Koehler said at the news conference last week.

Heath called in her tip to California authorities, the Boston Globe reported. The call set off a flurry of activity as the New Hampshire authorities were made aware of the potential lead and began reaching out to family members, who not only provided DNA, but also photos and anecdotes, Koehler said.

They enlisted genealogists, including Rae-Venter, to help. DNA taken from the remains were tested against samples from the victims' relatives and revealed a familial relationship, police said.

Genealogy research led to the final confirmation that the bodies were Honeychurch and her daughters.

Soon, the full story started to come together. Honeychurch was last seen by her family around Thanksgiving 1978. She had taken her daughters to her mother's house in La Puente, California, and brought along a man she introduced as Rasmussen.

During the visit, Honeychurch got into an argument with her mother "over a trivial matter" and left with the two young girls and Rasmussen. None of her family ever saw them again.

Photos shared during the news conference showed Honeychurch playfully licking the beaters of an automatic hand mixer. Another picture captured Marie, Honeychurch's oldest child, blowing out at candles at a birthday party.

"This restores a level of dignity and respect to those that lost their voice over 33 years ago," Christopher Wagner, director of the New Hampshire State Police, told reporters. "Certainly gives us a level of appreciation to who they were and how they lived."

Investigators are still looking into the identity of the fourth girl, but are "hopeful of positive results in the future". DNA tests indicated Rasmussen was the girl's father, but she was not related to Honeychurch or her daughters.

Several of the victims' relatives were present at the news conference. In a statement read by Strelzin, the family thanked everyone "who spent decades working tirelessly to identify our loved ones".

"This day comes with heavy hearts," the statement said. "Marlyse, Marie and Sarah were so loved by our families and they are greatly missed. We take solace in finally having the answers we have longed for."​

- With the Washington Post, the Mercury News

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