Meet The Genetic Sleuths Solving Decades Old Trans Murders-lede-social
Illustration by Nico Teitel

Meet the Genetic Sleuths Solving Decades-Old Trans Murders

Using online DNA databases, Lee and Anthony Redgrave revived a 35-year-old case involving an unknown victim that police misidentified as male.
January 25, 2021, 2:00pm

Content warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of violence against transgender people

On the blustery morning of November 26, 1983, a beachgoer spotted a still-warm body in Half Moon Bay, California. The victim, who looked about 20 years old, had been stabbed more than 20 times and left in the sands near Pillar Point Bluff. Their wrists were slashed, their face bruised and swollen. (Out of respect for the victim’s unknown gender identity, Motherboard is using they/them as a pronoun.)

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At their time of death, the person was presenting as a stylish, slender woman. They were 5-foot-10 inches tall, wearing an auburn pixie cut and casual clothes: yellow capri pants and a turtleneck over a foam-form bra, fishnet hose, and two pairs of feminine underwear. A Madonna-style white metal crucifix hung around their neck. 

When taken to a medical examiner, the victim's body was misidentified as male, and nobody ever came to claim it. In an effort to identify the individual, cops dubbed them “John Doe #83-26” and released a crime sketch depicting a man. It failed to convey their gender identity or expression, including that they were likely wearing makeup and going by a woman’s name.

The case of Pillar Point Doe soon went cold and their identity remained a mystery for 35 years—until two genealogy sleuths recently cracked the case. The trans couple, who specialize in cold cases involving trans and gender non-conforming people, found the forgotten victim’s birth name through an online DNA database, reviving the hunt for their killer.

“I would work until I passed out”

Lee and Anthony Redgrave traced Pillar Point Doe’s relatives from Wales to Utah using the family history site GEDmatch, known for its role in finding the notorious Golden State Killer. The search was close to home for the Redgraves, who toiled obsessively for months without pay. 

“I would work until I passed out. I’d cry myself to sleep at night, and have dreams where I was woken up thinking that [the victim] was telling me their name,” said Anthony, who along with Lee, ran a small team for the DNA Doe Project, a non-profit that identifies deceased people through forensic genealogy.

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Lee added: “There are a lot of factors—and homicide detectives have absolutely no idea how to do this.”

The Redgraves were inspired by personal tragedy to help solve the case. In January 2018, a transgender friend of theirs, Christa Steele-Knudslien—a beauty pageant organizer and trans activist—was beaten and stabbed to death. The attack, which came after another friend’s suicide, sent Lee spiraling into a depression.

“It really tore my brain up,” said Lee, 41, a non-binary night owl with arms full of tattoos. “I got depressed, and when that happens I usually throw myself into a project.”

Anthony and Lee Redgrave stand in front of a background of green trees.

Anthony and Lee Redgrave

When a true crime-loving friend recommended they volunteer for the DNA Doe Project, it seemed like a good distraction. “Partially, I’m sure, it was her being like, ‘You have to stop being in a funk,’” Lee said. “We both felt really helpless about Christa—and this was something we actually could help with.”

They had plenty of experience with genetic genealogy, but they knew the limits of DNA and family tree matches for transgender victims. Database searches often lead to “dead names”—birth names victims no longer use, and aren’t known by in their communities. And most law enforcement systems don’t allow searches across sex marker categories, blinding them to some gender non-conforming folks.

A “trans-informed” perspective could shed some light, considering trans people are more likely to be the target of violent, unresolved crime. “Being a trans person, I know I’ve been incredibly fortunate not to have had a bunch of horrible things happen to me,” said Anthony, 38, a soft-spoken Civil War buff with a long ginger beard. “That was a driving force.”

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When the Redgraves first heard about the Pillar Point Doe case in July 2018, they knew almost immediately it was ripe for a genetic gumshoeing.

An Unlikely Partnership

The victim, who was carrying no identification, had been found only two hours after they were stabbed in the neck and chest, allowing cops to collect a piece of blood-soaked blotter paper known as a “blood card.” This meant Pillar Point Doe’s DNA didn’t have to be extracted from bone, a longer and more expensive  process. And yet it would likely show a complete picture of the victim’s entire genetic makeup, one that could be extracted in a lab and uploaded to GEDmatch, they said.

