Jan 5, 2022 - News

Atlanta police use genealogy to solve teen’s 1995 murder

The mother of Nacole Smith hugs Betty Brown during Atlanta Police Department's press conference.
Nacole Smith's mother Acquanellia Smith, right, hugs Betty Brown during Tuesday's news conference. Atlanta police announced that a suspect had been identified in Nacole Smith's 1995 murder and Brown's 2004 sexual assault. Screenshot courtesy of Atlanta Police Department

Atlanta police say DNA and genealogy services helped them crack the case of a 14-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted and murdered more than two decades ago.

The technology led police to identifying a suspect in the murder of Nacole Smith, who was found dead on the morning of June 7, 1995, behind an apartment building on Campbellton Road in southwest Atlanta.

  • The news was announced Tuesday during a news conference held at APD’s headquarters.

Why it matters: Using genetic testing services to solve cold cases drew national attention when authorities in 2018 in California used the technology to identify former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo as the Golden State Killer.

  • “This has just been a culmination of extremely skilled and experienced detectives that have put forth some great work in being able to get us to this resolution today,” said Lt. Ralph Woolfolk, homicide commander of the Atlanta Police Department.

Flashback: Nacole Smith and her sister were walking to school when she had to go back home to pick up an item, retired Atlanta police detective Vince Velazquez said during Tuesday’s news conference.

  • On her way home, Nacole was confronted by a man who assaulted, raped and shot her twice, which proved fatal, Velazquez said.

Velazquez said APD interviewed hundreds of people and even brought in two police recruit classes to help with the case. A DNA profile was obtained in the 1995 murder, but the case went cold.

  • In 2002, Velazquez said he reopened the case and reinterviewed people to “breathe some life into this case.”

Meanwhile: In 2004, a 13-year-old girl was sexually assaulted in East Point and the DNA profile taken from evidence in that case matched with the Atlanta case.

To keep the case in the spotlight, Atlanta police put up a billboard near Greenbriar Mall featuring a composite sketch of the suspect and got the case featured on "America’s Most Wanted."

Atlanta police spent hundreds of thousands of dollars testing DNA and interviewing hundreds of people around the country, but Nacole’s murder remained unsolved.

  • When Valazquez retired in 2017, he passed the cold case on to Det. Scott Demeester, who began looking for new leads to pursue in the murder, including genealogy and ancestry databases.

What they did: In 2018 with the support of APD’s command staff and Atlanta mayor’s office, detectives submitted the 1995 sample stored at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Forensic Lab to a genealogy service, and three years later, it was connected to the profiles obtained in both Atlanta and East Point’s cases.

Unfortunately, the news came too late for police to build a criminal case. The suspect, a 49-year-old man, died in August 2021 while in hospice care for liver and kidney failure, Atlanta police said.

  • Atlanta police have not publicly identified the suspect because “we don’t want to give any relevance to him as an individual,” Woolfolk said.

What they’re saying: Nacole's mother, Acquanellia Smith, was joined at the news conference by Betty Brown, who identified herself as the survivor of the East Point sexual assault.

Smith said the moment was bittersweet because the suspect was dead, and she’ll never get answers to the questions she has for him.

  • “I would never say it was closure for me because I’ll live with this pain for the rest of my life,” she said through tears. “I tell you, I’m in so much pain and there’s not a pill that can take that pain away.”

Brown said the assault was a part of her life she kept hidden because “I just did not want to live in that pain anymore." She said she remains conflicted because while her attacker will no longer be able to hurt other people, she is unable to confront him.

  • “I’m mad that I didn’t get that opportunity to face him, to look him in his eyes and … (for him) to face me.”
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