Woman who cracked a 35-year-old cold case shares how she did it in 4 days

Published: Apr. 27, 2022 at 7:25 PM EDT
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WNDU) - She was just a little girl when it happened. “I was just eight years old at the time.”

Has never been to the state of Michigan. “I still have never been to the state of Michigan.”

And yet, somehow it only took days for self taught forensic genealogist Gabriella Vargas to solve a murder that went unsolved for more than three decades.

“Four days...from the time I got it. It took me four days (to solve),” Vargas says.

On February 20, 1987, 30-year-old Roxanne Wood was found stabbed to death in her Niles home.

The case went unsolved for more than three decades, that is until Vargas got involved.

“I felt this was absolutely a case that I could solve and I was up for the challenge,” Vargas told 16 News Now Wednesday.

A challenge she says three other genealogists turned down before the DNA reached her desk about a year ago.

“There was only a very, very small amount of biological fluid that was left behind,” Vargas says.

A small chance but nothing too little that Vargas could not piece together through genetic sequencing.

“When you take that evidence whether it be blood or semen or what not, we can create a profile of who this individual is. But all that profile tells us is all their genetic markers. It tells us if they are male or female, what ethnicity they are, it doesn’t say this is who their person is. We then use that profile in these databases to then build and figure out matches that are related to this individual and then figure out how this individual fits into that family tree,” Vargas explains.

For Vargas, it came down to three brothers but ultimately, there was only one she believed fit the crime: 67-year-old Patrick Gilham.

“Patrick was in the area. He was the career criminal. He had very similar crimes in his rap sheet and he was the individual that I felt was in fact our subject,” Vargas says.

In February, Gilham was arrested and charged. On Monday, Gilham was sentenced to a minimum of 23 years in prison after pleading no contest for second degree murder.

And although 34 years of investigation took Vargas only four days to solve, she says it was about getting justice for Roxanne Wood.

“For me, this was about bringing closure to the family and justice to Roxanne. But this is why I do this, I do this to bring closure to these families,” Vargas says.

Vargas says she has only been practicing genealogy for four years, is self taught, and has not got a case wrong since she began in 2018.

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