In February 2015 Elayne and Harley Feldman and their oldest daughter, Kelly Feldman Weinblatt, experienced an unthinkable tragedy. Their beloved daughter and sister, Allison Feldman, 31, was found brutally murdered in her Scottsdale home.
Allison was a giving, loving person with many friends. After graduating from the University of Arizona, she purchased a home in Scottsdale. She had received a promotion at her job in medical sales. She volunteered during the summer at Camp Courage for children who are burn survivors. She spoke Spanish fluently, having studied abroad in Spain. She lit up any room she entered.
Sometime during the night of Feb. 17, 2015, a man entered Allison’s home and extinguished this bright light. He then left her home, returned with a chlorine compound and spent an estimated three hours cleaning to remove any trace that he had been there.
While the police were unable to locate any fingerprints related to the perpetrator, they collected 450 pieces of evidence, including DNA samples. But the DNA did not match anyone in their criminal database.
The Feldmans live in Minnesota, but they traveled monthly to Scottsdale, staying in Allison’s home, to work with the Scottsdale police department to try and find the killer.
More than three years later, a combination of extraordinary connections, started as a friendship formed on a Friends of the Israel Defense Forces mission to Poland and Israel, helped find Allison’s murderer.
A UNIQUE FRIENDSHIP
Elayne’s father, Sid Shafner, enlisted in the United States Army at age 18, right after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Due to his high score on an I.Q. test, he was selected for the Army Specialized Training Corps and was sent to an engineering program at Regis College, a private Jesuit university in Denver.
“In the second year of a three-year program, after the Normandy invasion, the military broke up the program and all these brilliant men were sent to infantry,” says Elayne. Sid was assigned to the 42nd Infantry (Rainbow Division) at Camp Gruber in Oklahoma.
Sid started his tour overseas in Marseille, France. After liberating Marseille, his platoon headed toward Munich.
“He was in reconnaissance, so he was in the first jeep,” says Elayne. “As they were headed to Munich, they saw two young boys headed down the road who were screaming and yelling. Describing the encounter later, Sid says the boys wore “black and white striped pajamas.”
One of the young men was Marcel Levy. Sid had no idea what they were talking about. Sid did not speak German and Marcel did not speak English, but they were able to communicate in Yiddish. “Come quickly they are killing people,” Marcel said. Sid told the boys the soldiers were on their way to Munich and had no time to bother with them.
Marcel finally convinced Sid that the soldiers had to come. Sid radioed the rest of his platoon and the two young men jumped into the jeep to direct them.
They became the first unit to arrive at Dachau concentration camp. That was April 29, 1945. “They had no idea it was there, they were in total shock seeing the dead bodies and railroad cars,” says Elayne. Sid was 24 and Marcel was 19.
During the liberation of Dachau, Sid and Marcel became close friends. As the 42nd Infantry was readying to leave, Marcel said he didn’t want to go with the Red Cross, but his entire family had been killed at Dachau. The group of soldiers decided to make him an honorary part of the platoon. They invited Marcel to come with them, and he became their dishwasher.
Marcel was a vital asset to the platoon as they traveled through Germany. Many of the Nazi SS guards who had been stationed at Dachau had changed clothes during the raid to look like civilians or prisoners and were able to escape.
One day, the soldiers came across 12 of these individuals. Marcel was able to identify them, and after the soldiers verified who they were by their SS tattoos, they shot them all.
“The Red Cross was there and called for a court-martial of all of these Americans,” says Elayne. “General Patton said during the court-martial proceedings, ‘If I were there, I would have done the same thing, you’re excused.’ ”
The 42nd Infantry ended World War II on occupation duty in Austria, where Marcel was promoted to cook.
In Austria, Marcel and Sid would feed the refugees who were camped in an old Jewish community center the Nazis had destroyed. Marcel would cook extra food and he and Sid hand out food at the JCC.
In 1946 Sid returned to the United States and married Esther Dranoff. Marcel had relatives in Israel, so he moved to Israel, where he still lives. The two kept in touch via letters and emails for more than 60 years and had reunited twice in person.
Their third meeting would be a defining moment in many people’s lives.
