Irvine, CA

New DNA Extraction Method Results in Solving 1980 Cold Case Murder of Judy Nesbitt

True Crime Mysteries (Megan)

It was the day before Thanksgiving weekend on November 26th, 1980, in Irvine, California.

While many people were preparing for the weekend's festivities, the forty-two-year-old mother of four, Judith (Judy) Nesbitt, went to the Marina Dunes Yacht Anchorage in Newport Beach. The Nesbitt family had recently bought a home and decided to sell their boat: a 36-foot-long cabin cruiser called "The Felicidad IV."

According to Judy's son, she received a phone call at 9:30 that morning from a prospective buyer who booked a 1 PM appointment to see the yacht. Judy obliged and left to meet the potential buyer, but then hours passed by without a word from her. By 7 PM, her husband Fred was worried and decided to head down to the Marina to check on her.

Upon entering the cabin of the boat, Fred discovered the body of his wife, Judy Nesbitt. Scene investigators found signs of a violent struggle, which they suggested culminated in Judy's death. She had been shot once in the head.

While the boat had not been ransacked, cash, credit cards, and a checkbook were missing from Judy's purse, pointing the police towards robbery as a motive. Hairs from an unknown person were extracted from the crime scene and kept as evidence, but since this was 1980, DNA testing had yet to come into the picture.

Even though the Marina Dunes Yacht Anchorage was identified as private property, no security gate or security guard was on site. A fellow boater's cruiser had been stolen several days before the murder, but harbor police soon recovered it.

Officers spoke with local boaters and witnesses, and police put together a description of a man who was seen inspecting the boat on the day of the murder. The man was described as thirty to thirty-five years old, medium weight, and between five foot seven and five foot ten. He had brown hair and aviator glasses.
Police sketch of suspectNewport Beach Police Department

According to a Los Angeles Times article, witnesses also saw the man leaving the boat after hearing screams and a gunshot. This information was not immediately reported to the police. Newport Beach Police worked over the holiday weekend to solve the case. But aside from the suspect description, they had few clues to go off. And so, the case went cold.

In 2002, investigators built out a limited DNA profile based on the roots of the hairs found at the crime scene. The profile was entered into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, which catalogs DNA information gathered and used by law enforcement agencies. But unfortunately, they couldn't find a match within the database.

Years passed, and although the police department never gave up on their search for Judy's killer, the case went cold.

Then, in 2018, there was a break in the case. Green Laboratories, an independent testing lab, produced a more detailed DNA profile extracted from the remaining hair shafts found at the crime scene. And on Monday, August 9th, 2021, the Newport Beach Police Department announced they had finally identified Judy Nesbitt's killer.

Through the use of investigative genetic genealogy, new forensic crime-solving techniques, and the assistance of Genetic Genealogist CeCe Moore, the Newport Beach Police Department identified Kenneth Elwin Marks as Judy Nesbitt's killer.

The police determined that Marks had been the one to make the 1 PM appointment, under the guise of being a potential buyer for the yacht. He then followed Judy into the sleeping quarters of the cabin, where he accosted her. A violent struggle broke out before he murdered her, stole the cash, credit cards, and checkbook, and fled the scene.

Marks was not considered a suspect during the investigation and is not connected to any other crimes. He passed away from cancer in California in 1999. Though due to the violent nature of the crimes, it is unlikely his only crime. His DNA will be examined in similar cold cases in the area.

This was a landmark case, as it included the first DNA extraction of its kind to identify a murderer during a criminal investigation in the United States.

In a statement, Newport Beach Police Chief Jon T. Lewis said,

"Kenneth Marks has passed away, but he no longer gets to hold the secret of his deeds. Through incredible advances in technology and the tireless dedication of these investigators, we now have some closure for all who knew and loved Judy Nesbitt."

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