It would take years for DNA to link the cases and lead authorities to 37-year-old Robert Hayes, a West Palm Beach man detectives said they once questioned as a suspect but never arrested.
“We’re pretty sure he would have killed again,” Palm Beach Sheriff Ric Bradshaw told reporters Monday. Authorities are on the lookout for additional victims from the years of Hayes’s life they are still trying to account for.
So far, Hayes has only been charged with the 2016 death of Rachel Bey, a 32-year-old who law enforcement officials say was discovered by a road crew at the side of a highway. But officials say they have “strong indication” that Hayes was involved in the three older killings, which sowed fear among prostitutes in Daytona Beach over the span of a few months in late 2005 and early 2006, according to media reports.
The Washington Post was unable to reach Hayes or the Palm Beach County public defender’s office, which is representing him, Monday evening. He is being held without bond, according to the Associated Press.
The suspected serial killer was stopped thanks in large part to “genetic genealogy,” officials said Monday. The new strategy has solved dozens of cold cases across the country in recent months, including the mystery of the infamous “Golden State Killer,” by matching crime scene DNA to relatives in sprawling online databases more commonly used by people looking to DNA kits to fill in their family tree.
“Without genetic genealogy, predators like Mr. Hayes will continue to live in our neighborhoods, visit our parks, our libraries, restaurants and go to our nightlife entertainment districts to continue to hunt for victims,” said Troy Walker, a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Detectives came close to Hayes after the 2005 and 2006 deaths, the Associated Press reported, questioning him because he had bought a gun similar to one that killed 24-year-old Julie Green, 35-year-old Iwana Patton and 45-year-old Laquetta Gunther. But no case against him proceeded.
Hayes was then a student at Bethune-Cookman University, the school told the AP on Monday. He would graduate with a degree in criminal justice.
The trail went cold until a new death — and new investigative techniques.
Bey was found dead the morning of March 7, 2016, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Capt. Michael Wallace said. Results from a sexual battery kit yielded a male DNA profile that investigators ultimately connected to Hayes.
A national database also linked the suspect in Bey’s case to the Daytona Beach cases, authorities said. And a cigarette butt investigators collected from Hayes while tracking him helped confirm their suspicions, according to the AP.
Genetic material collected in the wake of Bey’s death is more likely to belong to Hayes than “any other human on the planet,” Wallace said Monday. “We have our guy.”
Bey’s brothers thanked law enforcement earlier in the day for “not giving up,” Bradshaw, the sheriff, said.
Aliahu Bey told Palm Beach Post shortly after Rachel Bey’s death that his younger sister was a “loving and caring girl” who struggled with substance abuse and got arrested on drug and prostitution charges. The trouble began when she was a teen, he said.
“It’s a typical story: a kid hanging out with the wrong group of people,” he told the Palm Beach Post.
In his last conversation with Rachel, he said, his sister asked when she would get to meet his children. A family trip was in the works.
She “said life was hard, but that she was trying,” he said.