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Crime News Breaking News

Man Arrested In 20-Year-Old Cold Case Rapes Using DNA, Genetic Genealogy

Police in Pullman, Washington have arrested Kenneth Downing and charged him in two brutal home invasion rapes from the early 2000s.

By Megan Carpentier
How To Use DNA To Crack A Case

Police in Spokane, Washington last week arrested a middle-aged construction worker on rape charges dating back to the early 2000s.

Kenneth Downing, 47, was arrested on Thursday at his job site in Spokane at the behest of the police in Pullman, Washington — about 75 miles south of Spokane — the Pullman Police Department said in a statement. He is currently facing four counts of first-degree rape, three counts of assault in the second degree with a finding of sexual motivation, three counts of unlawful imprisonment, one count of indecent liberties using force and two counts of first-degree burglary, according to Whitman County Jail records.

At a bail hearing on Friday, Whitman County Judge Gary Libey agreed to keep Downing's bond at $5 million after prosecutors argued the married father of several children remained a danger to the community, Spokane CBS affiliate KREM reported.

"It's very serious, very dangerous, very violent crimes," Whitman County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Dan LeBeau told the judge on Friday, according to Big Country News.

According to prosecutors, the first alleged rape happened in November 2003, when a man broken into a home in downtown Pullman. The woman in that case was sleeping in the basement when she heard footsteps above her, KREM reported. 

Then a man with a gun opened her bedroom door. 

He asked her if she was alone in the home, took the batteries out of her cordless landline phone, told her she would regret any attempt to escape and raped her three times over the course of several hours — stopping at one point to make "small talk" with his victim by asking her about her pets, prosecutors say.

The victim told police that her attacker wore a ski mask and Carhartt-style overalls, KREM reported.

"He told her when he was leaving that, if she reported it to anybody, he would be back within two months and that he knew people," LeBeau told the judge, according to Big Country News. He told the judge the woman still lives in fear of that today, according to KREM — especially since she was raped the third time after she'd earlier gotten up to check if her attacker was gone.

The second attack occurred in March 2004, when a man with a gun broke into an apartment in Pullman and attacked two women when they came home, Big Country and KREM reported. One of the women was able to grab a knife but dropped it when the attacker pulled out his gun.

The man then used to gun to threaten one roommate and tied her up; he raped the second woman at gunpoint.

"When they told him that if he used the gun that people would hear it, then he pulled out a knife and said 'I can use this too,'" LeBeau told the judge on Friday, according to Big Country.

All three women were students at Washington State University at the time of the attacks, police told KREM; Downing — who would have been 29 years old at the time of the rapes — was not a student at the university.

Police said they collected DNA evidence from both rapes, but never had a suspect to compare that evidence to.

They said that they used the DNA evidence to develop a genetic profile of the attacker and, with funding received from the Washington State Attorney General's Office's Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, used a genetic genealogy company to connect the DNA from the crime scenes to Downing, KREM reported.

The company the department used was able to connect the DNA to a "family tree" in 2020, police told the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

“Rather than a needle in the haystack, we now had a family to look at," Pullman Police Sgt. Aaron Breshears told the paper, adding that they were able to narrow the family to one suspect: Kenneth Downing.

"It is a very valuable tool, especially for these types of cold cases," Breshears, who responded to one of the rapes at the time, told the KREM. "When you haven't identified an individual suspect the forensic genetic genealogy gives us the tool to identify the suspects, essentially his family tree or her family tree in order to give us a more focused investigation and identify that suspect."

"They were very relieved, is probably the best word," Breshears added of the victims' response to the arrest. "I don't want to put words in their mouth but they were relieved that this finally has some closure."

Downing remains incarcerated at the Whitman County Jail. At his hearing on Friday, the judge appointed him a public defender.

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