HONORING A HERO
In 2016 Sid received a letter from the FIDF inviting him to travel to Poland and Israel as their guest with their “From Holocaust to Independence” mission that May.
Sid was invited as a liberator and was allowed to bring one guest. Since he used a wheelchair, he needed to travel with his nurse. But Sid wanted Elayne to go too. It had been a little over a year since Allison’s murder, and he thought that getting away for 10 days would be good for her.
He told the FIDF that, “I will only go if my daughter can go too.” And they granted his request.
“It was the greatest trip of my life,” remembers Elayne of spending 10 days with her dad.
In Poland Barbara and Edmund Leff overhead Elayne talking about Allison’s murder. The Leffs were from Paradise Valley and had heard about the case, so they approached Elayne.
“I said to Elayne that it may take a number of years, but it will be solved,” recalls Edmond. “I had worked with a gal whose daughter had been killed on the canal, and that took more than 10 years to solve.” Edmund was referring to the murder of 22-year-old Angela Brosso in 1992. The killer, Bryan Patrick Miller, was caught using his DNA and forensic genealogy in 2015.
After Elayne told the Leffs that she and her husband traveled to Scottsdale every month to work with the Scottsdale Police Department, Barbara told them “that we would help them and that we would be there for them.”
The Leffs were also there when Sid and Marcel were reunited at an Israeli military base on the second half of the mission. When Sid was originally invited on the trip, he shared his and Marcel’s incredible story. The FIDF arranged the reunion. The last time the two had seen each other was in 1995 at Allison’s bat mitzvah in Israel.
“I had Allison’s bat mitzvah in Israel so that my dad and mother could come and see Marcel again,” says Elayne. “We had it in Jerusalem at the Southern Wall. We had just my family and Marcel’s family. It was the most beautiful, most meaningful thing.”
The two men spent the rest of the FIDF trip together. It was their last meeting. Sid died on Dec. 26, 2016, at the age of 95.
SEARCH FOR A KILLER
The police were running out of leads in Allison’s case. Through genome mapping they created a profile that included his skin and eye color, and even a list of potential last names.
On one of Harley’s monthly trips he told the police, “I hate to keep bugging you guys,” but the police were quick to reply, “We like families to push us. So many families give up after a while. We are happy to work with you as much as you want to work with us.”
One day Harley heard about familial DNA. (See sidebar below.) He learned that a DNA sample that came back with no leads could then be processed through a DNA familial search. If a blood relative’s DNA is in the state or federal criminal database system, the search can find a match.
The only problem – familial search did not exist in Arizona. The Scottsdale police wanted to do it, but they didn’t have the equipment, funding or trained personnel to perform the test.
Then Harley decided to contact his good friend Barbara Leff. The Leffs and Feldmans remained in constant contact after the FIDF mission and would see each other during the Feldman’s monthly visits to Scottsdale. “The one thing that I have learned from all of this,” says Barbara. “You can never ease their pain, you can provide some comfort, but you can’t ease the pain.”
Barbara was a 14-year veteran of public service in Arizona. She was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives in 1996, where she served three consecutive terms. In 2002, she was elected to the Arizona State Senate, where she served four consecutive terms until term limits forced her to retire in 2010.
Barbara contacted Arizona State Representative Maria Syms and asked for her help. Rep. Syms had previously worked as an assistant attorney general and had recently sponsored and passed the mandatory rape kit testing law that required DNA testing. Maria told Barbara – yes, she would help.
“I got a summary of everything and shared it with Maria,” says Harley. “She then went to see (Arizona Attorney General Mark) Brnovich and he told her it was legal, and then the governor approved it.”
Once she received approval for familial testing, Maria worked with Scottsdale Assistant Chief of Police Scott Popp and Arizona Department of Safety Director Col. Frank Milstead to get the funding and resources in place.
By the end of November 2017, the equipment had been purchased, personnel had been trained and Arizona was ready to start familial DNA testing. The whole process, from getting permission to beginning testing, had taken six months.
The police got the break they were waiting for in April 2018.
