Unspeakable Times

Crimes Solved by a Tiny Shred of Evidence 

Mike Rothschild
Updated July 8, 2019 59.7k views 14 items

A tiny shred of evidence can be all it takes to solve a horrible crime, whether it's a fingerprint, some threads, a few molecules of DNA, a random conversation, or something left behind that the culprit thinks has virtually no importance. These traces of evidence can be left by accident, out of sloppiness, or because there's no way to know that they could be used, and they've helped solve numerous killings.

Sometimes, the shred of evidence leads to something else - or emerges out of nothing. Many cold cases have so little to go on that investigators have to get creative. Something as simple as a grain of pollen, or a witness from decades ago realizing a case was still open, can help sway a jury in complicated court cases - proving that when it comes to a crime scene, no detail is too small.

Here are some crimes that were solved thanks to tiny pieces of evidence.
The Used Hot Dog Napkin That Cracked A Cold Case
The Used Hot Dog Napkin ... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Crimes Solved by a Tiny Shred of Evidence
Photo:  Bing/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

In Minneapolis in 1993, police found 35-year-old Jeanne Ann Childs in a shower with socks on, running water, and dozens of stab wounds. Although they collected DNA evidence from the scene - a blood sample, a soiled washcloth, bed sheets, and a T-shirt - they could not locate the perpetrator. 

In February 2019, 26 years after her death, a genealogy test led investigators to suspect 52-year-old Jerry A. Westrom. They followed Westrom in an attempt to indicate whether he was involved in the incident without alerting him of their presence. At a hockey game, Westrom threw away his used napkin with DNA that matched that collected from the scene leaving "no doubt that Westrom killed Childs," according to the Star Tribune.  

Westrom's father, Norlin, alleged that his son was single and working in Minneapolis when Childs was killed. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman is confident that the used napkin provides probable cause for arrest because "when discarding something in the trash, the Supreme Court has said many times it is fair game." 

Westrom's bail has been posted at $1 million and he retains his innocence.

The Murder Solved Thanks To LEGO Bricks
The Murder Solved Thanks... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Crimes Solved by a Tiny Shred of Evidence
Photo: Priwo/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A decades-old cold case in Utah was finally solved, thanks to fingerprints left on LEGO bricks at the scene. For more than 20 years, police were baffled by the murder of Lucille Johnson, a 78-year-old woman found dead in her bed by her daughter. Johnson had a pillow over her face, had been severely beaten, and strangled. Detectives deduced that robbery was the motive, and worked the case for over 15 years before finally shelving it.

After being cold for years, the case was re-opened after DNA from Johnson's fingernails was found to be combined with that of John Sansing, a convicted murderer already on death row in Arizona. Investigators went back to LEGO bricks that were collected from the crime scene, and matched a fingerprint on them to one of Sansing's children, who was apparently with him at the time of the murder.
A Single Fingerprint Brings Down The Night Stalker
A Single Fingerprint Bri... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Crimes Solved by a Tiny Shred of Evidence
Photo: San Quentin State Prison/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A serial killer known as the Night Stalker terrorized Los Angeles and San Francisco from June 1984 until August 1985, killing 14 people and brutally beating and raping over a dozen others. While a frenzy of press coverage followed the crimes, the killer himself remained unknown. Finally, police caught a break when the young neighbor of a couple that the Night Stalker had attacked saw a weird-looking guy in black leaving their house, and wrote down part of his license plate.

The boy's parents went to the police, who quickly found the car abandoned on Wilshire Boulevard in LA. Despite the killer's diligence, police found a single fingerprint on the car's rearview mirror. Using a new computer system, the LAPD matched it to a career criminal named Richard Ramirez, and went public with his mugshot. He was identified in an East LA store, run down by bystanders who stopped him from carjacking a woman, and captured. He died in prison in 2014. 
The Postage Stamp That Eventually Revealed A Killer
The Postage Stamp That E... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list Crimes Solved by a Tiny Shred of Evidence
Photo: Pinterest/Fair Use

Thirteen-year-old Italian girl Yara Gambirasio disappeared from her small village in 2010, and her body was found three months later. Investigators found DNA samples on her body that they couldn't identify. What followed was a dragnet that involved voluntary DNA testing on tens of thousands of people in the region, looking for a match. It took two years to find a clue, and finally, police did - from the DNA on a postage stamp affixed to a paper driver's license used by a cab driver in a nearby small town.

The DNA on the back of the stamp matched DNA found on Yara, but there was one problem with the discovery - the man who had licked the stamp had been dead for a decade. He had three children, all of whom were ruled out as suspects - meaning he must have had an illegitimate son connected to the killing. Police tested over 500 women that the taxi driver might have known, and found one whose DNA matched the sample found on the girl. She had three children, one of whom, Massimo Giuseppe Bossetti, had his DNA secretly tested and was found to be a match. Bossetti, a married father of three, was put on trial for a murder that had gripped his native country.