Genealogy database led investigators to suspect in 1997 rape and attempted murder: reports

Crime Watch

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — For more than two decades, police applied a variety of investigative techniques and chased multiple leads in the search for the man who raped and brutally beat Cari Anderson.

Detectives questioned everyone they could locate who was at the bar Anderson visited the night before. They took DNA swabs from potential suspects. They even brought in a hypnotist.

Nothing stuck.

Twenty-three years later, new technology and a glob of spit helped secure an arrest.

In February 2019, the suspect’s DNA profile — created from semen taken at the scene — was uploaded into a genealogy database, say newly-released Bakersfield Police Department documents chronicling the investigation.

Detectives identified the relatives and narrow the search to the suspect’s maternal and paternal bloodlines, ultimately arriving at two names: Michael Allen Fontes and his brother, whose name is redacted in the documents filed in Superior Court.

Armed with that lead, undercover detectives began to stalk the brothers. They seized beer cans, cigarettes and other items on which the brothers left DNA, according to the documents. Then also seized spit left by Fontes in a parking lot, and swabbed it and the other items for processing by the Kern Regional Crime Lab.

Fontes was a match for the DNA profile, the filings say.

An image of Michael Allen Fontes released by authorities shortly after his arrest in June.

Fontes, 48, was arrested in June and has pleaded not guilty to charges including attempted murder, rape and aggravated mayhem. He has a hearing scheduled next week.

His brother is not charged.

The events leading to Fontes’ arrest illustrate how law enforcement is using genealogy to crack cases that have lingered for decades. Perhaps the most famous example is that of multiple murderer Joseph DeAngelo, known as the Golden State Killer, arrested after investigators uploaded the killer’s DNA to a genealogy website.

Left for dead

Found the morning of Nov. 24, 1997, Anderson was at first mistaken for dead by a Golden Empire Transit worker who saw her lying in tall grass behind a maintenance yard on Golden State Highway near F Street. Her face was a mask of dried blood, her throat cut. She was naked from the waist down.

The Cari Anderson Story: The brutal attack that never ends
Cari Anderson in the 1990s.

The worker called police, and Anderson, not dead but comatose, was taken to a hospital where a slow, painful recovery began.

Semen found on her was swabbed and kept in evidence. It proved crucial decades later.

Anderson was able to speak for the first time a month after the attack, she told 17 News reporter Olivia LaVoice in 2018. She learned to walk again and bathe herself.

But some injuries were permanent.

Anderson, who died Sunday after a fall at the age of 63, suffered severe brain trauma from the attack. She had virtually no short term memory. For the rest of her life, she struggled to recall the events of that night, to remember the faces of the man or men who raped and left her for dead.

Through interviews with Anderson and others, police learned the assailant likely had a military background. And robbery almost certainly was a motive.

A night at the Buckhorn

Anderson was a regular at the Buckhorn Bar, now long closed, located on 34th Street just east of Jewett Avenue. She’d stop in for a few drinks, unwind with friends.

The night before the assault, she carried more money than usual. A lot more.

Anderson had cashed a check earlier that day and had about $3,000 in her purse. A thick wad of bills protruded from the top. Other customers would have noticed, the bartender later told police.

Two men struck up a conversation with Anderson.

They weren’t part of the usual crowd. Anderson told police she learned they were military personnel, possibly from Camp Pendleton.

Both men were in their early 20s with what Anderson described as “military type” haircuts, the documents say. She said they told her they were on leave and were originally from Bakersfield.

Cari Anderson in a recent photo.

At closing time, only Anderson, the two men and a few others remained. She was in no condition to drive, the bartender told police.

He offered Anderson a ride, but the men said they wouldn’t mind seeing her home. She went with them.

The bartender went outside and watched as one man got into the pickup Anderson drove to the bar, and the other got into a small white sedan. Both vehicles drove off.

Hours later, she was found in the tall grass.

Dead ends

Police contacted Camp Pendleton and obtained a list of 64 men who were assigned there and living in Bakersfield in November 1997. They submitted those names to the DMV and received driver’s license information and photos of 55 men. The others either didn’t have licenses or weren’t listed under the names provided to the DMV.

Anderson reviewed the photos. She put nine aside, telling detectives they had refreshed her memory.

Of those nine, she selected two she believed were possibly the suspects based on the shape of their face and the way they wore their hair, according to the documents.

The bartender was also brought in. He selected three photos that seemed similar to the men who talked with Anderson.

Based on that information, police interviewed a couple men and swabbed them for DNA. The samples didn’t match the suspect DNA.

Anderson suggested placing her under hypnosis might help her recall more details, according to the documents. In 2001, police brought in a hypnotist who conducted a 40-minute session with her, the filings say.

She didn’t recall anything useful.

DNA breakthrough

In early 2019, the crime lab submitted the suspect’s DNA to Gene by Gene Labs, a private company with the capability to fully sequence the genetic coding of a person’s DNA.

The court flings say a raw data file was created from the suspect’s DNA that was then processed so the information could be entered into a genealogy database.

The genetic profile was uploaded into a third-party database, and a search revealed a relative with a shared amount of DNA consistent with that of a second, third or fourth cousin, according to the documents. Additional matched relatives were found on the Family Tree DNA database

Finally, after years of seeming to go nowhere, the trail was hot.

Detectives identified three matched relatives by using both publicly available information and law enforcement databases, the filings say. Family trees were then created for the relatives, and detectives found a family tree emerged for two of the tree matched relatives different than the third.

“It was apparent from the two family trees that relatives from both the suspect’s maternal and paternal blood lines had been identified,” an investigator wrote. “From my training and experience in forensic genealogy, I know that when two unrelated family trees merge at the marriage of two individuals, their offspring will typically possess the DNA of two separate and unrelated family trees.”

In this case, the offspring were identified as Fontes and his brother.

Further investigation, and an arrest

The Fontes brothers looked promising.

They were in their 20s at the time of the assault. Fontes lived in Bakersfield in 1997, according to the documents, his wife’s address one block from the Buckhorn Bar. The filings say his brother enlisted in the military from 1993 to 1997 — he was discharged three weeks before the attack.

Police learned the brothers were employed by a long haul trucking company in Oklahoma.

Detectives contacted the FBI and Tulsa Police Department for assistance, and those agencies conducted surveillance on the brothers’ vehicles and located a residence where they either lived or visited frequently.

On Sept. 27, 2019, they seized trash from the residence, the documents say. Beer and water bottle were sent to Kern County for analysis.

DNA lifted from a beer bottle was a direct match to the suspect’s DNA, the filings say.

In January 2020, undercover detectives followed Fontes’ big rig to a rest stop in Arizona. It appeared he had been sleeping in the truck, from which he discarded trash. Detectives saw him spit on the ground.

When Fontes left, investigators seized the trash and a cigarette butt he’d been smoking, and swabbed the saliva, according to the documents.

The DNA from the saliva matched the rapist’s DNA profile, the filings say.

Items handled by Fontes’ brother didn’t match the profile.

Police and U.S. Marshals took Fontes into custody in June when he traveled to Fresno.

Fontes has several misdemeanor convictions on his record in Kern, according to the Superior Court website.

In 1994, he pleaded guilty to stalking, making terroristic threats and taking a vehicle without the owner’s consent.

That case also involved a female victim, one who had dated Fontes. She told police he threatened to kill her if she didn’t take him back.

Police saw Fontes’ temper firsthand as they took him into custody, according to documents filed in that case.

“I’m going to kill that (expletive) (expletive),” Fontes shouted according to the documents. “There’s nothing you can do to stop me. I’m going to take a knife and cut her (expletive) heart out.”

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