DNA cold case: Elderly Queens man indicted for killing of WWI vet who vanished in 1976

QUEENS — A 74-year-old former New York City barber has been indicted in the 1976 murder of a World War I veteran who went to his shop for a haircut and vanished, authorities said.

Martin Motta, of Queens, was arraigned Wednesday on a second-degree murder charge. He is accused of killing George Clarence Seitz, 81, on Dec. 10, 1976.

Seitz was last seen alive leaving his home in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens. Authorities located his dismembered remains in 2019 following a tip from a woman who said she witnessed his burial more than four decades earlier.

Authorities believe the motive for the Seitz’s killing was robbery. If convicted of the crime, Motta faces 25 years to life in prison.

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“After 45 years, the alleged killer of a WWI veteran is being held accountable and brought to justice,” Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz said in a statement. “We hope the identification of the remains and the indictment in this case will begin to bring peace and closure to his loved ones.”

NYPD Deputy Chief Jerry O’Sullivan commended the detectives who took on such a cold case and uncovered evidence to bolster the case against Motta.

“I have to say, the work that was done in this case was not just relentless, but amazing,” O’Sullivan said.

‘An intense and complicated investigation’

Thousands of people are reported missing each year in New York City. On Dec. 15, 1976, George Seitz became one of those people.

His long-cold case was all but forgotten until March 11, 2019, when Detective Erik Contreras’ telephone rang, according to authorities and The New York Times. The woman on the other end of the line told the investigator how she had witnessed a body being buried in her backyard when she was a child.

The caller, whose name has not been made public, told Contreras she was 10 years old when she saw her mother’s boyfriend cutting up the body and burying it, the Times reported. She kept quiet for decades out of fear.

Motta was the man who lived at 87-72 115th St. in December 1976, according to the newspaper.

The day after the woman’s call, detectives and forensic anthropologists dug up the spot behind the townhome. When they did, they found a pelvis and part of a man’s torso buried under concrete.

His body had been dismembered at the neck, shoulders and hips, Katz’s office said.

“The remains enabled the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to determine a DNA profile in the hopes of identifying a family member,” the statement read. “That profile was searched within local, state and national databases, with negative results.”

Watch police and prosecutors speak about Motta’s arrest below.

Earlier this year, spurred on by other agencies’ success using genetic genealogy, the NYPD and Katz’s office collaborated with Othram Inc., a private Texas-based laboratory that specializes in taking DNA samples and producing comprehensive genetic profiles to help police identify criminals and victims alike.

“The genealogical profile was given to the FBI, which then generated leads that were turned over to the Queens District Attorney’s Office and the NYPD,” Katz’s announcement stated. “Investigators began to contact potential family members of the victim and obtained DNA samples for comparison to the discovered remains.”

According to prosecutors, the investigation led to Seitz’s family. Detectives were able to positively identify the bones as belonging to the missing veteran.

The Times reported that Seitz, who was described as somewhat of a recluse, was known to carry all his money with him. That sometimes meant the octogenarian held thousands of dollars in his pockets.

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Detectives theorize that he had a large amount of cash on him when he went for his haircut the day he vanished.

Motta and his brother owned a barber shop about a mile from Seitz’s home, authorities said.

Katz said in her statement that “crucial evidence” was uncovered that linked Motta to the crime. The investigation included multiple interviews of witnesses and extensive searches of records through various agencies, spanning a total of five states.

Motta is being held without bail.