The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Man charged in 1987 rape, accused of posing as radio host Don Geronimo

Investigators used genetic genealogy to connect a man to a 1987 rape in Fairfax, police say. (Klaus Ohlenschlaeger /Alamy Stock Photo)
Placeholder while article actions load

In 1987, a man claiming to be locally famous radio host Don Geronimo phoned a 14-year-old girl and told her she had won $1,000 and a trip to Hawaii, police said. To collect the prize, the man told the teen, she needed to meet him at a Fairfax County radio station.

When the girl arrived, the man abducted her and took her to a dirt road where he brutally raped her, police said.

After more than three decades, Fairfax County police announced Wednesday they have charged a 59-year-old Ashburn man in the horrific assault following a breakthrough in the case using the same genetic technique police relied on to uncover the identity of the infamous Golden State Killer.

William Clark is facing counts of rape, abduction with intent to defile and attempted forcible sodomy, police said. Clark was taken into custody on Monday and is being held at the Fairfax County jail without bond. Clark was 24 at the time of the assault and living in Herndon, police said. It was unclear whether Clark had an attorney because his case was not yet listed in Fairfax County court records.

Fairfax County Police Maj. Ed O’Carroll said at a news conference that police had investigated more than 70 suspects in the intervening years since the March 6, 1987, attack.

“A gallon of gas cost 89 cents. President Ronald Reagan delivered his famous speech at the Berlin Wall,” O’Carroll said of the year the attack occurred. “Here we are 35 years, 6 weeks and three days away from that heinous crime.”

O’Carroll said Clark was not a suspect at the time of the rape. Instead, police developed him as the potential perpetrator in January by using genetic genealogy.

The unlikely crime-fighter cracking decades-old murders? A genealogist.

In genetic genealogy, investigators upload DNA from a crime scene to a database of genetic profiles to try to find relatives of the perpetrator. Investigators then use a traditional genealogy technique — building a family tree — to locate people who might be connected to a crime.

O’Carroll said the genetic sleuthing pointed to Clark, and in mid-February Fairfax County police collected a DNA sample from him. Analysis at a forensic lab showed that sample matched DNA from the original crime scene, O’Carroll said.

CeCe Moore, the chief genetic genealogist for Parabon NanoLabs who worked on the case, said it was challenging because she could only locate distant relatives for the perpetrator, making identification more difficult. Moore and her team have made more than 200 identifications using genetic genealogy.

Moore said she felt the 14-year-old and Geronimo were both victimized.

“I just had a lot of empathy for him and the victim,” Moore said.

The case began when a man phoned the 14-year-old-girl’s mother pretending to be Geronimo, police said. The man told the woman she needed to listen to his radio station to be eligible for a $1,000 prize and a trip to Hawaii.

To find alleged Golden State Killer, investigators first found his great-great-great-grandparents

The man said the woman also needed to give personal information to proceed with the award, police said. The woman provided her home phone number and address.

The man then called the woman’s home and the 14-year-old answered, police said. The man used the same ruse to convince the girl to go to a radio station in Fairfax City, and he picked her up from there.

The man drove her to a wooded area and implied he had a gun, before sexually assaulting the girl, police said. The man then drove off.

The victim reported the incident the same day, touching off a years-long investigation, police said.

For WAVA's Geronimo, 'the worst day of my life'

The attack generated local media attention, and Geronimo dedicated much of his four-hour show to discussing it the day after the crime, according to an article in The Washington Post. Geronimo, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, told The Post at the time he was horrified by the crime.

“Monday was really like the worst day of my life,” Geronimo said in an interview at the time. “To even be remotely involved in a rape case and have my name used ... it’s almost sick. It is sick. The whole idea is sick.”

Geronimo was then the host of the “Morning Zoo,” a talk show on WAVA-FM (105.1) with his partner, Mike O’Meara. Geronimo is currently a host on the classic rock station Big 100.