Man's DNA test helped police arrest his relative for UCF student's death

Detectives used genealogy to solve 2001 homicide

A man who submitted his DNA to an ancestry site unknowingly helped Orlando police solve a cold case murder.

VALDOSTA, Ga. – John Hogan had never heard of Christine Franke nor had he seen news reports detailing law enforcement's inability to figure out who fatally shot the 25-year-old University of Central Florida student in her Orlando apartment in 2001.

But by submitting his DNA to a genealogy database, Hogan unwittingly helped detectives identify and arrest the killer, according to newly released police records obtained by News 6.

"When you told me that my DNA helped solve a 17-year cold case murder, I just couldn't believe it," said Hogan, who recently learned of his role in the homicide investigation when he was contacted by a News 6 reporter.

Using DNA extracted from semen found at the crime scene, detectives uploaded the suspected killer's genetic data to GEDmatch, a free online database used by genealogists and amateur researchers to identify potential relatives.

Investigators soon discovered the suspect was genetically related to Hogan, police records show.

After mapping out Hogan's family tree, detectives obtained DNA samples from various extended family members as they tried to pinpoint relatives whose genetic information even more closely resembled that of the suspected killer.

Last October, the search led investigators to Hogan's second cousin, Benjamin Lee Holmes.

An undercover surveillance team spotted the Orlando fast-food restaurant manager smoking cigars, which detectives secretly collected.

DNA recovered from those cigar butts matched DNA found on the murder victim's body 17 years earlier, police records show.

While being questioned by detectives after his arrest, Holmes could not explain how his DNA was found at the crime scene.

Holmes has pleaded not guilty to Franke's murder.

"The power of DNA, it's unbelievable," said Hogan, who does not recall ever meeting Holmes at family reunions. "When you told me that this suspect is basically a second cousin of mine, I could not believe it."

Murder investigation turns cold

On Oct. 21, 2001, officers with the Orlando Police Department responded to the Colonial Gardens Apartments on Plaza Terrace Drive where neighbors had found Franke dead inside her apartment.

The UCF student was lying face down and partially undressed with a single gunshot wound in her head.

Approximately $300 in tip money Franke had likely earned that day while working at Cigarz Bar at Universal Orlando CityWalk was missing from the apartment, police records show.

The medical examiner's office found no indication she had been raped, records indicate.

However, investigators discovered drops of seminal fluid on Franke's body that they believe was left behind by the man who shot her, according to reports.

During the next decade, newly released records show OPD detectives collected DNA samples from numerous friends, neighbors, co-workers and customers.   

They also investigated residents of a nearby behavioral treatment facility, including one person who had reportedly bragged about knowing Franke's killer.

None of their DNA matched the sample found at the crime scene, records show.

Likewise, authorities never found a match when they ran the suspect's genetic data through CODIS, a nationwide DNA database maintained by the FBI that contains profiles contributed by federal, state and local authorities.

In 2005, nearly four years after Franke's murder, scientists analyzed the suspect's DNA and determined he was likely a black male with African ancestry.  However, that information did not help detectives identify the killer.

Eleven years later, a genetics company used DNA from the crime scene to generate a composite photo of what the suspect could potentially look like.  

Unfortunately for police and Franke's family, publicity surrounding the release of that photo in 2016 did not generate any new leads, records show.

Hogan submits DNA to genealogy database

Hogan told News 6 he signed up with the genealogy service AncestryDNA a few years ago, in part to learn which of his relatives may have been slaves and where they came from. 

"I was always interested in my heritage, my family and my culture," Hogan said.

After sending a saliva sample to the company, Hogan received his DNA profile.

Hogan later uploaded his genetic data to GEDmatch, a public database, to compare it with DNA profiles from people who had used other testing companies, such as 23andMe or FamilyTreeDNA.

"We have a huge, huge family," Hogan said. "I've got like 650 fourth cousins and a bunch of second and third cousins."