“They had found a familial match because the perpetrator’s brother was in jail for molestation,” says Harley. The familial DNA search came up with one match, Mark Mitcham, who was serving a 40-year sentence for child molestation.
Mark had three brothers, two of whom did not have criminal backgrounds. But his younger brother, Ian, had been arrested before, including a DUI in 2015. The police had drawn blood at that time to check his blood alcohol content, and although the case was dismissed, that sample was still in evidence. When they compared the DNA to that found at Allison’s home, they matched perfectly.
“I was told he’d be arrested on Tuesday from SPD,” remembers Harley. “The familial match was made on Thursday, and the arrest happened on Tuesday.”
The police waited outside of the Phoenix delicatessen where Ian worked and arrested him on April 10, 2018.
“On Wednesday morning I was in Orlando and got a call from Maricopa County courts that he was being transferred from Scottsdale to Maricopa County and I had a right to be there,” says Harley. “I said, ‘I can’t,’ and they told me I could fill out a victim impact statement. I filled it out and it went to the judge. The judge read my victim impact statement to him and said, ‘$5 million cash bail.’ He’s been in jail ever since.”
Scottsdale Police Detective John Heinzelman warned the Feldmans that his arrest would not change anything for them.
“It brought us peace for about two days,” says Harley. “When he was arrested, that was a little relief, and then you realized that Allison’s not coming back.”
Adds Elayne, “The police would tell us all the time it was senseless, she should never have been a victim. They had no idea how he knew her and don’t know why she was targeted. We might never know.”
Harley talks to victim support groups and in August 2018 he delivered a message in favor of more states integrating familial DNA testing and technology at the Conference of the Western States Attorneys General to the 43 attorneys general in attendance.
“My message to the attorneys general is to use it in your states because there are families you can help to solve crimes,” he says.
“What keeps me going was to have two tasks,” says Harley. “One, to find the killer, and the other is to keep her legacy alive with the scholarship.”
The Allison Feldman Memorial Scholarship was created to provide opportunities for students to participate in the University of Arizona Study Abroad programs, paying tribute to the most transformative experience of Allison’s life, as a student in Alcalá de Henares, Spain, in 2004.
“She was a quiet and shy girl when she was little, but after her study abroad in Spain, she grew up a lot,” says Harley. “She loved working with people.”
Elayne reflects on the order life should follow. “The parents should go first,” she says. “When my dad died I felt terrible because we were very close, but he was 95. It’s not supposed to be the child, especially from such a violent murder as this. That’s the part that’s so difficult to live with. I worry all the time how much did she suffer – and nobody could tell me.”
She admits she gets “triggered” all the time. Elayne can’t walk by a bridal shop without bursting into tears, because Allison will never be a bride, or a mother, or advance in her career – so many milestones that she will never achieve.
Every night when Allison called, Elayne would end the conversation by saying, “Allison you are a very loved child,” to which Allison would respond, “Thank you, momma, I love you too.”
Allison is still a loved child, and will never be forgotten.
Federal law enforcement agencies commonly collect DNA samples from those arrested or charged with a crime, as do a growing number of state and local agencies.
Traditional DNA searches look for an exact genetic match in one of these state or federal criminal databases. When a conventional DNA search provides no matches, a familial DNA search may be used. Law enforcement uses a familial DNA search to find a sibling, child, parent or other blood relative of the suspect DNA they have collected.
A traditional DNA search is only successful if the DNA in question was already in one of the databases searched. Familial DNA searches allow authorities to search for relatives within searchable databases.
Current forms of familial DNA searches only work with men, since most techniques to determine exact familial relations involve analysis of similarities on the Y chromosome. Familial DNA searches, as we know them today, do not identify exact relatives of a female DNA sample or female relatives of a male DNA sample.
Currently, only 12 states use familial DNA as an investigative tool. Some states allow the reporting of partial match information but do not allow explicit searches for familial DNA. Some places that allow partial match reporting have a procedure on how and when it can be used; others make such decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Even though 23andMe and Ancestry.com are two of the largest companies that produce genetic profiles for customers who provide DNA samples, due to their privacy policies, they do not work with law enforcement unless they receive a court order.