Decades after two Northern California women were raped and killed, DNA has helped identify a suspect, police say.
Fred Bernard Farnham, who died in 2007, was identified as a suspect in the cold case killing of Nellie Hicks in 1972 and Theresa Pica in 1979, the Newark Police Department and Hayward Police Department said in Feb. 8 news releases.
“Forty-five years is a long time,” Hayward Police Chief Bryan Matthews said at a news conference posted by CBS News. “It’s been a long time for generations of investigators who have worked on this case, and it’s been a long time for the families of the victims and our community as they’ve waited for answers.”
In May 1972, “Mrs. Hicks was brutally attacked inside her Newark home as family members were asleep,” Newark Capt. Jolie Macias said at a news conference.
The suspect likely entered the home through a back door, police said.
After the attack, Hicks’s son found her dead inside their home, police said.
The 59-year-old had been sexually assaulted and died from blunt force trauma, according to police.
DNA was collected from an autopsy, police said.
However, as DNA technology didn’t exist at the time, the case went cold despite decades of investigation, according to police.
In 1979, an officer with the Hayward police department reached out to Newark police, Macias said. They had a rape and murder case with “a discernible pattern of suspect behavior.”
Almost exactly seven years after Hicks was found dead, Pica, 48, was found dead by her three children inside her Hayward home, a mere 12 miles north of Newark, on May 21, 1979, police said.
“The scene was disturbing to say the least,” Matthews said.
Pica had been sexually assaulted and then killed, police said.
The suspect likely entered the home through an open window or unlocked door, according to police.
As with Hicks’s case, DNA was collected but no technology existed to test it, police said.
Though there were no leads in the case, it always shared the same suspect as Hicks’s case, according to Macias.
Genetic genealogy leads to ID
Once the Combined DNA Index System, the FBI’s criminal justice database, was established, police sent the suspect’s DNA profile for testing, Othram Inc., the forensic genetic genealogy company that helped with the case, said in a Feb. 8 news release.
Even still, there were no hits, and the cases remained cold, the company said.
Hayward police turned their investigative efforts to forensic genetic genealogy in 2021, according to the company.
Genetic genealogy uses DNA testing coupled with “traditional genealogical methods” to create “family history profiles,” according to the Library of Congress. With genealogical DNA testing, researchers can determine if and how people are biologically related.
After getting samples from police, Othram said it created a “comprehensive DNA profile” for the suspect.
This profile was turned over to investigators who worked with the FBI to identify the suspect through genetic genealogy, the company said.
These efforts led police to identify Farnham as the suspect in both Hicks’s and Pica’s cases, police said.
“Today is truly about these families and the resiliency over the past 50 plus years,” Macias said.
Pica’s daughter, Jan Whelan, 62, told the San Francisco Chronicle, that while it was a “good thing” to learn the suspect’s identity after all these years, it also “it triggered everything again.”
“For most of my life, I blamed myself because I wasn’t able to stop what happened, and just a few years ago I was able to finally tell myself that there was nothing I could do,” Whelan told the newspaper. “But it still hurts. Now this will help bring me closure.”
Hicks’s son who found her dead inside their home died just three months shy of her case being solved, according to Macias.
Another son, David Hicks, now 76, told the San Francisco Chronicle that while her death is “still hard” that “it means everything and makes your heart feel fantastic that they finally know who did it.”
Still possibly more victims
Farnham died in an Oregon hospital at the age of 73, according to police.
He had “several prior rape convictions” for which he served prison time for, police said.
If he were still alive, he would be considered “a serial sexual/homicide offender,” according to police.
Police said they believe Farnham could have had additional victims.
Any law enforcement agencies that may have similar cases are asked to contact police at 510-293-7176.
Newark is about 40 miles southeast of San Francisco, while Hayward is about 30 miles southeast.
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