Newport Beach police ID cold case killer from 1980, using DNA extraction, genealogy

A view of Newport Harbor from Hoag Hospital, in Newport Beach on May 15, 2020.
Newport Beach police have identified Kenneth Elwin Marks, who died in 1999, as the person responsible in the 1980 murder of Judy Nesbitt, who went to a Newport Beach marina to show a boat to a prospective buyer on Nov. 26 and never returned home.
(File Photo)

On the afternoon of Nov. 26, 1980 — the day before Thanksgiving — Irvine resident Judy Nesbitt left for Marina Dunes Yacht Anchorage to show the family’s listed 35-foot cabin cruiser to a potential buyer.

The appointment had been set for 1 p.m., but hours later, Nesbitt still hadn’t returned home. Husband Fred traveled to the marina, found the slip where “Felicidad IV” was tied up and descended into the cabin.

There, he found the body of his wife amid a scene investigators would describe as one of violent struggle. Judy Nesbitt, mother of four, had been shot once in the head and left for dead, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1980.

Some credit cards, a checkbook and cash pointed to robbery as a possible motive for the murder. But even after working through the Thanksgiving holiday, Newport Beach police could not obtain a clear lead on a suspect in what became a cold case that spanned the next four decades.

NBPD officials on Monday announced that with the help of DNA extraction and some genetic genealogy, they’d finally identified the killer — Kenneth Elwin Marks, who died in 1999 — and delivered the news to Nesbitt’s living family members.

“This is a case that has hung heavy in the hearts of our community, our department and the Nesbitt family,” Newport Beach Police Chief Jon T. Lewis said in a statement. “Kenneth Marks has passed away, but he no longer gets to hold the secret of his deeds. Through incredible advances in technology and the tireless dedication of these investigators, we now have some closure for all who knew and loved Judy Nesbitt.”

Police described in Monday’s release how hairs from an unknown suspect were kept in evidence until 2002, when a limited DNA profile was extracted from their roots and entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, a database that catalogs genetic information for use by law enforcement agencies.

For the next 16 years, the DNA profile sat in the system, unmatched with any other sample, while Newport Beach police continued to puzzle over whom the hairs belonged to, the release indicated. Then, in 2018, a technological advance provided investigators the break they needed to identify the suspect.

Green Laboratories, LLC, was able to extract an expanded DNA profile from the remaining hair shafts that with the help of genetic genealogist CeCe Moore, were used to identify Marks as Nesbitt’s killer, police reported. Police said it was the first case in the nation in which DNA extraction was used to identify a murderer in a criminal investigation.

An obituary printed in Texas’ Fort Worth Star-Telegram, reveals that Marks, 44, succumbed to cancer at his home in California on April 30, 1999. The notice was published with a Santa Ana dateline and indicated Marks was to be buried at Thomas Cemetery in Bridgeport, Texas. It is unclear whether he had been connected to any other crimes.

Members of the Newport Beach Police Department met with the Nesbitt family to inform them that the cold-case murder had finally been solved, according to the release. A department spokeswoman did not immediately return calls seeking further information on the case.

Support our coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.