El Dorado County DA: DNA evidence helped solve 2 South Lake Tahoe cold cases

Investigators say they have solved two South Lake Tahoe murders that took place roughly four decades ago thanks to the help of DNA evidence.

El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson and members of the El Dorado Cold Case Task Force announced during a press conference Monday that they have solved the murders of Brynn Rainey and Carol Andersen.

Rainey was killed in 1977 at the age of 27. Andersen, who was 16 at the time, was killed in 1979.

With the help of a DNA technology company, Parabon Nanolabs, investigators determined Joseph Holt was responsible for both deaths.

Holt, who moved to South Lake Tahoe in 1974 and worked in real estate, died in 2014. He was not identified as a suspect until 2018, according to the DA’s office.

In meetings with officials last week, both families expressed their appreciation for the sustained effort by investigators.

“Finally after 44 years of hell and back, we have some answers,” Pete Garl, Rainey’s brother, said in a statement shared with the DA’s office.

Andersen’s family released a statement thanking investigators for their work and detailing the anguish that immediately followed her death.

“Unfortunately, relatively quickly the case went cold and while from time to time it would be revisited nothing could be found, until about a year ago. It was at that time that an incredible team of 4 investigators from the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Cold Case Files and through all their hard work and efforts, they were able to give the family some answers and closure and ultimately allow Carol Andersen to rest in peace!”

Cases gone cold

Rainey’s nude, partially buried body was found on Aug. 20, 1977, by passing horseback riders near the Sunset Stateline Stables in South Lake Tahoe, according to the DA’s office.

Female clothing and a purse containing Rainey’s ID were found near the body. She had been reported missing approximately one month before her body was discovered.

The amount of decomposition led to an undetermined cause of death, however, the pathologist at the time said he believed she died either from strangulation or suffocation. The belief was based on damage to a bone located in her neck.

Andersen’s body was found on July 1, 1979, on the side of Sundown Trail, a road north of Golden Bear Trail. She was last seen alive at a party in South Lake Tahoe.

An autopsy determined strangulation was the cause of death. Further, an examination of Andersen’s wrists found marks indicating she had been bound.

Both cases eventually became two of roughly 60 unsolved murders in El Dorado County.

A significant break in Andersen’s case came in 2012 when the cold case task force located a male DNA profile on swabs collected from Andersen during her autopsy. The DNA profile was ran through a national database, but no match was found.

A similar break occurred in Rainey’s case in 2013. A partial male DNA profile was pulled from a bloodstain on a shirt found near Rainey’s body. That DNA profile also did not return a match in the national DNA database.

Additional testing in 2017 helped determine that the male DNA in both cases matched. However, the DNA still did not turn up a match in the national database.

In 2018, the task force employed Parabon Nanolabs to conduct genetic and genealogical research of the male DNA profile, according to the DA’s office.

The Virginia-based company was eventually able to build a family tree using the DNA. It concluded that the DNA likely came from one of three brothers, all of whom are dead.

In August, task force members obtained a DNA sample from Holt’s biological son. The sample further supported the likelihood that the DNA found at both crime scenes belonged to Holt.

Holt’s son then provided a toothbrush that belonged to his father and on Jan. 15 investigators confirmed the DNA from the toothbrush matched the DNA recovered from both crime scenes.

Reaching a conclusion

With the DNA evidence, task force members executed a search warrant of a garage where Holt’s personal property had been stored following his death in 2014.

Evidence suggesting additional criminal activity was found among Holt’s belongings, including a clipped newspaper article with the headline “Pair Grapple With Suspect, One Shot,” according to the DA’s office. A date was hand written in ink on the newspaper clipping.

The shooting — which remains under investigation — was an unsolved crime that occurred in the 1970s when two men interrupted a man allegedly burglarizing a vehicle in Los Gatos. The men confronted the would-be burglar, who fled.

The men chased the suspect, who eventually pulled out a handgun and shot one of the men twice.

The other man tackled the suspect and wrestled the gun away, according to the DA’s office. The suspect fled and the other man picked up the gun and fired but missed.

The firearm had been reported stolen from a cab driver in South Lake Tahoe prior to the attempted burglary in Los Gatos.

A composite rendering created at the time, based on the witnesses’ accounts, strongly resembled Holt in the mid-1970s.

Given the DNA and circumstantial evidence, task force members concluded Holt was responsible for the murder of Rainey and Andersen, according to the DA’s office.

Investigators say Holt’s family has cooperated throughout the process and none of them were aware of his alleged actions.

Task force members continue to investigate whether Holt, who was born in 1947 and graduated from Cupertino High School and UC Berkeley, was involved in any other unsolved crimes.

Anyone with potential information regarding Holt or any unsolved crimes in El Dorado County should call 530-621-4590.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.