WILDWOOD — As a senior in high school, Susan Negersmith brought her little sister everywhere. She was old enough to drive, but her half-sister Emily was not yet old enough to walk.
“She had a jeep. She got us matching shoes and sweatshirts. People thought I was her daughter, not her sister,” Emily said. Emily Negersmith is grown now, working in finance and living on the Upper East Side in Manhattan.
Her older sister is now just a memory. The family has a few photos and a diary Susan barely used, and three decades of work to find answers to how she died on a visit from Carmel, New York, to Wildwood over Memorial Day weekend in 1990.
At that time, Jerry Rosado would have been 30. Now 62, and said to be in poor health, he is in the Cape May County jail awaiting a detention hearing Friday, charged with the sexual assault of Susan Negersmith.
The Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office announced the arrest April 8.
The arrest comes after decades of investigation and constant efforts by her family members to keep her name in headlines and on the minds of investigators. After countless hours of interviews and appeals to the FBI and Interpol, it was a sample of DNA taken from Susan Negersmith’s body that led to the arrest.
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Kent Negersmith, Susan and Emily’s father, continued to push the investigation, even as his health failed. He died in 2016, without any answers. As her father’s health deteriorated, Emily took up the work.
“I grew up my entire life with Susan’s investigation being a daily topic of conversation. Susan was always on his mind. The investigation was always on his mind,” Emily said this week.
In 2018, she traveled to Cape May County to meet with Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland to discuss the potential for a new avenue of investigation, something called genetic genealogy analysis.
Emily said her father had long been convinced DNA evidence would ultimately unlock the mystery.
“It was just a matter of time before the technology caught up,” she said.
The DNA sample had been uploaded to state and national police databases for years. But like fingerprints, the DNA information would only find a match if a sample was in the system. Clearly, this one was not.
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According to details released by the Prosecutor’s Office, the sample was also compared to the DNA of multiple suspects over the years, without success. Investigators needed to widen the search.
A technique created to help people find family members turned out to be the answer. CeCe Moore, the chief genetic genealogist with Parabon NanoLabs in Reston, Virginia, said she developed the technique to help people who were adopted find their biological parents. It also could be used to identify someone with amnesia, or potentially to connect someone who was separated from their family in a traumatic event.
“It was for anyone who didn’t know their true genetic heritage and wanted to find out,” she said.
Moore and her team use DNA to discover relationships between individuals, finding out with confidence whether someone is a cousin, a sibling, a parent or other relative.
Eventually, law enforcement began to reach out about cold cases, such as the Negersmith case.
The method, and similar ones, have led to arrests in high-profile cases throughout the country. On May 1, 2018, Cape May County officials brought the Negersmith case to Moore.
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“This was a case I was very proud of. I was inspired by the family and by the detectives,” Moore said. “They never gave up. They never forgot about Susan or her family. They were really heroic.”
While Moore said she could outline the methods used in genetic genealogy analysis, she emphasized she could not speak specifically about the Negersmith investigation. Sutherland also offered general comments, but would not go into specifics about a case that has not yet been tried.
While police databases will have a limited number of DNA samples, civilian databases will have many, many more, mostly from people who have never been accused of a crime or involved in an investigation.
By discovering people who are related to the person who left genetic material at a crime scene, Moore can begin to build a family tree.
The largest databases, companies such as Ancestry.com, 23andMe or My Heritage, have terms of service that prevent samples from being used in criminal investigations. There are other sites, including GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA, in which users can opt in to allow information to be used in investigations.
Using this information, the researchers are able to compile a list of relatives of a person whose DNA sample was found at a crime scene. They can identify common grandparents and parse other details from the genetic record.
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“It’s like a puzzle you’re trying to fill in piece by piece by piece,” Moore said.
While police use 20 identifiable genetic markers, Moore uses about 850,000, she said. The information can even begin to develop a potential description of a suspect, she said, including genetically determined traits like eye color and hair color. But that is not enough to narrow the search.
“From there on, I’m in public records. I’m doing genealogy records, newspaper clippings, even social media postings,” Moore said. The idea is to give officers as short a list as possible.
That information is not enough for an arrest. It isn’t enough for a search warrant to take a DNA sample. It just gives police someone to look at in the investigation.
“It’s really the beginning of their investigation, to determine if the name provided is a suspect,” Moore said. “It still has to be treated the same way as if someone called in to Crime Stoppers.”
Rosado, who appears to have worked in a family painting business, is a match for the DNA recovered from Negersmith’s body, according to the Prosecutor’s Office. He was not charged in connection to her death, only in her sexual assault.
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Emily Negersmith said her family would like that last piece of the puzzle put in place but said the family does feel a sense of relief. Susan’s brother and another sister now live in North Carolina. Emily said she was only 2 when Susan died, so she has few direct memories of her.
That absence has been part of her life for 32 years, she said. In interviews before his death, Kent Negersmith described Susan as an outgoing, bubbly young woman who wanted to work in marketing in the fashion industry. She was a wonderful skier and a cheerleader who had been a happy child, grown into a promising adult.
Details of her last night are limited. It’s known that she was severely intoxicated that night, based both on witness reports and blood samples. Her body was found near a trash bin Sunday morning, May 27, 1990, partially clothed and badly bruised.
Her family was devastated, and later shocked when the initial finding was that she died of exposure, with a ruling that her death was accidental.
“I’ve never seen the crime scene photos, but anyone who ever has said there is no question that this was an accident,” Emily said.
One of those to challenge the official report was Yvette Craig, a reporter for The Press of Atlantic City at the time. She is now the editor and publisher of Umoja Magazine, a Black-oriented magazine in Madison, Wisconsin.
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She was then the police reporter, and in this instance, she had questions about a body being found in Wildwood. Those became more intense when someone left her a manila envelope. Inside was the initial police report, crime scene photos and autopsy photos.
“I just started putting the pieces together. Immediately, I could see that this could not be an accidental death. This could not have happened from drinking too much,” Craig said. She said she still has no idea who leaked the information to her.
As she dug deeper, she found out that witnesses had heard Negersmith screaming and that there were other signs that she fought someone that night.
It took years of advocacy by Kent Negersmith, but eventually there was a new autopsy and a new determination. The cause of death was homicide. The second autopsy found indications that she had been strangled.
In his statement on Rosado’s arrest, Sutherland said Wildwood police treated the case as a homicide from the start. Whatever happened with the initial ruling on the cause of death, over the years, the Prosecutor’s Office had kept up the search.
“The family deserves some closure. Susan Negersmith deserves justice,” Craig said. “It was one of those stories that did not go away.”
Press coverage of Susan Negersmith's murder
Susan Negersmith, after five-and-a-half years, is no longer listed as a victim of circumstance. She is, officially, a murder victim.
*Homicide: Three years after her death, state officials now say that 20-year-old Susan Negersmith was raped, beaten and smothered.
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