But the DNA Doe Project still had to get the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office to hand over the blood sample to a lab—and to team up with them on the investigation.  

The Redgraves had a hunch cops would be willing. The request came on the heels of the Golden State Killer’s arrest a few counties away, and in a section of northern California that tends to be queer-friendly.

“The thought was it was a good case because it was the Bay Area. We expected  there would be more friendly law enforcement and a LBGTQ liaison in the Bay Area,” said Anthony. “We had to give an elevator pitch to the department, like, ‘This is why we want this specific case, and this is how it will benefit you.’”

The cops, it turned out, were game. They contacted the DNA Doe Project, and the Redgraves signed non-disclosure agreements.  In a rare move, police released Pillar Point Doe’s private case files, including the blood card along with crime scene and coroner photos. 

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The Redgraves agreed to do the genetic sleuthing, then pass off next of kin matches to police, who would talk to relatives, collect DNA samples and handle the investigation from there.

It was an unlikely partnership. Many trans people refuse to work with cops since law enforcement has routinely targeted the community, trans activists and experts said. According to a 2015 survey, at least 57 percent of trans respondents said they would be afraid or uncomfortable going to police for help.

“It comes from being abused or not taken seriously by officers who historically have been disrespectful or dismissive of trans people,” said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, a policy expert for the National Center for Transgender Equality. “There’s a real stigma. Sometimes just being visibly trans in public is enough to get stopped or harassed by police on suspicion of being a sex worker—whether or not you actually are.” 

Cases with trans victims have long been de-prioritized by cops, who assume victims are sex workers, living a “high risk” lifestyle or are “disowned” by their families, Heng-Lehtinen said. 

But a lack of trans awareness is bad for police, too. Detectives who are ignorant about the community are more likely to use a transgender person’s dead name  because it was printed on a government-issued ID, or to seek outdated information from estranged family members who knew them pre-transition, he said. It keeps those investigators from understanding the whole picture. 

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“If you’re an officer who’s asking around for Mark Smith and everybody in the neighborhood knows her as Marcia, that’s not helping anybody,” Heng-Lehtinen said.

Lee chalks it up to lack of education and training. “If you look at popular media over the past 20 years, the characters that are dressing opposite of what they’re ‘supposed to be’ are usually trying to trick somebody or get away with something—the end of ‘Ace Ventura’ is a classic example, or ‘The Crying Game,’” Lee said. “You get a lot of that mentality still in law enforcement, just because they haven’t had an alternate education.”

Identifying Doe

The Redgraves quickly got to work with an artist, Kim Parkhurst, on creating a more gender-accurate forensic sketch of Pillar Point Doe. In the 80s and 90s, at least three drawings had been made of them, all wildly different. 

One showed a “partially-Asian goth” guy with boxy slicked-back black hair, Lee said. Another depicted a shaggy-haired Val Kilmer look-alike with almond eyes. All were of men, and none were quite right.

“It seemed like [police artists] were trying to make this person look male,” Lee said. “Considering they had natural hair, not a wig, and were wearing pants with multiple layers of hose and underwear, it’s likely that they were tucking to have a more female appearance,” Lee said, citing details about the victim's outfit.

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“They were probably attempting to pass as female as opposed to someone who was [a] drag performer or engaging in prostitution while cross-dressing.”

Based on those clues, the male sketch on flyers would have likely been lost on Pillar Point Doe’s queer “chosen family”—or anyone who saw them the night of the murder, the couple said. So using crime scene and coroner photos, the Redgraves and an artist came up with a new sketch that depicts the victim with a more feminine look, a yellow outfit and natural-style makeup.

In March 2019, Pillar Point’s blood card came back from the lab. It showed Pillar Point Doe’s entire genome sequence on a huge hard drive. 

The Redgraves and their team then plugged those chunks of genetic code into GEDmatch, which compares DNA from testing sites like 23andMe and ancestry.com to find possible relatives with similar genetic makeups. Unlike law enforcement’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the site can pinpoint distant ancestors, not just immediate family members. 

It works like this: Say you find a painting in a park with no signature and you want to learn the name of the artist. If you could somehow scan the piece’s complex colors and brush strokes into a massive database of art, you might be able to match it to the person who made it. Other paintings by the artist with similar patterns—a distant cousin, in this analogy—may also pop up.

