CLEVELAND — Genealogical testing has helped authorities reopen a decades-old rape case, leading to the arrest of a 50-year-old man who allegedly raped a woman in Tremont in 1999, according to a news release from the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office.
Bart Mercurio, 50, was arrested on July 9 at his residence in Elyria and taken into custody at the Cuyahoga Jail.
On May 6, 1999, the female victim, 33, left her house to go for a walk in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. When she returned home, prosecutors said Mercurio surprised her inside and allegedly struck her multiple times until she lost consciousness.
He allegedly sexually assaulted her before fleeing her home. She called the police and was transported to the hospital where a sexual assault kit was collected.
The victim's rape kit was tested as part of the Sexual Assault Kit Task Force (SAKTF) created in 2013 by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, in partnership with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, to test previously unsubmitted rape kits between 1993 and 2011.
"As you can imagine, a ton of DNA leads were being produced. So several investigators and prosecutors were detailed to follow up on those leads, including additional investigations and prosecutions," said Mary Weston, who supervises the unit at the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office.
Mercurio’s DNA did not produce any matches in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), so the DNA in the rape kit was indicted as “John Doe #133” as a means to ensure the statute of limitations did not run out. Since 2013, the unit has indicted 176 John Does.
“John Doe #133” was charged with one count of rape, one count of kidnapping and one count of aggravated burglary.
In 2019 and 2020, the prosecutor’s office Sexual Assault Kit Task Force was awarded grants to launch G.O.L.D. Unit (Genetic Operations Linking DNA), which contracted with Gene by Gene for a pilot project. This included genealogical searches for 20 of the "most wanted" DNA profiles connected to cold case sexual assaults.
"A top priority for us was to consider unknown serial offenders because those are a danger to the community. We also looked at cases that would be most likely to yield results based on how much DNA was remaining," Weston said.
“John Doe #133” was submitted as part of the project this year, and the genealogy company gave the prosecutor's office a lead in the form of the name Bart Mercurio.
"[Investigators] obtained a surreptitious sample from him, something he dropped and we picked up," Weston said. "We were able to find his DNA on that object and compare it to the male DNA on our crime scene evidence. And it was a match."
The DNA was sent to BCI for confirmation, and it also matched. The original “John Doe #133” indictment was adjusted to reflect his name.
Weston said this technology will bring a new solution to sexual violence cases and hold offenders accountable — even if it's years later.
"This is just one of several cases that, if you would ask me a couple of years ago, I would have said I don't know what else we can do to try to solve this case. So this new technology represents a light at the end of the tunnel for so many victims of prior sexual violence," Weston said.
Genealogical testing was used to arrest the notorious Golden State Killer in 2018. Investigators said they plan on applying for more funding for this technology, and that the arrest of Mercurio is further proof it is effective.
"It was incredibly eye-opening and gratifying to see that it works in real life, to solve this case for this particular victim and to contact her and tell her we know who attacked her was really powerful," Weston said.
Mercurio pleaded not guilty to the indictment during his arraignment Tuesday. He was given a $50,000 bond.
His first pretrial has been set for July 15 at 9 a.m. in the courtroom of Judge Peter Corrigan.
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