BILLINGS – Yellowstone County authorities announced Monday that they used DNA testing to identify a suspect in the 45-year-old murder of a Billings Heights couple.
“It’s hard to put into words how proud we are as a cold case unit and detective division,” Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said. “This goes back to the investigators at this scene and the necessity to preserve evidence not knowing that it will go anywhere. But it was, and it was instrumental in closing this case.”
Clifford and Linda Bernhardt were murdered in their home on Nov. 6, 1973. The case went unsolved until recently when a team of investigators used new DNA and genealogical technology to identify a suspect, Linder said at a press conference.
The suspect, Cecil Stan Caldwell, died in 2003. He was a coworker of Linda Bernhardt, Linder said.
In 2015, the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Investigators sought out the services of Parabon NanoLabs (Parabon), a DNA technology company based in Virginia. By using the company’s Snapshot DNA Analysis service – which is used to accurately predict the physical appearance and ancestry of an unknown person using their DNA – a profile was established of the suspect by predicting complexion, skin, hair, eye color, and ethnicity.
According to a report provided by the sheriff’s office, in the investigation of the Cliff and Linda Bernhardt homicide, Parabon submitted a genetic data profile using the unidentified crime scene DNA sample to GEDmatch hoping to find someone who shares DNA with the unknown subject. Family trees of the matches were constructed back to the set of possible common ancestors using online databases, newspaper archives, obituaries and other variables, to narrow down the possibilities before a final list of leads was produced.
On Jan. 3, 2019, Parabon concluded that the suspect was one of two closely related individuals identified through genealogic research, calling it a “high confidence lead.” After further investigation, it was learned that one of the two individuals was deceased. Investigators then collected DNA from the relative that is still alive and lives out of state.
The report states that on Jan. 21, 2019, Sorensen Forensics, a private laboratory based in Utah confirmed that the DNA profile obtained from that person that relative was consistent with the profile recovered from the 1973 crime scene. Confirming either person could be the suspect.
After further DNA analysis, the Montana State Crime Lab eliminated the living relative as a contributor of the DNA profile found at the scene and through the process of elimination the deceased relative was the suspect, identified as Cecil Stan Caldwell of Billings.