After 46 years, genetic genealogy helps catch a killer in Queens

George Clarence Seitz, an 81-year-old World War I veteran, left his home in Jamaica, Queens, on December 10, 1976, to get a haircut. Never seen or heard of him again.

In a Queens courtroom Tuesday, Martin Motta, 75, a former town barber who has been friends with Seitz for years, confessed to killing the Army vet, dismembering his body and burying the remains in the backyard of a Richmond Hill home.

Police said the motive was theft because Seitz usually carried large sums of cash. The New York Police said his remains were recovered in 2019 based on information. It is not yet clear if Seitz plans to visit Motta on the day of his disappearance.

Mota’s conviction for manslaughter for the Sitz murder is the first in New York City to be obtained through genetic genealogy, a forensic technique that has proven to be a major development in solving cold cases across the country, including Long Island.

“No matter what time has passed, we will use every tool at our disposal to bring justice,” Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz said in a statement.

The technique, in which unknown genetic profiles are compared with samples from individuals who submitted their DNA to public genealogical sites such as 23andMe, has been used successfully in two major cases on Long Island.

Investigators matched the DNA of the remains found in 2019 with Seitz, a witness to the crime came forward, and Motta was eventually arrested.

Earlier this year, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney K. Harrison and county attorney Ray Tierney announced that forensic genetic genealogy had identified the deceased killer of Eve Wilkowitz, a Bay Shore woman who was strangled and sexually assaulted in 1980. In 2020, police Suffolk County announced that a genealogical method has identified the remains of Valerie Mac, the victim of the Gilgo Beach serial killer who was known as “Jane Doe No. 6.”

Last month, Suffolk police said they were using the methodology to try to identify the skeletal remains of a woman, known only as “Mary”, who was found in 1999 under a yard in a house in Bellport.

President Emmanuel Katranakis, the retired chief of forensic operations at the New York Police Department, said Thursday that the department has used forensic genetic genealogy to resolve a number of cases awaiting potential arrests. Katranakis said the department has hired its own resident genealogist, supervisory criminal Sarah Scortino, to handle the cases.

“It’s a valuable tool,” Katranakis said of the genealogy curriculum.

“It is the first major human development in human identification in about 30 years,” said Colin Fitzpatrick, a well-known genealogist, of the importance of genetic genealogy in forensic work.

While the methodology has been used in the past 20 years in searches of people looking for their parents, genetic genealogy is gaining wider use among law enforcement and is considered a “game changer” in forensic identification, said Fitzpatrick, who runs the California firm, identifiers.

In the Gilgo Beach case, officials in Suffolk confirmed earlier this month that genetic genealogy was being used in an attempt to identify the remains of a victim known as “Peach,” whose members were found within the Nassau County jurisdiction. The search to identify the peaches prompted the FBI, in conjunction with police in Mobile, Alabama, to post a Facebook post asking for help identifying relatives of Elijah “Legg” Howard/Howell, who lived from 1927 to 1963 in Pritchard, Alabama. And he had a wife named Carrie. In a Facebook ad, officials attached a photo of the tattoo on the body of Peach.

Federal officials believe that Howard/Howell’s relatives may be able to establish the true identity of Peaches, as well as that of her young child, whose remains were also found separately along Ocean Parkway in Suffolk County.

Archived news reports showed Howard/Howell died of apparent carbon monoxide poisoning while sitting in a car. What was his exact familial relationship to the woman known as Peaches, is unclear. Assuming Peaches died in 1997 at the age of 30 – the year her remains were found – born in 1967, Howard/Howell would have already died and neither was her father. The difficulty with genealogy searches, Fitzpatrick said, is that sometimes the chain of family relationships is missing for investigators.

Meanwhile, Motta faces 20 years in prison when he is sentenced on November 7. Defense attorney Russell Rothberg did not respond to a call for comment.

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