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Two 1970s South Lake Tahoe homicides solved by DNA breakthrough, El Dorado County DA says

Evidence from a public DNA database has linked two South Lake Tahoe cold-case homicides from the 1970s to a suspect who has been dead since 2014, the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office announced Monday.

DNA gathered from a public database helped the El Dorado Cold Case Task Force connect Joseph Holt to the 1977 slaying of 27-year-old Brynn Ellen Rainey and the 1979 killing of Carol Ann Andersen, 16, District Attorney Vern Pierson said.

Holt, a San Jose native who was born in 1947, died in 2014 and was not named as a suspect until last year, according to a detailed case summary released by Pierson.

The task force hired DNA phenotyping company Parabon Nanolabs to build a “family tree” off of DNA recovered from blood stains on Rainey’s shirt and DNA collected from Andersen’s body during autopsy.

The tree revealed that the DNA source was either Joseph Holt or one of his two brothers, all of whom were dead.

Holt’s family cooperated with law enforcement during the investigation and had no knowledge of his alleged crimes, the DA said in a news release announcing the breakthrough.

Holt’s biological son, who was not named by authorities in an effort to respect his privacy, in 2018 provided his own DNA and a toothbrush belonging to his father, which helped task force forensic analysts determine that Joseph Holt was the match.

Rainey’s body was found nude and partially buried near the Sunset Stateline Stables on Aug. 20, 1977, with a purse containing her identification found nearby, according to the case summary. The official cause of death was not determined due to decomposition, but a pathologist said it was likely strangulation or suffocation.

Andersen was located along the side of the Sundown Trail on July 1, 1979. An autopsy determined she was strangled, according to the official case summary, and her wrists had marks indicating she had been bound.

At the time of each death, Holt lived less than two miles away from where the bodies were found, the DA’s case summary said.

Swabs were taken of both bodies, but the cases eventually went cold.

After its formation in 2007, Cold Case Task Force investigators made breakthroughs in 2012 and 2013, first locating a male DNA profile on Andersen’s swab and then a partial profile on Rainey’s. Both profiles were uploaded to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), but neither resulted in a match.

The task force returned to the case in 2017 as technology advanced, and developed a “more robust” DNA profile in November of that year, according to a news release.

Within 10 days of that new profile, forensic analysts were able to confirm that the DNA found at each scene was from the same individual. Last year, Parabon Nanolabs’ family tree helped lead investigators to Holt’s family.

Holt grew up in San Jose and graduated from Cupertino High School and UC Berkeley.

Family members of each victim issued statements via the El Dorado County DA, requesting privacy and declining contact with media.

“Finally after 44 years of hell and back, we have some answers,” Rainey’s brother, Pete Garl, said.

A statement released by Andersen’s family called Carol a “beautiful, vibrant teenager” and lauded the task force’s investigative efforts.

“(T)hrough all their hard work and efforts, they were able to give the family some answers and closure and ultimately allow Carol Andersen to rest in peace!” the statement said.

A warrant served Jan. 23 of this year by the Cold Case Task Force collected Holt’s personal property from a garage and found “evidence suggestive of other criminal conduct,” the DA case summary says. That evidence included newspaper clippings from a January 1975 story on an unsolved Los Gatos shooting, in which a man burglarizing a vehicle escaped after shooting a victim. The victim survived.

Investigators with the Los Gatos Police Department released a composite sketch of a suspect in the burglary and shooting, which bears a strong resemblance to Holt. Holt was “known to frequent both South Lake Tahoe and the Los Gatos area” at the time, the DA said.

josephholtplussketch.JPG
El Dorado County District Attorney's Office

Pierson established the Cold Case Task Force in his first year as DA in 2007. He comprised it of prosecutors, investigators and forensic DNA analysts from the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office and South Lake Tahoe Police Department.

Chief Genealogist CeCe Moore joined Parabon Nanolabs in 2018. Moore has helped law enforcement agencies across the country identify more than two dozen suspects in cold cases, some of them decades old.

“Our genetic genealogy team was fortunate enough to be able to generate good leads after which the casework and forensic laboratory analyses were exemplary,” Moore said in a prepared statement. “With that type of synergy we can expect to see many more cold cases solved.”

The DA’s office says Holt’s case is ongoing and anyone with information concerning Holt or any other unsolved case should call the Cold Cask Task Force tip line at 530-621-4590.

Rainey and Andersen were two of 13 victims either found dead, or reported missing and presumed dead, listed on the Cold Case Task Force’s website. The 11 other victims died or went missing between 1976 and 2017.

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Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.
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