What The Golden State Killer Tells Us About Forensic Genetics

THREE HUNDRED AND sixty-six days ago, CeCe Moore woke up to the headline that would change her world: “Suspected Golden State Killer, East Area Rapist Arrested After Eluding Authorities for Decades.” Later that day, those authorities would hold a press conference in front of the Sacramento County District Attorney’s office to explain how, a day earlier, they had finally put handcuffs on the man believed to have committed a series of sadistic rapes and murders that spread terror through California for more than 40 years. But Moore didn’t have to tune in to know how they had done it. “I knew immediately they had cracked it with genetic genealogy and GEDmatch,” she says.

She knew it because at the time, Moore was working as the genetic genealogy researcher on the PBS show Finding Your Roots and had a consulting business helping adoptees find their biological parents. To aid her searches, she regularly logged on to GEDmatch, a public database where hobbyists upload results from consumer genetic testing companies like 23andMe and Ancestry to find relatives with shared DNA and to reverse-engineer their family trees. It had come to her attention that another genealogist on the site, Barbara Rae-Venter, had been uploading files that seemed out of place, and Moore suspected they came not from family members, but from crime scenes. But she had never imagined that one of them belonged to the man believed to be one of the most notorious serial killers in US history. “This was going to be huge,” she remembers telling people that day.

But not even Moore could have predicted just how huge it would become. In the year since the dramatic arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, the alleged Golden State Killer, investigative genetic genealogy has emerged as the most powerful new crime-fighting tool since DNA itself. The technique has been used to identify suspects in more than 50 additional cases. Its vast potential to crack tens of thousands more has given rise to a lucrative new forensic science business, the formation of dedicated family-tree-building police units, and the first-ever home DNA kit marketing campaign to get people to send in their spit to solve crimes.

The practice also raises grave genetic privacy concerns. Namely, a single user can unknowingly cast a web of legal suspicion around hundreds of their family members, who not only haven’t consented to a police search but haven’t even taken a DNA test themselves. There are no laws or policies governing how and when cops can use forensic genetic genealogy. Prosecutors will have to defend the constitutionality of the technique when the first cases go to trial this summer; meanwhile, law enforcement agencies are increasingly reaching into consumer DNA databases for leads, with only those websites’ terms and conditions to keep them in check.

For the companies profiting off this boom, however, the news so far has been nothing but good. “It’s the most exciting thing that’s happened in forensic science in a long time,” says Andrew Singer, director of marketing and sales for Bode Technology, the nation’s largest forensic DNA testing company. In February, Bode launched a genetic genealogy business to rival Parabon NanoLabs, the first private lab to get into the genetic genealogy game.

Before the Golden State Killer case broke, Virginia-based Parabon had been known for its work reconstructing facial sketches from crime-scene DNA. But in the weeks after, the relatively small forensic firm shot to prominence by hiring Moore and becoming the industry’s go-to contractor for family-tree forensics. Publicly, the company has been involved with 49 identifications—47 suspects and two Does. But Moore says the real number is higher.

Her team of four genealogists has worked up a further 80 cases, meaning they’ve spent up to 15 hours (and charged $3,500) per case building trees and coming up with a list of names for the investigating agency. Another 80 are either waiting for a genealogist to do an initial evaluation, to see if there are enough matches in GEDmatch to merit more work, or waiting for a police agency to sign off on moving forward with the next phase. Moore says that out of her team’s 49 positive identifications, in only a single case had the name of the person they came up with ever appeared in a police file.

Bode has yet to publicly disclose any positive identifications of its own, and Singer declined to say how many cases the company’s team of contracted genealogists is working on. But he says there’s plenty of demand. Singer spoke to WIRED Tuesday from Phoenix, where Bode is hosting its annual DNA technology conference for prosecutors and public crime lab officials. Over the past 18 years, attendance has never topped 275 people. This year 400 showed up. Most attendees arrived a day early to catch a two-hour workshop on genetic genealogy. “Everyone is extremely excited about this, but we’re really just at the beginning,” Singer says.

One of the speakers at the workshop on Tuesday was Lori Napolitano, chief of forensic services for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. A few years ago, she began delving into genetic genealogy in her free time while searching for information about her adopted father’s biological family. She even attended a few of Moore’s seminars. After the Golden State Killer case broke, she convinced her bosses to let her spin up her own genetic genealogy unit to support investigations across Florida’s 300-plus law enforcement agencies. When it officially formed in September, Napolitano’s team became the first state-level in-house investigative genetic genealogy unit in the country. (The FBI has its own unit, trained by Barbara Rae-Venter.)

In January, BuzzFeed revealed that in addition to GEDmatch, the FBI had been searching the vast genealogical database belonging to FamilyTreeDNA, one of the leading private genetic testing companies. Shortly after, FamilyTreeDNA changed its terms of service to explicitly allow any law enforcement agency, or private lab representing them, to send in a crime scene sample or upload a genetic file to the database, provided it meets the company's criteria. There was some initial backlash, but a FamilyTreeDNA spokesperson says only 1 percent of its 2 million customers decided to opt out of the familial matching services that would make their profiles discoverable by the FBI, local law enforcement agencies, and private labs like Bode. FamilyTreeDNA says the chips Parabon uses to generate a genetic profile are largely incompatible with its platform, though the two companies are in talks about how to resolve the issue. For now, Parabon's search capacity is limited only to GEDmatch.