Hogan, who once worked as a hemodialysis technician at a Georgia hospital and plans to launch his second political campaign to become the Lowndes County coroner, said he has always been interested in blood, DNA and death investigations.

Last year Hogan followed news reports about the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, the suspected Golden State Killer who murdered at least 12 people and raped more than 50 women in California in the 1970s and 1980s.

For the first time on record, detectives identified the killer by uploading crime scene DNA information to the GEDmatch database in order to locate potential relatives.

Yet despite knowing that law enforcement could now potentially use his DNA to solve a crime, Hogan did not consider the possibility that detectives would soon be using his genetic information to hunt for a murderer.

"I never in a million years would have thought I would be a part of something like this," Hogan said.

Police tap genealogy database to ID murder suspect

In May 2018, exactly two weeks after the arrest of the suspected Golden State Killer, OPD received an email from Parabon Nanolabs, the DNA analysis company that had previously produced a composite photo of Franke's killer.

A company representative told detectives that after entering the murder suspect's DNA data into GEDmatch, it had received "promising" matches, police records show.

OPD immediately granted Parabon permission to use both genetic analysis and traditional genealogical research to assemble the killer's family tree.

According to police records, GEDmatch produced a list of 1,500 people in the database who had DNA profiles with similarities to the suspect’s genetic information.

When investigators sorted those results to identify which individuals were most genetically related to the suspect, two names rose to the top of the list: Hogan and Jackie Faison.

Faison, who lives in Virgina, told News 6 she also signed up with AncestryDNA and submitted her results to GEDmatch in hopes of learning more about her family history.

Like Hogan, Faison said she was never notified that detectives were using her DNA profile to identify a murderer.

Through genealogical research, investigators constructed a family tree that showed Hogan and Faison were both descendants of Charlie and Mary Burgman.  The couple was Faison's grandparents and Hogan's great-grandparents.

According to detectives, it was "highly likely" the man who murdered Franke was an ancestor of the Burgmans.

After discovering where the Burgman family tree began, genealogists began identifying the couple's other descendants, including their 10 children, at least 42 grandchildren and more than 40 great-grandchildren.

Armed with a fairly complete family tree, detectives eliminated some family members as possible suspects, including all females, men who would have been too young at the time of Franke's murder or those with a proven alibi.

To narrow down the pool of potential suspects even further, police collected voluntary DNA samples from 15 family members, records show.

In late October 2018, OPD detectives Michael Fields and Michael Moreschi traveled more than 200 miles to Valdosta, Georgia, to obtain a DNA sample from 79-year-old Eleanor Holmes, one of the Burgmans' grandchildren.

Two days later, police received a report from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime laboratory.

"The DNA profile from (semen at the crime scene) is consistent with being the biological child of Eleanor Holmes," the report stated. 

By then, investigators already knew the Georgia woman had two sons, Reginal Holmes and Benjamin Holmes.

Both men lived in Orlando.

Police arrest suspected murderer

On the morning of Oct. 25, members of OPD's Fugitive Investigation Unit watched as Reginal Holmes drove away from his home in a truck he used for his job at a heating and air conditioning business.

Officers followed Reginal Holmes to a new housing development in Indian River County, where he was seen installing an air conditioning unit.

Police records show an undercover detective approached Reginal Holmes and offered him an unopened Gatorade drink, which he later discarded in a dumpster.

When FDLE analyzed the DNA from the Gatorade bottle, the agency determined that it did not match the suspect's DNA, meaning detectives could eliminate the air conditioner installer as a suspect.

"The exclusion of Reginal James Holmes leaves the sole possibility of Benjamin Lee Holmes Jr. as the person who killed Christine Franke," Fields wrote in an affidavit.

By then, a judge had already issued a warrant allowing police to track Benjamin Holmes' cellphone, records show.

Using data from that phone, authorities located the Wendy's restaurant manager at a friend's house on Lighthouse Road in Orlando, reports indicate.

