ORLANDO, Fla. – Nearly 22 years after Christine Franke was found dead in her Orlando apartment, the man accused of fatally shooting the UCF student is on trial for first degree murder.
Benjamin Lee Holmes, 42, was arrested in 2018 after detectives turned to genealogists to help them identify the source of DNA found at the crime scene.
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During opening statements, Holmes’s attorney did not dispute that his client’s DNA was found on the victim’s body.
But the defense claimed someone else staged the crime scene to frame Holmes.
“(The DNA evidence) was planted by someone who knew the victim to deflect attention away from someone else,” defense attorney Jerry Girley told the jury.
Girley did not immediately indicate how someone else may have obtained his client’s body fluid before allegedly planting it at the crime scene.
Prosecutors promised jurors that circumstantial evidence presented during the trial would point to Holmes as the killer.
“Every crime scene tells a story,” said Assistant State Attorney Sean Wiggins.
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.
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.
Over the next decade, records show OPD detectives collected DNA samples from numerous friends, neighbors, co-workers, customers, and other potential suspects, but none matched the DNA found at the crime scene.
In 2018, Orlando detectives learned 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.
DeAngelo was identified as a suspect after California investigators uploaded the killer’s DNA to a genealogy database in hopes of locating potential relatives.
Exactly two weeks after DeAngelo’s arrest, Orlando Police received an email from Parabon Nanolabs, a DNA analysis company, stating that it had received “promising” matches after entering DNA data from the Franke crime scene into a genealogy database called GEDmatch.
OPD immediately granted Parabon permission to use both genetic analysis and traditional genealogical research to assemble the alleged 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.
Years earlier, Georgia resident John Hogan had submitted a sample of DNA from his mouth to the genealogy service AncestryDNA to learn which of his relatives may have been slaves.
Hogan later shared his DNA information with GEDmatch.
“I was always interested in my heritage, my family and my culture,” Hogan said in a 2019 interview with News 6. “When you told me my DNA helped solve a 17-year cold case murder, I just couldn’t believe it.”
Through genealogical research, investigators constructed a family tree that included Hogan’s great-grandparents, Charlie and Mary Burgman, and nearly 100 of their descendants.
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 stating that “The DNA profile from (semen at the crime scene) is consistent with being the biological child of Eleanor Holmes.”
Both of those children lived in Central Florida.
After ruling out Holmes’ brother Reginal as a suspect because DNA he left behind on a discarded Gatorade bottle did not match the crime scene DNA, investigator began surveilling Holmes.
In October 2018, an undercover detective watched as Holmes drank a beer and smoked a cigar in the driveway outside a friend’s home.
When 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 Holmes Jr. is the suspect in the murder of Christine Franke.”
In the years leading up to this week’s trial, Holmes’s attorney unsuccessfully attempted to bar prosecutors from presenting the DNA evidence to a jury.
“(His family’s) DNA was obtained through false pretenses,” Girley told News 6 in 2019.
The attorney claims detectives told Holmes’s mother they needed her to provide a DNA sample to help identify a murder victim.
As part of Holmes’s defense, Girley plans to show jurors that there is no other evidence connecting his client to the crime scene, including fingerprints, hair, shoeprints or skin cells.
Girley also said prosecutors have no evidence Holmes had ever been seen with Franke or lived near her apartment.
“As Mr. Holmes sits here, the real killer is out there, living his or her life, and not being held accountable,” Girley told jurors.
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