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Genealogy site helps investigators close cold case

A sketch drawn by the victim of her attacker compared to an undated drivers license photo of the suspect. (2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

A swarm of special agents knocked on the door of the sprawling South Valley home where 23-year-old Angel Gurule lived with his parents, wife and several dogs.

It had been a little more than four years since a woman — on a Christmas Eve afternoon jog along a Bosque path — was thrown to the ground and violently raped by a stranger who tackled her from behind.

Gurule, who was charged with the rape Wednesday, apparently had no idea he was on investigators’ radar.

Let alone that his second cousin twice removed — a man in his 60s who lives in California and was curious about his heritage — would be the missing link that brought investigators to Gurule’s door Wednesday.

The two men had never met and likely did not know of each other’s existence.

It’s a landmark case in the state, with the District Attorney’s Office saying Thursday that this is likely the first one using forensic genetic genealogy in New Mexico.

The DA’s investigators uploaded the suspect’s DNA into a commercial database similar to ancestry.com or 23andme.com that is used by members of the public to trace their roots, find relatives and build a family tree.

Angel Gurule. (MDC)

“He wasn’t even aware there was a police report in this matter,” said Kyle Hartsock, the special agent in charge for the District Attorney’s Office. “He just hoped and wished and thought it had gone away. So it was a complete and utter surprise when we showed up at his door. … He was noticeably shocked.”

At a news conference, Hartsock said Gurule still lives less than a half-mile from where the attack occurred. When he was interviewed, Hartsock said, he confessed to the crime and showed investigators where it was committed, even referencing some of the phrases the victim had told detectives she had said.

Gurule is charged with criminal sexual penetration and was booked into the county jail Wednesday night.

It was not clear who his attorney will be.

“It’s too early to comment on details in the case,” Albuquerque’s district defender, Jeff Rein, wrote in a statement. “But as with all cases, and especially this one with its reliance on a dragnet of DNA samples, we will look closely at what evidence the prosecutors are relying on.”

Prosecutors have filed a motion asking for Gurule to be detained until trial.

New tactic

Gurule’s arrest comes a year and nine months after Northern California authorities said they used publicly available commercial genealogy sites to identify the man they say was the Golden State Killer — a suspect in more than a dozen homicides and 50 rapes across multiple counties.

Joseph James DeAngelo, a 74-year-old former police officer, was charged with 13 counts of murder and 13 counts of kidnapping for robbery.

The crimes had occurred in the 1970s and ’80s and the case had languished for decades without any leads until investigators uploaded his DNA sample into a genealogy database website.

The arrest — and the forensic genetic genealogy technique investigators used — spurred many other law enforcement agencies across the country to try their hand at the same tactic.

Among them was the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Bernalillo County.

DA Raúl Torrez said that when he heard about the Golden State Killer investigation he asked his Crime Strategies Unit to find a case of its own.

“Unfortunately — and this is an all too common occurrence — we have offenders where we have a significant DNA sample that is recovered but no CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) hit,” Torrez said. “Up until a few years ago, law enforcement at that point oftentimes was at a dead end. … When we established the crime strategies unit here in the DA’s Office, one of the commitments we made to the public and Legislature in securing funding for this new unit was we were going to try to develop new tools, new techniques and new capabilities.”

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The Bosque trail by the Rio Grande where a woman said she was raped by a stranger on Christmas Eve 2015. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis / Albuquerque Journal)

Christmas Eve attack

The story begins four years and three weeks ago, in the early afternoon of Dec. 24, 2015, when a woman went for a jog on a drainage ditch along the Rio Grande south of Rio Bravo. She told investigators that as she was running she saw a young man sprint past her until she lost sight of him.

A short time later, on a familiar trail that follows the river, she saw him again. She said he was standing next to a tree and appeared to be on a phone call.

“She felt hesitant to run past him since his stopping point was in a strange place,” Hartsock wrote in an arrest warrant affidavit filed in Metropolitan Court. “But as she was already so close, felt it would be confrontational to turn back to the main high trail she had just left. She ran past him but felt uneasy, and looked back at where he was standing.”

That’s when she saw him sprint toward her before he tackled her to the ground, according to the affidavit.

The woman said she pleaded with him to stop, told him she was a mother of two young children and tried to scream as he sexually assaulted her. She said that after the attack he “posed her body, and took a photograph of her naked body as she lay face down on the ground.”

A sketch drawn by the victim of her attacker. (2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office)

She said that to keep him calm afterward, she told him he could run in one direction and she would return on her run home. So that is what they did.

The woman, an artist, made a sketch of her attacker and went that night to the Rape Crisis Center for a sexual assault nurse examination.

Several months later, in March 2016, she agreed to meet with a detective from the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office Special Victims Unit.

Detective Nick Balistreri opened an investigation but did not turn up any leads.

The DNA collected for the rape kit did not match any samples in law enforcement’s CODIS database, and the case went cold..

The break came

In June, the case resurfaced as a good fit for the DA’s Crime Strategies Unit to attempt a forensic genetic genealogy investigation.

“It has to be an unsolved sex assault, or a homicide, one of the two,” Hartsock said. “We’re not doing this on unsolved burglary cases. … There has to be a sufficient amount of DNA left over to test, and there was in this case.”

The break in the investigation came in August when Gurule’s second cousin twice removed — on a hunt for his paternal grandfather’s ancestry — uploaded his DNA into GEDmatch.com. The cousin lived in Southern California, had never been to New Mexico and did not know Gurule or even that he existed.

“He’s in his 60s, his dad’s in his 80s, so he went and got his dad tested too,” Hartsock said. “That helped us eliminate some other family trees. Him and his dad were the two primary ones that really helped us really narrow it down.”

Then, Hartsock said, they found an obituary for Gurule’s 2-year-old brother, who had been killed by their father, Ruben Duran, in a horrific case of child abuse in Artesia in 1996.

Gurule, whose name at the time was Angel Duran, was two months old. He was put into the foster care system and adopted by the Gurules in the South Valley.

Just three months before the Christmas Eve attack, Gurule was named as a suspect in the sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl, according to the affidavit. That victim’s bedsheets were collected and tagged into evidence, but they don’t appear to have been tested. The affidavit doesn’t say why he was a suspect or why the sheets weren’t tested.

Deputies were called to Gurule’s house the next day when he was reportedly making suicidal statements. But otherwise, except for a traffic ticket, Gurule appears to have not encountered law enforcement again.

Hartsock said that as agents narrowed in on Gurule, there were other clues that pointed to him as a suspect, including the sketch the victim had drawn, the fact that he lived near the site and that he had run cross country at Sandia High School. The victim remembered her attacker wearing red pants, and Sandia’s school colors are red, black and white.

In November, investigators found out Gurule’s wife was in the hospital and followed him there, collecting a discarded cup from an empty room after the couple checked out.

Earlier this month, investigators received a report that confirmed the DNA from the cup matched the DNA from the original rape kit, according to the affidavit.

They had enough to make their move.

“This was a complicated investigation and will be a complicated prosecution,” Torrez said. “But I think it’s a real demonstration not only to our commitment to helping victims but also trying new ideas and new approaches.”

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