The mother of a man charged with murdering a college student in Florida in 2001 says police detectives have obtained her DNA sample that led them to her son under false pretenses.
In November 2018, the Orlando Police Department announced the arrest of 39-year-old Benjamin Holmes Jr for the killing of Christine Franke after they matched 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 included Holmes’ own mother, Eleanor Holmes, 79, who lives in Valdosta, Georgia.
Benjamin Holmes Jr, 39 (left), was arrested in November 2018 for the cold-case murder of Christine Franke, 25 (right), who was shot dead in October 2001 in Orlando
An evidence marker is seen at the scene of Franke’s shooting death, where semen was collected from her body
On the floor of Franke’s apartment, investigators found her empty wallet, phone and backpack
In an interview with NBC News, Eleanor claimed that when a pair of police detectives from Florida showed up at her home in October 2018, they told her they were trying to identify a woman who had been found dead years prior, and asked to take a DNA sample from her.
The detectives explained that they had already obtained DNA samples from Eleanor’s sister and aunt in order to build a family tree of the victim.
Eleanor, who suspected that the deceased woman might have been her niece, agreed to have her cheek swabbed by the cops right in her driveway.
It was not until a few days later, when she got a phone call from her son Benjamin’s girlfriend in Florida telling her about his arrest on murder charges, that the mother learned the true purpose of the detectives’ visit.
‘When they arrested him, I knew they were lying,’ Holmes said. ‘They lied to us.’
Holmes Jr has pleaded not guilty to the charges in Franke’s killing, and his parents say they are convinced he is innocent.
Police issued this composite made from DNA left at the scene but it did not lead to any tips
He is scheduled to go on trial in June, when his defense is expected to raise questions about investigators’ use of deception to collect DNA samples from innocent people not suspected of any crime.
His mother told NBC that had the detectives stated the real purpose of their visit, she would have refused to give them her DNA sample.
Her husband, retired chef Benjamin Holmes Sr, declined to submit to testing.
‘For me to give my DNA to you, you have to come with some kind of papers from lawyers or something,’ he told the station.
From a legal standpoint, police are allowed to lie to people in order to obtain evidence, but surreptitious DNA collection is uncharted territory.
In federal cases, a policy recently introduced by the US Department of Justice requires authorities to obtain informed consent from people not suspected of a crime to obtain DNA samples from them.
If obtaining consent could jeopardize the investigation, federal officials may obtain the sample covertly with a judge’s order.
But that policy does not apply to the Franke murder investigation, which is a state case.
Franke, a 25-year-old college student working as a waitress, was shot dead inside her apartment in Orlando on October 21, 2001, during a botched 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
Investigators recovered semen from the victim’s body and submitted a sample of it to the state crime lab.
Based on this evidence, a DNA profile was developed and entered into a national database, where it languished without producing a match for more than 15 years.
All that changed in the spring of 2018, when Orlando police detective Michael Fields joined forces with Parabon Nanolabs, a DNA testing website, which was given the DNA sample from the crime scene for testing.
The site found a match with two cousins on the website GEDMatch, an open data personal genomics database and genealogy website, and notified police who contacted the people who had submitted the samples.
After collecting voluntary DNA samples from a dozen family members, police narrowed their search to Benjamin Holmes Jr and his brother Reginald.
In at least two instances, detectives told the suspect’s relatives a familiar story about seeking to identify a deceased woman in Florida.
Police first focused on Reginald Holmes, following him to work at a construction site where an undercover cop engaged him in a conversation and offered him a bottle of Gatorade.
The officer later trailed Holmes and collected the empty bottle from a trash can for DNA testing, which ruled him out a s suspect in Franke’s murder.
Police then zeroed in on his brother Benjamin, who was a Wendy’s restaurant manager with a criminal record in 2001.
Detectives staked out Holmes Jr outside a friend’s house and collected his discarded empty beer bottle and cigar.
Both items were sent to the state crime lab for testing and produced a match with the DNA sample collected from the scene of Franke’s murder, leading to his arrest on November 2, 2018.
Holmes’ defense attorney said his client told him he never met Franke and does not know how his DNA ended up in her apartment.
The lawyer conceded that police did not break any laws by resorting to a subterfuge to obtain the DNA sample from Benjamin’s mother, but he he will try to have the evidence blocked from his trial, raising questions about a possible contatminaiton at the crime lab.
State officiates, however, stated that DNA samples have been analyzed a second time under sanitary conditions.