Teen found dead in ’78 is finally ID’d; police are now looking for La Puente boy’s killer
In June 1978, the Long Beach Police Department began an investigation into an apparent homicide victim found in the beachside enclave of Belmont Shore. More than four decades later, consumer genetic data provided by users hoping to locate their own relatives enabled investigators to identify “John Doe 1978” as Kenneth Nevada Williams, 15.
Kenneth ran away from his home in La Puente in 1978, investigators said. He was never reported missing after his disappearance, said Long Beach police spokesperson Richard Mejia. After the boy’s body was identified this September, his family was contacted by homicide detectives, and they confirmed his identity.
“He’s 15 years old, and during that time he was a chronic runaway. It was very common for him to miss school, to run away from home, to go missing for long periods of time then come back,” said Mejia, adding that at the time the family had expected the boy to return home. Ultimately, he said, “they hired a private investigator to look into it and clearly came back with negative results.”
The Long Beach Police Department said: “Without the assistance of investigative genealogy, Kenneth Williams may have never been identified, however, his story is far from over. The person(s) responsible for his murder are still outstanding and must be identified to be held accountable for their crimes so that Kenneth Williams and his family will get the justice they have long deserved.”
The use of such data by police, a practice that helped lead to the arrest of the Golden State Killer in 2018, is fraught with privacy concerns. A 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center estimated that less than half of American adults — 48% — believed it was “acceptable for DNA testing companies to share customers’ genetic data with law enforcement agencies to help solve crimes.”
The FBI, which conducted the investigative genealogy, had no comment on the case.
But former FBI L.A. Division Counsel Steve Kramer provided a few details to The Times. He participated in a similar process preceding the Golden State Killer arrest. When DNA samples do not match anything in the FBI’s CODIS database, he said, investigators can turn to a “commercial DNA database.” There are “only two databases that overtly permit law enforcement to put crime scene DNA into their database, FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch,” Kramer said. As for privacy concerns, he said: “It’s a voluntary thing. If you don’t want to do it, don’t put your DNA into these databases and ask to match with everybody.”
As Long Beach police pursue their investigation of Kenneth’s death, they have asked anyone with information to call the missing persons unit at (562) 570-7246. The public can also submit tips anonymously by visiting L.A. Crime Stoppers online or calling (800) 222-8477.
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