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Alabama serial rapist musician tied to 'horrifying' attacks through DNA research

Elliott Higgins, who founded Hummingbird Music Camp in New Mexico, was accused of three separate sexual assaults between 1991 and 2004 after his death in 2014.

The U.S. French horn community was rocked earlier this month when they learned one of its most renowned musicians was accused of being a serial rapist after genetic genealogy research linked him to several crimes across the country.

Elliott Higgins' pristine image flipped on its head earlier this month, however, when Tuscaloosa authorities and genetic genealogists tied Higgins' DNA to at least three sexual assaults — including two rapes — in Alabama and Colorado between 1991 and 2004.

CeCe Moore, chief genetic genealogist at Parabon NanoLabs, described the case as "unique" because Higgins didn't have "any obvious ties to the area" of the crimes he committed.

"This was unique. We definitely had to dig in to his life more to see why he might have been at these locations. So, when we discovered that it was because he was involved in children's music, camps and competitions, it was horrifying. … My team and I are all mothers … middle-aged women who have children. And our children have gone to all sorts of camps and lessons and activities. I mean, it's horrifying to think that someone like this man had access to children when their parents weren't around for supervision."

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Higgins, who died in 2014 at age 73, was a devoted husband and father of one daughter, the music director at music camp his family founded in Albuquerque and conducted the Albuquerque Philharmonic.

"As my father, he was loving, devoted and seemed to be kind and morally upstanding," his daughter, Amber Higgins, told The Wall Street Journal. "I have been trying to wrap my mind around how it is possible that he could have had this other person hidden inside of him." 

Moore noted that while the victims are always in mind when analyzing DNA in a violent criminal case, the suspect's family also often comes into consideration for researchers.

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"We know the victims' families have been negatively impacted. We're well aware of that. That's who we're doing our work for," she said. "But it doesn't escape our attention that the suspect's family is going to be devastated, too, when they learn about what their loved one was capable of doing."

Over the course of two decades, the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office (TCSO) had been gathering evidence to build a case but needed help identifying DNA evidence belonging to the same suspect in all three sexual assault cases that occurred in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, and El Paso County, Colorado.

TCSO Capt. Jack Kennedy, who heads the TCSO Violent Crimes Unit, told WSJ that in all three alleged instances, Higgins was armed. Higgins is accused of raping a University of Alabama student at knifepoint in 1991 and a real estate agent whom he apparently duped into showing a house in 2001. In 2004, Higgins allegedly sexually assaulted a woman, who had posted a wedding dress for-sale ad in the newspaper that he responded to, at gunpoint before she fought him off and went to authorities.

"We had so much information on this case, and we still couldn't figure out who this guy was," Kennedy told WSJ.

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That's when authorities contacted Parabon to make the link they needed for a potential arrest only to discover that Higgins had died about eight years prior.

Six days elapsed from the time Parabon got a match list for the DNA in the case and the time Moore gave Higgins' name to law enforcement. Moore was able to link Higgins' second cousin on one side of his family and second cousin once-removed on the other side of his family to the suspect in just days.

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"I won't say it's quite the jackpot, but it is a fantastic result when you have a second cousin on one side and a second cousin once-removed on the other side," Moore said. "If we can connect to both of someone's parents, that narrows it down to just them and any full siblings of the same gender. We all have unique family trees and except for our full siblings. So, if we can develop a very high confidence hypothesis — if we can connect to both sides of someone's family tree … those are really the optimal cases."

When Parabon makes the link between DNA and an identity, however, it is "just an investigative lead," she explained. The rest is up to law enforcement.

"It's not evidence against somebody," Moore said. "So, the law enforcement agency has to do a full investigation, just like they would on any other tip, like if I called the name into Crime Stoppers, for instance."

The International Horn Competition of America, which Higgins founded, issued a Feb. 7 statement after law enforcement named Higgins in connection with the crimes.

"Everyone within the organizational structure of the International Horn Competition of America, currently or historically, was shocked by the news detailing the crimes of Elliott Higgins. No one in the organization, currently or historically, had any information (suggested, factual, or otherwise) that would have led to recognition of Elliott Higgins’ ongoing criminal activity," the statement read, in part.

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