The first step was to separate 17-year-old Barbara Blatnik’s DNA from that of the man who authorities say killed her in 1987 and dumped her body in Cuyahoga Falls.
Investigators next entered the suspect’s DNA into genealogy databases, tracking down the man’s distant cousins.
They then built family trees, looked for links and narrowed the search to a family with Northeast Ohio ties.
This, investigators say, was the process that led to the recent arrest of James E. Zastawnik of Cleveland for Blatnik’s rape and murder decades earlier.
His arrest was significant for Blatnik’s family and friends who have waited more than 30 years to find out who was responsible for her death. It also was important for forensics experts who are on the cutting edge of this new technology. The Blatnik case involved a mixed DNA sample – a challenge that has long thwarted investigators.
"This is a game-changer in terms of forensic identification," said Colleen Fitzpatrick, a forensic genealogist with the California-based Identifinders who worked on the Blatnik case.
Blatnik was last seen Dec. 19, 1987, when a friend dropped her off in Garfield Heights around midnight. The next morning, her nude body was found alongside O’Neil Road, an access road that leads to Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls. She had been strangled and raped.
The Cuyahoga Falls Police Department announced it was reopening the case last August in partnership with Project Porchlight, a newly formed nonprofit. James Renner, an Akron author, started the organization to boost awareness of unsolved cases and raise money for DNA research. The agency raised $6,000 for the Blatnik case.
Cuyahoga Falls Police Chief Jack Davis is pleased and impressed by the technology used on a case that had long stumped his detectives. Davis said his department will be looking at whether this technology can be used in other cold cases -- and figures other departments will do the same.
"To me, it should put a lot of fear into someone who committed a crime over the years," he said. "There’s a better chance they’ll get caught."
Zastawnik pleaded not guilty to murder during his video arraignment last week in Stow Municipal Court. He is being held in the Summit County Jail on a $1 million bond. His case will soon be presented to a Summit County grand jury.
The DNA sample in the Blatnik case came from underneath the teen’s fingernails.
The sample was mixed -- 40% was Blatnik’s DNA and 60% her killer’s, Fitzpatrick said.
Donna Zanath, CQ Blatnik’s older sister and only sibling, submitted a DNA sample to 23 and Me, a genealogy website, to help investigators in separating the mixed sample.
Once the suspect’s DNA was isolated, Fitzpatrick entered it into DNA databases to see if she could get a Y-chromosome match that might provide her the name of a suspect. This didn’t work, but she was able to determine the male suspect was of Eastern European descent.
"If we had a suspect named Murphy, it wasn’t him," Fitzpatrick said. "The Y-DNA gave a clue. It guides us."
Investigators then entered the sample into GEDmatch, a genealogy database, and were able to find third cousins of the suspect. They built family trees that started with the cousins and looked for links, keeping in mind factors like ethnicity, age and geography.
"It’s like a triangulation," Fitzpatrick explained.
Investigators narrowed the search to Zastawnik and his three brothers. They then turned this information over to Falls detectives.
Detectives zeroed in on James Zastawnik, 67, who worked at a factory near where Blatnik was last seen. Authorities said they got a warrant to test Zastawnik’s DNA, compared it to the sample and found it matched. They arrested Zastawnik May 6.
Falls Lt. Chris Norfolk was unwilling to say if Zastawnik had previously been a suspect in Blatnik’s murder.
Norfolk said Zastawnik was arrested in Akron in July 1984 for exposing himself to two women. Besides that, he wasn’t aware of any other criminal history for him, though detectives are still investigating.
"We’re still looking and putting things together," he said.
Blatnik’s family has never heard of Zastawnik or seen him before.
"It’s a relief to know it’s not someone who was part of our life," Zanath said. "That would have been 10 times worse."
In Zastawnik’s first appearance in Stow court, he said he would retain his own attorney. Zastawnik’s sister, however, wrote a letter to the court that said her brother "does not have the ability to retain his own counsel" and asked that he be appointed a lawyer.
If Zastawnik is indicted by a grand jury, he will be appointed an attorney when he is arraigned in Summit County Common Pleas Court.
Renner has corresponded on Twitter after the arrest with Zastawnik’s daughter and granddaughter, who were shocked by the charge. He said he feels for both Blatnik’s and Zastawnik’s families.
"They’re going through a crisis themselves," he said. "I can’t image what it’s like. That family is devastated too."
In a May 7 Twitter post, Zastawnik’s granddaughter said: "As I am happy to see the Barbara Blatnik case get solved, as the granddaughter of (Zastawnik), please watch what you say about him and our family. Justice is served where it is deserved, but the unneeded threats are unnecessary."
Zastawnik’s family members didn’t respond to interview requests from the Beacon Journal.
Zanath marked the arrest by visiting the area where her sister’s body was dumped for the first time -- and leaving behind a memorial.
The Brecksville woman hung flowers and a butterfly suncatcher on a street sign and surrounded the sign with colorful pinwheels.
While she was there, Zanath said questions popped into her mind like, "Where did he put her body?" and "Where did he turn around?"
Renner wonders how the lives of Blatnik and her killer intersected.
"I think we’re going to get a lot more answers as this moves toward trial," he said.
Fitzpatrick, whose company has now helped solve 11 cases using genealogical DNA research, said an arrest doesn’t provide "closure" to family members but can help them to move forward with their lives.
"Not knowing is like a boogey man in your life," she said. "It’s scary. Seeing that person is human – doesn’t have horns and doesn’t fly through the air but is a human being – you don’t have to be afraid anymore."
Zanath, 52, said she is relieved by the arrest, but agrees she’ll never get closure. She said her sister’s death left a void in her life.
"People say it gets easier," she said. "For me, it doesn’t. Every day and every year, it’s just as hard. When something happens, it’s not happening with my sister."
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 330-996-3705 and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.