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DNA Solves Decades-Old South Lake Tahoe Murders

Note: This post was originally published as Holly West’s Crime Notes. If you’d like to receive Crime Notes directly to your inbox, subscribe here.

Imagine being asked by law enforcement to provide a DNA sample because you might be related to a murderer. In 2018, that’s exactly what happened to relatives of Joseph Holt, a real estate professional from the Bay Area who moved to South Lake Tahoe in 1974.

This story actually begins nearly forty years earlier. At 10 p.m. on July 23, 1977, Brynn Rainey stopped at the Bitter Creek Saloon for a drink before her 2 a.m. shift at the nearby Sahara Tahoe Casino. The 27-year-old keno runner had moved to South Lake Tahoe from Ohio just one month before, having decided to stay in town after attending a family member’s wedding. Lake Tahoe, in the summertime, is a special place. The air is cool and fresh, smelling of dropped pine needles. And the lake itself is majestic—deep blue, with snowcapped mountains all around. It’s not hard to understand why Brynn would’ve made such an impulsive decision.

Brynn Ellen Rainey

The bartender at the saloon remembered seeing Brynn when she arrived at the bar that night and didn’t notice anyone bothering her. Nobody saw her leave and she never arrived for her shift at the casino. Co-workers were the first to notice her missing, and an investigation revealed that nothing had been touched at her apartment.

Brynn had simply disappeared.

On August 20, 1977, a horseback rider at Stateline Stables came upon what appeared to be a shallow grave. Inside, investigators found Brynn’s badly decomposed body and her purse containing her identification buried nearby. Due to decomposition, the official cause of death could not be determined, but remaining forensic evidence suggested that she’d been sexually assaulted and strangled. With such scant evidence and no witnesses, Brynn’s case quickly went cold.

Two years later, on June 30, 1979, 16-year-old Carol Ann Andersen went to a party near the Heavenly Ski Resort. In a 2015 news article, Carol’s sister said that the teenager suffered from epilepsy and that her mother rarely let her go out. Several people offered her rides home that night, but Carol declined. When she finally left the party around 11:30 p.m., nobody knew whether it was on foot or with someone unknown. At 2:45 the next morning, her fully-clothed body was found near Pioneer Trail. No attempt had been made to conceal it. Her cause of death was strangulation and marks on her wrists hinted that they’d been bound. Like Brynn, Carol had been sexually assaulted. A newspaper report published at the time indicated that the police were looking for two suspects.

Carol Ann Andersen

For nearly forty years, Brynn and Carol’s cases remained unsolved. Then, in 2012 and 2013, the El Dorado County Cold Case Task Force found a male DNA profile on a swab taken from Carol’s body during her 1979 autopsy. Blood from Brynn’s shirt revealed a partial profile. Both profiles were uploaded to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) but neither revealed a match.

In November 2017, advanced technology allowed the task force to develop a “more robust” DNA profile and forensic analysts quickly confirmed that the DNA found on both bodies was from the same person. The task force employed Parabon Nanolabs to build a “family tree” and the pool of suspects narrowed when the lab identified three deceased brothers from GEDmatch.com as possible sources of the DNA. The task force collected a DNA sample from Joseph Holt’s son, who also provided his father’s old toothbrush. Testing confirmed that the DNA collected from Brynn and Carol matched that of Joseph Stephen Holt.

Joseph Holt died in South Lake Tahoe in April 2014. During the 1970s, he reportedly lived less than two miles from where the bodies were found. A search of Holt’s remaining personal effects revealed evidence suggesting other criminal conduct, including an unsolved non-fatal shooting in Los Gatos in 1975. A composite sketch released at the time bears an uncanny resemblance to a contemporary photo of Holt.

L: Joseph Holt c. 1975, R: Composite sketch released by Los Gatos police in 1975

Joseph Holt’s surviving family members, including his children, were unaware of his alleged crimes. While he’ll never be convicted of the killings or any other crimes he may have committed, Brynn and Carol’s families finally have closure.

The task force is still investigating whether Holt was responsible for other unsolved crimes. Anyone with information on an unsolved crime is asked to contact the El Dorado County Task Force tip line at 530-621-4590.

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