How a podcast helped solve a grisly cold case
There are a ton of podcasts out there, but finding the right one can be difficult. In our column Pod Hunters, we cover what we’ve been listening to that we can’t stop thinking about.
On Thursday, New Hampshire authorities held a press conference where they identified three victims who had been killed by a serial killer in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The case was the subject of New Hampshire Public Radio’s true crime podcast Bear Brook, and it played a small role in helping to identify the victims.
In 1985, a hunter discovered two bodies in a barrel in 1985 in Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown, New Hampshire, while two additional victims were found a hundred meters away in 2000. In 2017, authorities made a break in the case: they were able to determine that one of the victims was the daughter of a man named Terrence “Terry” Peder Rasmussen, and who was connected to the disappearance of a woman named Denise Beaudin and her daughter in 1981. He had been convicted of murdering his wife, Eunsoon Ju in 2002, and died in prison in 2010. Rasmussen’s daughter surfaced a couple of years ago, and allowed forensics officials to tie him to one of the victims in Bear Brook.
But while police had identified the killer, the names of those four victims remained unknown until now. Using new forensics techniques and the help of online sleuths, New Hampshire authorities identified three of them: The adult victim was Marlyse Elizabeth Honeychurch, and two of the children were her daughters: Marie Elizabeth Vaughn and Sarah Lynn McWaters. Rasmussen’s daughter, the fourth victim, remains unnamed.
Last fall, Moon and NHPR released Bear Brook, between October and November 2018, and has released a handful of updates earlier this year. With this latest break in the case, Moon released a new episode earlier this week.
According to Moon, this latest break from two unrelated efforts. An online investigator named Becky Heath had been following the case for more than a decade, trawling through an Ancestry.com forum where people were looking to reconnect with long-lost loved ones and comparing their stories against the profiles of the Bear Brook victims, hoping that a family member might have posted about them.
In 2017, she came across a name: Sarah McWaters. A woman had posted on the forum, noting her husband and his family had been looking for his half-sister and two family members, who had vanished in the 1970s. Heath was able to match the birthdates to the rough age ranges of the Bear Brook victims, but never followed up on the tip, until she began listening to the podcast. “I don’t know why I didn’t pursue it more the first time,” Heath told Moon on the podcast. “I didn’t really get feedback from anyone, so I didn’t really pursue more.” But when she began listening to the podcast last fall, she went back to her findings, and realized that she was onto something, and reached out to the author of the post, learning that Sarah’s mother was married to a man named Rasmussen. She soon submitted a tip to law enforcement.
At the same time, a genetic genealogist named Barbara Rae-Venter had been working on trying to find some usable DNA from the victims. She was the one who had used DNA databases to link Rasmussen to the Bear Brook murders in 2017, and had used the same techniques to help identify the Golden State Killer last year.
But while she had been able to identify Rasmussen’s identity, the bodies recovered in Bear Brook were badly decomposed. Forensics experts had been able to extract mitochondrial DNA from the remains, but to utilize Rae-Venter’s techniques, they needed autosomal DNA. Rae-Venter learned of a new set of techniques that were pioneered by a UC Santa Cruz researcher named Richard Green, which would extract autosomal DNA from rootless hair.
The use of these online databases has been controversial: companies like FamilyTreeDNA and GEDMatch brought an entirely new set of capabilities to law enforcement officials by comparing samples of unknown DNA against their databases, which raised considerable privacy concerns. FamilyTreeDNA recently allowed users to opt out of having their samples used for law enforcement purposes.
Moon noted that he was “pleased that [the podcast] played some small part in advancing this case and moving it closer to a resolution,” but pushed back on the notion that it was solely responsible for the recent discoveries. “I don’t want to overstate our role by any means,” he told The Verge, “The genetic genealogy work was happening and was going to solve it either way. But it was surreal and shocking and humbling to have that small part in all of this.” Regardless, the series helped bring a crucial tip to law enforcement, which helped close the loop on the story.
As for what happens next, there is still the fourth victim that needs to be identified, and while Moon wasn’t sure that they will put together another full episode of Bear Brook, he did say that “we’ll follow it and see what happens.”