Hockey dad Jerry Westrom visited a rink for a game one recent winter’s day, as he had done countless times over the years, ate a hot dog and threw his napkin in the trash.
Within weeks, DNA evidence on that napkin put the Isanti businessman in jail, charged with murder in the 1993 stabbing of 35-year-old Jeanne Ann “Jeanie” Childs in a Minneapolis apartment. Prosecutors say the DNA, tested against crime scene evidence collected decades ago, leaves no doubt that Westrom killed Childs.
Westrom, 52, was arrested Monday at his Waite Park office. He remains jailed in lieu of $1 million bail ahead of a court appearance Friday.
“If we don’t have a match, we don’t have a case,” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said soon after Westrom was charged in district court.
The charges against Westrom, who was 27 at the time of the killing, detail an especially violent attack in the apartment in the 3100 block of Pillsbury Avenue, which police said Childs used for prostitution.
According to the complaint:
Police were called to the building after a tenant saw water coming from an apartment. Officers found Childs dead in the shower, wearing only socks, the water running.
She had dozens of stab wounds, and “a number of wounds were inflicted [after she died],” the complaint read.
Evidence collected by investigators from the room included the bed comforter, a towel and washcloth, a T-shirt and a bloodstain on the sink.
The trail soon went cold in a killing that received little attention.
Advances in DNA testing prompted Minneapolis police to revive the case in 2015. Samples from the scene were sent to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) and a private DNA company.
The FBI then ran the sample through an online genealogy website in 2018, relying on a process that others have used to find lost relatives and map family trees. That turned up two possible suspects, one of them Westrom. It turned out, Freeman said, that either Westrom or a close relative of his had submitted DNA for genetic background information.
In January, officers trailed Westrom in hopes of collecting a DNA sample without tipping him off. They said they caught up with him at the hockey game, where he ordered a hot dog from the concession stand.
When Westrom was done eating, he wiped his mouth with a napkin and tossed it in a trash can, authorities said. Once the coast was clear, investigators recovered the napkin.
The BCA said the DNA on the napkin was consistent with DNA collected from the apartment where Childs was killed, and that gave them probable cause to arrest Westrom.
Freeman is sure that picking that napkin out of the discarded food container will withstand any legal challenge.
“When discarding something in the trash, the Supreme Court has said many times it is fair game,” he said.
After Westrom’s arrest this week, DNA was collected from him. It too was a match with DNA on the washcloth seized from the homicide scene, authorities said. His DNA allegedly also matched sperm on the towel and the comforter from the apartment.
Under questioning, Westrom denied every aspect of the allegations, including being in the apartment, recognizing Childs or having sex with any woman in 1993. He said he has no explanation for why his DNA would have been in the apartment where she was stabbed.
Westrom’s attorney, Steve Meshbesher, said he had no comment for now.
Westrom’s father, Norlin Westrom, said Tuesday that his son was raised in the Elbow Lake area, about 30 miles northwest of Alexandria, was working in Minneapolis at the time of Childs’ death, and had not yet married at that time.
While the Minneapolis Police Department’s cold case squad increasingly uses DNA to crack unsolved cases, such as the September 2017 arrest of a man in the 34-year-old murder of a teenager, genealogy research websites have recently come to the forefront as investigative tools. Last spring, evidence on one of them led to the capture of the Golden State Killer, a rapist and murderer who had eluded authorities for decades.
“Genetic genealogy has incredible power for human identification,” said CeCe Moore, chief genealogist at Parabon NanoLabs. “It’s revolutionary [for law enforcement]. There’s really no reason for there to be serial killers or serial rapists anymore. We should be able to identify them much more quickly and stop them from victimizing people.”
Since spring 2018, Moore said about 50 cold cases have been solved nationwide using public genealogy websites.
Childs’ mother, Betty Eakman, long wondered about her daughter’s fate. “I am so happy they have come out with this new [DNA] technology,” Eakman said, “so it can help other cases to be solved.”
Childs dropped out of school in Isanti in sixth grade, ran away from home many times and pretty much moved out for good in her late teens, Eakman said.
Eakman said her daughter “went off the deep end in her teens” after the shooting death in Minneapolis of her mother’s second husband in 1971 by his business partner and brother-in-law.
Childs later moved to Minneapolis and bounced from place to place. “I didn’t know anything about drugs,” Eakman said, offering a hint to another of the troubles in Childs’ life. “I was not suspicious for many, many years.”
Westrom lived in the Twin Cities area for about 2½ years until moving away six months after Childs was killed. He later married and had a fairly high profile in the Isanti area through his business ventures and support of youth athletics, raising his two now-grown children in organized hockey.
His blog, which has been dormant since early last year, said he earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business from the University of Minnesota in 1989 and managed an organic farm just outside of Isanti. In the meantime, he built a history of convictions for drunken driving. He got off probation last year after being convicted in Stearns County in 2016 after getting caught in a police sting believing he was soliciting a teenager for sex.
“Well, I never in a million years would have thought that I worked for [an accused] murderer when I was 16,” said a 31-year-old woman who was raised in the Isanti area and requested anonymity for this article out of concern for her safety. “This news makes every interaction I had with him seem even more scary.”
The woman, who now lives in the Twin Cities, recalled that “Jerry was loved by the town when I was growing up. He did the pancake breakfast for some of the high school sports, and he employed people at at least four businesses that I can recall.”
She said she worked at Westrom’s gas station when she was 16 and that he employed mostly teenage girls and would sometimes supply them with alcohol.
The woman said she last saw Westrom a little more than 10 years ago, when he showed up at her friend’s house and made inappropriate comments about her body.
Childs’ sister, Cindy Kosnitch, said Wednesday that despite reliving the trauma of what happened, her mother never gave up.
“This has been very hard on our family, of course, but I have a very determined mom who always kept in contact with Minneapolis police,” Kosnitch said. “She refused to let Jeanie be forgotten and wanted some type of closure, as most parents would.”
Staff writer Mary Lynn Smith contributed to this report.