In 2020, the authorities reopened a long-standing cold case: Roxanne Wood’s murder at her home in Niles, Michigan, in February 1987. The killer had been eluding the police for decades, but this time around, they hoped advances in DNA technology would help them. CBS News’ ’48 Hours: The ‘Unsolvable’ Murder of Roxanne Wood’ thus chronicles the incredible work put in by Gabriella Vargas, an investigative genetic genealogist, to zero in on Patrick Gilham as the man responsible. So, let’s find out more about her then, shall we?
Who is Gabriella Vargas?
Gabriella Vargas was actually only eight years old when Roxanne Wood was brutally raped and murdered one night in early February 1987. The authorities didn’t have a lot of evidence apart from some DNA at the time, but they were also bound by technological limitations. Yet since things had changed, in 2020, they went to Identifinders International, a company specializing in identifying remains and people in violent crimes.
Colleen Fitzpatrick, the company’s president, said the DNA collected in this case was very little compared to what they usually worked with. According to her, multiple systems even crashed while trying to make an electronic copy of the DNA. However, in April 2021, the executive still talked to Gabriella, who was then working as a consultant with the firm.
Many genealogists who’d looked at the matter felt it was unsolvable. But Gabriella said, “I concluded that I did not stand with the others. I believed that this case was extremely solvable. And I believed that I could solve it.” And she did — she was soon able to create a genetic profile from the DNA, hence providing her with necessary information regarding the suspect, like ancestral origin and race.
After that, Gabriella carefully made use of GEDmatch, an online database where people publicly upload their DNA profiles, hoping to find more relatives. She said of the suspect profile, “I used his family relatives to build out their family trees and figure out back in time who the common ancestor was amongst these matches. It ultimately led to where the suspect would fall in that family tree.”
Gabriella eventually narrowed it down to a couple with three sons, with one of the kids being the suspect. Two out of the three were ruled out by the investigators because they weren’t in the area around 1987. That left Patrick Gilham, who’d committed sexual assault in the past and lived close by. Gabriella said, “Literally, a case that took them 34 years to investigate took me four days to solve.”
Where is Gabriella Vargas Today?
Gabriella’s hard, intense work paid off when the authorities confirmed Patrick was the killer, which eventually led to a murder conviction. In the aftermath, she said, “It’s an honor to be able to work these cases to bring justice to these victims and closure to these families, and I will never stop. If anything, I’m more determined now to solve as many cases as I can.” Gabriella added, “We’re always told not to get emotionally invested in these cases, but it was extremely hard not to. The family was my motivation.”
Gabriella is a self-taught genetic genealogist who began working on cases in 2018; she claimed to have never gotten a case wrong. She has consistently helped identify unidentified dead bodies, especially through her role as the Director of Training at the DNA Doe Project, a non-profit organization. She said in September 2021, “I think this is the most selfless act that you can do is bringing back and restoring the name of the unidentified. Bringing closure to these families that have long waited for answers.”
Apart from that, Gabriella is the founder of DNA-ID, an investigative genetic genealogy company, and continues to work on cold cases. She currently lives in Escalon, California, and is a loving mother who likes woodworking and gardening. She actually got into woodworking because of her grandfather and started doing it herself when she was 22. Today, Gabriella also runs her own carpentry business called Perfectly Imperfect Designs and cares for a pet cockatoo.
Read More: How Did Roxanne Wood Die?