CLEVELAND — It was a horrific crime that shocked a Cleveland neighborhood and went decades unsolved until, prosecutors believe, now.
The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office has charged 72-year-old Dennis Gribble with the rape of a 9-year-old boy in 1997.
Investigators found Gribble using genealogical DNA.
In August of 1997, investigators said a 9-year-old boy was walking alone in the woods near North Amber Drive and Plainfield Avenue in Cleveland's Brooklyn neighborhood. At the time, an unknown man lured the boy into the woods, where the alleged rape took place.
Brooklyn Police responded and transported the boy to the hospital where a sexual assault kit was collected, but DNA did not match any in the system. The DNA was named John Doe #147 and indicted with a count of rape to DNA profile to ensure that the statute of limitations did not expire.
It’s a case Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley remembers well. He grew up in Brooklyn and attended a church near the location.
“It really hits at a personal level when it occurs right around the corner of your home,” he said.
In 2019, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office received funding for its Genetic Operations Using DNA Unit, or G.O.L.D. Unit from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. It opened in 2020.
“Using DNA to review old sexual assault kits and homicide evidence for really just the chance to determine if additional forensics leads can be developed,” said Mary Weston who is the supervisor of the G.O.L.D. unit.
The unit teamed up with a genetic testing company and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s forensic lab.
“Those cases that were unsolvable four or five years ago can now be solved. It just takes a bit of time and a lot of leg work,” said O’Malley.
Weston said the victim of the 1997 case called the office and asked if his case could be a part of it.
“It’s been a long road for him. We’ve been in contact with him all along,” she said.
The G.O.L.D. unit uses familial ties to match DNA that is not in the CODIS system.
Dan Flannery is a professor at Case Western Reserve University’s Mandel School. He said genealogical DNA is a relatively new practice that can narrow down who the identity of a person is when their DNA doesn’t match anything in a system.
“Using samples of known DNA to try to figure out if there's a relative or other person who might also be in CODIS for some reason or in some cases, they've submitted their DNA to a company and said, here's my DNA because I want to know about my relatives or my ancestors. You might link a particular DNA in a sexual assault kit to a relative of an alleged offender,” said Flannery.
In this case, John Doe #147 matched Gribble, say authorities. O’Malley said Gribble is a convicted child sex offender, stating he served prison time in the 70s for assaults of boys ranging in age from nine to 12. It was before DNA was a common practice.
“For survivors of sexual assault, they’re not forgotten, and in this particular case, it’s certainly gratifying that we are taking an individual off the street who is a serial rapist and pedophile,” he said.
Weston said the victim was relieved when he heard the news.
“Our team went over to our victim's house to let him know cuffs had been slapped on the wrist of the person that attacked him 25 years ago,” she said.
Since the G.O.L.D unit started, five cases have been solved using this genetic linking. County investigators have submitted 29 cases to the lab. While it is still a relatively new form of forensic technology that is rather expensive, O’Malley said he is hopeful it will be common practice in the years to come.
“Law enforcement is out there, they’re continuing to work these cases, and for these people who have committed these violent acts, you may get a knock on your door one day,” he said.
O’Malley believes there may be more victims that haven’t come forward, and he urges anyone who believes they may be a victim to call the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office.
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