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In general, DNA evidence is only as accurate as the people who collect and analyze it. Technicians have been known to misinterpret samples, and police have submitted tainted or mixed genetic material. But Pillar Point’s blood card appeared to be a solid sample, the couple said.  

From their cozy home office in central Massachusetts, the search led the Redgraves to a small town in Wales, where Pillar Point Doe’s distant relatives once worked at a glove factory. “We kept finding people who descended from this really specific family, but then finding the right branch turned out to be really hard,” Lee said.

Scores of unwed mothers hailed from the town for unknown reasons, leading to frustrating genealogy dead-ends. “It happened over and over again in this one little town,” Lee said.

The couple built a massive family tree and cross-referenced names with public records. They traced that to a group of relatives to a Utah pioneer community with roots in the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “When you work on someone’s genealogy, you get to know them in a really intimate way through their ancestors,” Lee said. “You know you’re getting close when they start looking like who you’re looking for.”

The couple soon discovered Pillar Point’s cousins belonged to an intermarried clan of families. Some men had multiple wives and children, amounting to a genealogy headache. “It’s a problem that’s common in isolated religious communities. The fancy word is endogamy,” Lee said. “You end up with a  whole lot of half-relations and unreliable predictions.”

Setbacks

Then a fiasco unfolded. The arrest of the Golden State Killer in 2018 had sparked privacy fears from critics who claimed GEDMatch could be used for nefarious reasons. When a criminal case centering on a minor stirred up more controversy on the site the next year, the owners abruptly purged the “law enforcement matching” section of it in May 2019, according to the Redgraves.

With no warning, it left the couple with only about 20 percent of the genetic clues they’d had before. “Think of it as the number of letters turned around on your ‘Wheel of Fortune’ puzzle. [Afterwards] there were 80 percent less letters, and we still had to guess the phrase,” Lee said.

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The setback forced them to get creative. They sought uploads from people who descended from early settlers in Utah, along with the Mormon church, and mapped out “clusters” of potential relatives.

Anthony spent hours tinkering with DNA Painter, a tool that helps genealogists make sense of matches. Eventually, it led to Pillar Point’s possible great grandfather. 

During an all-nighter in October 2019, they had a breakthrough. When they got to one of the possible great grandfather’s relatives, they checked records for proof of the person’s life after 1983, and found none. Lee pulled out Pillar Point’s crime scene photo and checked it against a high school yearbook photo of the grandchild.  

It all added up:  Here was the long-forgotten face of Pillar Point Doe.

They both burst into tears. “There were periods of crying and shaking for a few days afterwards. It was really intense,” Lee said.

The team then sent Pillar Point’s birth name to cops, who collected DNA from a relative to confirm the match, reinvigorating the investigation.

San Mateo County police have since declined to release Pillar Point Doe’s birth name—or to allow the couple to—saying it could hurt their hunt for the killer. “This homicide is actively being investigated. Unfortunately, disclosing information about the details may hinder our investigation,” Sergeant William Young, from the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, told Motherboard.

Cold Case, Close To Home

Now, the Redgraves want more answers. “Ideally, police will find the perpetrator,” Lee said. “[Cops] definitely want to tell us something but they can’t. It makes us feel hopeful.”

Not long ago, Lee got a tattoo of poppies in Pillar Point Doe’s honor. It was inspired by the California flower bloom that could be seen from space in March 2019, the week the couple began searching for the victim's identity. “I am absolutely forever changed from working on this case,” Lee said.

Ultimately, the Redgraves hope Pillar Point Doe will be remembered for who they were—a complex and loved person, not a forgotten John Doe. “Hopefully someone who loved them will carry on their memory,” Lee said.

The couple now runs the Trans Doe Task Force, a research group that helps police and medical examiners with transgender and gender-expansive cold cases. Recently, they launched a database that allows for DNA comparisons across sex marker categories. They also founded their own firm, Redgrave Research Forensic Services, and Anthony has helped train law enforcement departments on five continents.

These days, the couple has a small framed high school photo of Pillar Point Doe in their home, near portraits of other people from cases close to their hearts. 

“Pillar Point has become part of our family. I feel like we are basically like their  foster parents,” Anthony said. “I’m going to feel that way until I know exactly how this case ends.”

Correction: This article was updated to clarify that the Redgraves worked on the case with a team at the DNA Doe Project, and to credit the artist who produced the updated sketch of the Pillar Point Doe.