By Paul Wagner
For WTOP News
Police in Prince George’s County, Maryland, have never had a prime suspect in the Jan. 13, 1998 murder of Sherry Crandell.
The 50-year-old nurse was raped and murdered inside her office at the Prince George’s Hospital Center. Despite finding the killer’s DNA and his fingerprint at the crime scene, detectives have never found a match. They have been stymied in their decades-long search for the murderer — until now.
Last summer, Prince George’s County Detective Bernie Nelson, the lead investigator in the case, asked Bode Technology Group, a Virginia-based DNA lab that specializes in forensic genealogy, to run the killer’s DNA profile through an ancestry database that contains genetic data on millions of people.
The search was successful. Bode Technology Group found the killer’s third and fourth cousins. Those family trees have now been turned over to police. Their work now involves a lot of interviews, phone calls and searches through vital records to try to narrow in on the killer.
Detective Nelson said that work could take years.
“I don’t expect we’ll get any quick results. I can only pray that we’ll get something we can work with,” Nelson told Paul Wagner, host of the new WTOP podcast, American Nightmare: Murder in a Safe Place. Crandell’s murder is the subject of the podcast.
In recent years, law enforcement agencies have stepped up their use of genealogy databases to try to solve crimes. Companies like Bode Technology Group compare the criminal’s DNA to the millions of profiles in the databases in hopes of finding a direct match or, more likely, a relative that can help lead police to the criminal they’re searching for.
Prince George’s County Police have already had success using genealogy to help solve a 2017 murder case. And, in Montgomery County, Maryland, genealogy has helped solve at least four cases that have baffled detectives for years.
Despite the long road ahead, Nelson said this lead “is more promising than anything I’ve had” in 23 years.
New Podcast Examines Crandell Case
My name is Paul Wagner. I’ve been following the Crandell case since 2003. That’s when I first profiled Sherry’s murder while working for WTTG-TV (Fox 5). It’s also when I first got to know Detective Nelson and Sherry’s daughter, Tiffany Lane.
The hope was a TV story might catch the eye of someone who had information in the case. But that didn’t happen. Then, in 2014, I profiled the case again. Still no luck. No one called Crime Solvers, and the case remained cold.
The idea to create a podcast about Sherry’s murder came together in January 2020. I called Tiffany to see if she and her two brothers would be interested in taking part in a retelling of their mother’s story — a real deep dive into the case. With the incredible reach of podcasts, my hope was that someone inside or outside the D.C. area might hear the story and come forward with information that could help police. Tiffany talked with her two brothers, and they all agreed it was worth a shot.
I reached out to WTOP over the summer to see if they would like to partner with me on this project. They agreed and decided that they would like to make this season two of their American Nightmare podcast series. Season one, 22 Hours: An American Nightmare, hosted by WTOP reporters Megan Cloherty and Jack Moore, covered another heinous case in the D.C. region — the mansion murders. This new season of WTOP’s American Nightmare Series is titled Murder in a Safe Place.
It has now taken me more than a year to research, write and produce this podcast.
When I started out on this journey, I honestly thought I already knew all of the shocking twists and turns in this case. But I could not have been more wrong.
I have interviewed Detective Nelson multiple times for this podcast. No one knows the case better, and I leaned on him for answers when other interviews raised additional questions. Some of what I have learned in the last year from Nelson and others about Sherry’s case, the investigation and the hospital has truly shocked me. It’s information that has never been released to the public before, but you’ll hear about it all as you listen to this podcast.
In addition to interviewing Sherry’s three children, I have also spoken with Prince George’s County Police Lt. Mike McQuillen, who was in charge of the department’s homicide unit at the time of the murder.
Shirley Montague, one of the last people to see Sherry alive, contributed compelling information I could not have gotten elsewhere. Montague was Crandell’s secretary, and she was able to take me back to the days before and after the murder.
As I began writing the podcast episodes a few months ago, something interesting started to happen. After 23 years of virtually no movement in this case, suddenly I found myself having to rewrite portions of the episodes as new information was coming to light — including the shocking genealogy revelations.
When I started the interviews for this series, I had no idea police were planning to use genealogy in an effort to identify Sherry’s killer, and now Detective Nelson said he is as close as he’s ever been.
In addition to identifying the killer’s third and fourth cousins, Bode Technology Group also told police it is 99% certain the killer is of West African descent. Who is this man? Why did he do it? And how has he gone unidentified for 23 years?
While we might be a ways off from finding answers to these questions, I’m hopeful we’ll continue to learn more. After all, police have learned more in the last eight months than they have in the past two decades about who killed Sherry Crandell. And as we do learn more, you can rest assured I’ll be sharing it in this podcast.
If you are reading this article, you’ve found our website, AmericanNightmarePodcast.com. There are other helpful resources here about the Crandell case and about season one of WTOP’s American Nightmare Series.
As you listen to the podcast, I’d love to hear from you. Email your questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And, if you’d like to know more about my journey creating this podcast or what you can expect in upcoming episodes, I hope you’ll watch the mini-documentary below put together by WTOP’s Brett Snyder.