On Oct. 30, an undercover detective watched as Benjamin Holmes drank a beer and smoked a cigar in the driveway outside the home.

When Benjamin Holmes walked inside, another detective collected seven cigar butts from the area located on public property, according to court records.

Investigators took the evidence to the FDLE crime lab, which quickly produced another report.

"The DNA profile from the small cigar analyzed WAS A MATCH as a contributor to the suspect DNA sample," Fields wrote in a report.  "Based on this information, Benjamin Lee Homes Jr. is the suspect in the murder of Christine Franke."

Three days later, with warrants in hand to arrest Holmes and take a DNA sample directly from him, Fields and Moreschi knocked on the suspect's door and began questioning him.

Holmes told the detectives he had never met or seen Franke, had never been to her apartment and knew nothing about her murder, police records show.

"I showed Benjamin Holmes a copy of the search warrant for his buccal swab (DNA sample)," Fields wrote. "(He) became instantly nervous."

During an interview at OPD headquarters after being taken into custody, Benjamin Holmes continued to deny he knew Franke.

When asked how his DNA was found at the murder scene, Benjamin Holmes stated it must have been "planted" or the science was wrong, police records show.

FDLE crime lab analysts later concluded that the DNA sample taken directly from Benjamin Holmes matched the DNA found on Franke's body 17 years earlier, according to court records.

At the time of Holmes's arrest, detectives could find no other link between him and Franke, police reports indicate. Holmes did not live close to Franke's apartment and he did not work on Universal Studios property, where the victim was employed.

"They really did great police work. Great investigation work," Hogan said after News 6 shared with him details of how his genealogy test led to the arrest of a family member. "I can only imagine how the Franke family felt."

Benjamin Holmes, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder and armed robbery, plans to challenge OPD’s use of a genealogy database to make an arrest, according to his lawyer.

“(His family’s) DNA was obtained through false pretenses,” said criminal defense attorney Jerry Girley, who claims detectives told Eleanor Holmes they needed her DNA to help identify a murder victim.

Girley said he also plans to challenge the procedures used by OPD to collect DNA evidence from the crime scene and will explore whether his client’s DNA could have been planted there.

Hogan reacts to relative's arrest

According to Hogan, neither he nor his immediate family knew about Benjamin Holmes' arrest until News 6 contacted him for this story.

Although Hogan does not recall meeting Benjamin Holmes, other family members were familiar with the person relatives called "Little Ben."

"This suspect is a second cousin of mine, and this case has been solved with my DNA," Hogan said. "That's powerful."

Hogan said he feels no guilt for unwittingly leading police to his relative.

"If you break the law and commit a crime, and in this case it's a murder, you have to stand trial and you have to go to jail," Hogan said. "You have to pay the penalty."

Following the high profile arrest of the suspected Golden State Killer, some genealogists and privacy rights advocates began raising concerns about law enforcement's use of genealogy databases to solve crimes.

To provide users with additional privacy controls, GEDmatch recently changed the terms of service for using the mostly free database.  

As of May, GEDmatch users must intentionally opt in to publicly share their DNA data with others. They are also given the option to opt out of sharing their DNA with law enforcement agencies.

It is still possible for police agencies to obtain a user's genealogy data through a subpoena or a warrant, the GEDmatch website indicates.

AncestryDNA, the testing company used by Hogan, requires law enforcement agencies to obtain a valid search warrant before it releases a user's data, according to the company's website.

Although Hogan understands why some people might have concerns, he does not feel police violated his privacy by secretly using his DNA profile data to construct his family tree.

"There's pros and cons. There's good and bad to everything," Hogan said. "In this case, it worked out for the greater good. But in Benjamin's case, it didn't work out too well for him."

As Benjamin Holmes awaits trial, Hogan is expressing his support for Franke's mother and other relatives.

"Just know that my family stands behind you guys," Hogan said. "We're grieving with you. At the same time, we're happy and we are so joyous that you found closure."

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.