Survey Says: Guilty

In 2019, Darren Laskowski, then the chief deputy of the Oconto County (Wisconsin) sheriff’s office, arrived at the home of Raymand Vannieuwenhoven, then age 81 (give or take a year). Deputy Laskowski was there to get Vannieuwenhoven’s feedback — the sheriff’s office wanted to make sure it was serving the community well. Laskowski asked Vannieuwenhoven to take a quick survey, and Vannieuwenhoven, being the upstanding citizen he was, agreed.

And then, Vannieuwenhoven was arrested for murder.

Forty-five years earlier, Ellen Matheys and David Schuldes were going to be married. In 1976, before their nuptials, the couple went camping at a park not too far from their Wisconsin home. They would never return. Both were murdered, and the assailant also sexually assaulted Mattheys before killing her. The case went unsolved for decades, but the authorities collected as much evidence as they could — including a DNA sample of the assailant from Matheys.

As the scientific understanding of DNA expanded, the Matheys/Schuldes case became ripe for further investigation. In 2018, the Wisconsin police partnered with Parabon NanoLabs, a Virginia-based company that helps determine potential suspects (and in cases of unidentifiable remains, victims) of unsolved crimes. One of the tools the company uses is called “genetic genealogy.” As Parabon explains on its website, “by comparing a DNA sample to a database of DNA from volunteer participants, it is possible to determine whether there are any relatives of the DNA sample in the database and how closely related they are.” Basically, the company looks at the sample DNA provided by the police and compares it to their database of people who have donated their 23andMe data, and looks to see if they can figure out the suspect’s family tree.

And in this case, Parabon had a match. As a Wisconsin appellate court would later explain, the company “determined that the DNA likely came from someone within a specific family in the Green Bay area—the family of Gladys and Edward Vannieuwenhoven” and the company’s geneticist “believed the suspect was one of the Vannieuwenhovens’ four sons or one of the Vannieuwenhovens’ four grandsons.” One of the four sons had passed away, and the four grandsons were likely too young to have committed the crime. If the police could get DNA samples from the three remaining living suspects, they had a chance at finally solving this decades-old crime.

But as the court noted, “if the perpetrator was alerted to their investigation, he might attempt to flee” or take his own life. Investigators needed to get a DNA sample without the suspect knowing what was going on. That’s where the survey came into play. When Deputy Laskowski gave Raymand Vannieuwenhovens the survey, he told Vannieuwenhovens that the survey could be kept confidential — respondents were to fill it out, place it in the provided envelope, seal it, and hand it back to Laskowski. Laskowsi, in turn, would collect all the sealed envelopes and give them to the sheriff. Vannieuwenhovens, as the court explained, “took the envelope, sealed it using his saliva, and handed it back to Laskowski.”

And with that, Vannieuwenhovens also sealed his fate. The survey was a ruse — the sheriff’s office wasn’t interested in his opinion, but in his saliva, and specifically, the DNA they could gather from it. He was convicted of two counts of murder in the first-degree — the statute of limitations on the sexual assault charge had lapsed — in July 2021, and was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. He died, while in prison, less than a year later.

Bonus fact: In 2021, Parabon teamed up with authorities in Oregon to investigate another cold case — the brutal murder in 1980 of a community college student named Barbara Tucker. Using a similar method as above, Parabon was able to leverage DNA left at the crime scene to narrow down the list of potential suspects, and investigators ultimately came to believe that a man named Robert Plympton was the culprit. They needed a DNA sample to prove it — and they got it by almost literally playing the role of gumshoe. CNN explains: “Investigators [began] surveilling Plympton and were able to collect a wad of chewing gum that detectives witnessed him spit out, the DA’s office said. DNA pulled from the gum matched the profile from the autopsy swabs.” Plympton was convicted of murder in March 2024.

From the Archives: Lunch and a Murder: Meet the Philadelphia-area club that meets for lunch and, while they’re eating, tries to solve a cold case.