While Napolitano’s four-person Florida team still works with Parabon to produce genetic profiles from old crime-scene samples and uploads them to GEDmatch, being able to do a lot of the tree-building themselves means the state can save thousands of dollars in private lab-contracting fees per case. “That really brings us hope,” says Ryan Backmann, founder of Project Cold Case, a Jacksonville, Florida, victims advocacy nonprofit. It also makes Florida a model for how other state agencies might expand their own use of the technique. “When your state lab invests in this technology, it shows they believe it’s here for the long haul and is going to solve a lot of cases.”

Backmann started Project Cold Case in 2015, as he was grappling with his own father’s case, which was frosting over. (Cliff Backmann was shot in the back and killed during a robbery in 2009.) Since then, through public records requests and submissions from families of victims, he has assembled a nationwide clearinghouse of information on more than 10,000 unsolved murders. Although the FBI keeps numbers on unsolved murders—250,000 of them in the US since 1980, according to the Murder Accountability Project—before Project Cold Case there was no searchable database with names of victims and the investigating agencies. Backmann made one so people with tips would have an easier time coming forward.

In the year since the Golden State Killer case broke open, he has made dozens of calls to police departments on behalf of family members wanting to know if their case could be eligible for a genetic genealogy approach. Sometimes he learns that those cases don’t have any DNA evidence, or that there’s not enough material left over to generate a genetic profile. Sometimes he discovers the DNA is there, but there’s not enough money in the agency budget to give it a shot. That’s why Backmann recently began meeting with potential benefactors and launched a fund to raise money to help law enforcement investigate these cases. He says they haven’t raised enough yet to advertise to agencies—even if they could wrangle nonprofit pricing from Parabon or Bode, any donations totaling less than six figures “would just disappear in a weekend,” says Backmann, given the amount of interest. “It feels like we’re on the very front of this wave, but for most of us we’re just waiting for it to really be available to the masses, and not just a niche thing.”

Before it gets to the masses though, lawmakers like Charles Sydnor III are trying to make sure the public has a frank discussion about what it means for the government to have access to consumer DNA databases filled with millions of law-abiding American citizens. In January, he introduced a bill into the Maryland House of Delegates that would have been the first law in the US to ban police from using genetic genealogy, based on concerns that it amounts to “genetic surveillance.” But state law enforcement agencies came out hard against the bill (as did Parabon’s CEO, Steven Armentrout), and it died in committee a few weeks later.

Sydnor is now planning a special interim hearing for this fall to educate his colleagues on the topic of investigative genetic genealogy, before trying again next session. As the headlines pile up with new cold cases cracked every week, he says that some of those colleagues have said to him, "Charles, the genie’s out of the bottle, what do you really think you can do about it?" He thinks he has one thing on his side: Maryland has long been a defender of genetic privacy rights. In 2008, it became the only state to ban the older practice of “familial searches,” which involves police rummaging around genetic registries of convicted felons and arrestees in an attempt to identify suspects through their close genetic kin. He just wants the families of genealogy enthusiasts to enjoy the same protections as the families of convicted criminals. “We’ve had a policy for over a decade that says we shouldn’t be doing this,” Sydnor says. “I want to catch the bad guys as much as everyone else, but there are all sorts of unintended consequences to this that we’re not stopping to think about.”

Other states are pushing their own legislation in different directions. In February, an Arizona lawmaker proposed a mandatory DNA database for that state’s citizens that would have been searchable by law enforcement investigating crimes. (The bill was amended following public outcry.) Meanwhile, lawmakers in Massachusetts are drafting a bill that would enshrine investigative genetic genealogy as a legal practice in that state. The bill’s cosponsors are reported to be working with the family of a young woman who was abducted and killed 19 years ago and whose killer remains at-large, but they could not be reached to answer specific questions about the proposed law. Besides an all-out ban, some legal experts have recommended limiting the practice in other ways—to only violent crimes, or only once all other options have been exhausted, similar to how California regulates familial search. Some genetic counselors have advocated that police be prohibited from using genetic profiles to look up medical information or release sensitive family secrets. Others have said they want there to be compassionate carve-outs for mothers identified through genetic genealogy in abandoned baby cases.

Moore is keeping an eye on all these developments. But she says she has no plans to stop using genetic genealogy to solve crimes unless a law or negative court ruling forces her to. Her biggest concern as the field heats up is the lack of standards. “There’s no such thing as a PhD in genetic genealogy,” says Moore, who, like all the field’s pioneers, is self-taught. “There’s not a degree or a certification or even a certifying body that can say who’s qualified to work these cases.” Moore says she recently approached the closest thing—the Board for Certification of Genealogists—about developing a separate credential for using genetic genealogy for criminal investigations. So far the talks haven’t gone anywhere.

“That’s a problem, because someone getting arrested as a result of your work is about as high stakes as it gets,” Moore says. While genetic genealogists provide leads only to law enforcement agencies—they’re responsible for then singling out the suspect with shoe-leather policing and DNA confirmatory testing—Moore is beginning to feel the weight of her contributions. And she’s starting to think about how she can use her skills not just to help get the right people behind bars but to also free the wrongfully imprisoned ones.

Two weeks ago she met with the Innocence Project about exploring how post-conviction attorneys might go about getting court orders to have crime-scene DNA sent to Parabon to be turned into files uploaded into GEDmatch. “The process would be the same, but the goal would be much different,” she says. “It hasn’t happened yet, but I think it has a lot of potential to flip genetic genealogy on its head as a tool for clearing the innocent.” It’s an intriguing idea. But for now, there’s a lot more money to be made—and a lot more political will—to use it to lock people up.

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