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How scientists studying China’s distant past helped police finally catch ‘one of nation’s most notorious serial killers’

One of China’s most infamous serial killers was finally caught decades after he killed his first victim thanks to the use of genetic tests usually used by forensic anthropologists, according to a scientist involved in the research.

Existing genetic tests on blood and semen samples left by the alleged killer failed to help track him down, but scientists at Fudan University in Shanghai were able to pinpoint his family’s ancestral village using the technology and lead the police to him.

Gao Chengyong was arrested last Friday at a grocery store he and his wife ran in Baiyin in northwestern Gansu province.

Gao, 52, later admitted killing and raping 11 women and girls in Gansu and Inner Mongolia over a period of more than 10 years, according to a statement from the Ministry of Public Security.

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His crimes were carried out between 1988 and 2002 and created panic in Baiyin, with many women afraid to go out alone.

He allegedly mutilated some his victims, including their hands, ears and private parts according to press reports at the time. His youngest victim was eight-years old.

The suspected killer’s blood, semen and fingerprints were found at crimes scenes, but he managed to evade capture for decades.

Large numbers of men registered as living in Baiyin near where many of the killings occurred underwent genetic tests, but Gao was not among them.

Police believed the killer was a sophisticated criminal living in the city with a high education and no tests were carried out in surrounding rural areas.

The breakthrough came when police enlisted the help of the laboratory of contemporary anthropology at Fudan University earlier this year.

Professor Li Hui told the South China Morning Post that his team were given “biological samples” from the case to study, which arrived under police escort.

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Li’s team studies the Y-chromosome genetical material that is only found in the cells of males and is passed down from father to son. Y-chromosomes mutate across time, giving each male clan a distinctive genetic fingerprint.

Using their techniques, they have managed to trace the origin of Chinese men to a few male migrants who arrived in southern China about 60,000 years ago. They also found the direct male descendants of the philosopher Confucius in present day China.

The team compared the small samples of Y-chromosomes from the crime scenes to other samples within the Chinese male population.

The result suggested a strong match to a family clan with the surname Gao. In the Baiyin area, where most of the victims were killed, there was only one Gao family clan and they lived in Chenghe village, well away from the city.

Police carried out a fresh round of DNA tests in the area and Gao was finally identified as the suspected killer.

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His first victim was a 23-year-old woman who was found dead at her home with 26 stab wounds to her body, according to police.

Gao allegedly targeted young women living alone and followed them to their homes before raping and killing them.

His victims were usually dressed in red and he tended to operate during the day, according to previous media reports.

Li said his team had analysed more than 1,000 samples for the police in recent years to help narrow down the possible home area of criminals.

The Y-chromosome cannot be used to investigate female samples, but women and girls carry mitochondrial DNA, which carries genetic information passed from mother to daughter, hence useful for forensic investigation, said Li.

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“But there is much less demand for female samples. Most suspects for murder and rape are male,” he said.

Li said the team’s Y-chromosome database, which covers nearly all major populations in the world, particularly China and East Asia, still had room for more data.

“Hopefully in the future we will have DNA coded in an ID card. It will make the world safer for everybody,” he said.