Solving the Phoenix Canal Murders

Colleen Fitzpatrick, founder of Identifinders International, describes how she used forensic genealogy to narrow a list of 2,000 suspects to just 5 and helped the Phoenix PD catch the Canal Killer.



My name is Colleen Fitzpatrick. I’m a forensic genealogist. I’m based in Fountain Valley, California, and I’m the owner and originator of Identifinders International.

The ‘Canal Murders’ were murders that occurred in Phoenix, Arizona in 1992 and 1993. Each of them involved a young woman that went for a bike ride in the early evening along the Arizona Canal, and neither one of them ever returned.

In 1992, that woman was found a couple of days later decapitated in a vacant lot in the area, and her head was found floating in the canal a short time after that, so it was a pretty bad murder. The second gal, about six months later (after everybody relaxed again), she disappeared, and she was found floating in the canal wearing a bathing suit that didn’t belong to her. So this was the case that the Phoenix Police Department really wanted to solve. That’s the case that was given to generation after generation of new recruits that joined the department.

I happened to be at ISHI in 2014 and I had the opportunity to speak to the cold case there, and telling them about forensic genealogy, what I did, how they could apply genealogical tools to solve many of their cases, and as I was leaving they said, “Well, we do have this one case that we might send you.” I said, “fine”, and didn’t think much about it.

So, a few weeks later, here came the Y-profile, and I ran it against the genetic genealogy databases out there, and I was able to come up with a name that matched their profile.

The first test available was Y-DNA testing, and because the Y-DNA follows the male line of the family (like the family name), it was really popular among genealogists studying their family, their family names. So 17 years later, there’s hundreds of thousands of people that have taken the Y-DNA test, and many of those results are posted online in large or small groups of people studying the same last name. They’re all descendants of some famous person, or they live in a certain geographical area, or they all share some kind of common family history.

So, that’s a great resource for the forensic community, because it’s public data. The challenge is you have to mine it for information. So what we’ve done at Identifinders is create software that can do that. That can take a Y-profile of an unknown and find a match in those thousands of databases out there.

So when the Phoenix Police Department gave me their Y-profile on this case, that’s what I did. I applied the software to find a match in those hundreds of thousands of profiles, and it came up with three exact matches to the name ‘Miller’.

They had a list of 2,000 suspects, and having the name narrowed it down to five. From that five, there was only one that floated to the top, because his profile is pretty much what the VIDOCQ society and the FBI had said to look for.

So they managed to get a DNA sample from him and process it, and the detective told me that the group was in a boring staff meeting at 4:30 on a Friday night (something like that), and everybody wanted to go home, and then they got a call from the DNA lab saying, “Hey, can we come over and talk to you?” And they said, “Ok, sure”. You know, everybody is just real tired. And hung up, and everybody was laughing and saying, “Hey, I’ll be they’re going to come over and tell us they solved the Canal Murders, right?” And everybody was laughing, and said, “Nah, they probably want overtime.” And they walked in, and the DNA people said, “That was him. You got him.”

And the whole room just exploded. Some detective were crying. Some detectives were sitting there with their mouths open staring into space. There was a big decision; what should they do? They decided to go over and arrest the man, and see what was going on, and then it went from there. I understand the trial is going to be next year.