Thursday, March 14, 2019

Forensic genealogy is being used by police to solve crime

Forensic genealogy exploded into public awareness when Joseph DeAngelo was arrested for the crimes associated with the Golden State Killer case, which involved a dozen murders and more than 50 rapes committed in California between 1976 and 1986. Headlines proclaimed, “A Popular Genealogy Website Just Helped Solve a Serial Killer Cold Case,” and “The Future of Crime Fighting Is Family Tree Forensics.” Relatives of victims breathed sighs of relief that the perpetrator had finally been identified and caught. Law enforcement professionals and dedicated internet sleuths were also excited—not just because long-dormant criminal cases were being solved, but also because of how they were being solved. And by whom.
Forensic genealogy can best be described as a still-nascent technique of forensic science that combines DNA analysis and family-tree building, reported Topic. (The TV pitch would be a cross between the documentary series Forensic Files and Who Do You Think You Are?, in which celebrities explore their family trees.) Its specific alchemy results when the field of genetic genealogy—which uses DNA testing to help people discover and identify their ancestors—is applied to legal and investigative issues, like the tracking down of missing heirs, adoptive parents, and siblings, the assigning of names to the unidentified remains of soldiers, and now the cracking of cold cases.
“You always hear the phrase ‘hiding in plain view.’ That’s what this guy was doing.”
It is also a specialty of Parabon NanoLabs, which has successfully identified more than 30 suspects in cold cases since May 2018, establishing itself as the go-to service for forensic genealogy. The company was originally founded in 2008 by computational scientist Steven Armentrout and chemist Michael Norton to develop products for analyzing the tiniest amounts of DNA and applying them in cancer research, developing new vaccines, and creating novel synthetic drugs. The Department of Defense had funded the initial research that became Snapshot; law enforcement requests came later, with the Fort Wayne police becoming one of Parabon’s earliest clients in 2015.
When I studied forensic science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the early 2000s, I toiled—with mixed results, at best—on DNA research that convinced me I was better off far away from the laboratory, writing about crimes rather than solving them. As DNA testing became more sophisticated, gleaning results from microscopic samples that were once thought untestable, I got excited at the possible ramifications with respect to cold cases both famous (Zodiac Killer, anyone?) and unknown.
What also stands out about the rapid rise of forensic genealogy is that the work was, for years, the domain of amateur genealogists. These genealogists toil in archives and databases first for themselves, then for others who enlist their help to solve mysteries and unknowns in their family trees.
Only a handful of these genealogists, however, have the requisite expertise and background needed to resolve cold cases like those that Parabon takes on. Colleen Fitzpatrick, a 63-year-old physicist who coined the term “forensic genealogy” in the mid-2000s, is one of these experts. Fitzpatrick concentrates almost exclusively on unidentified remains, and she most recently cofounded the DNA Doe Project with amateur genealogist Margaret Press. So, too, is Barbara Rae-Venter, 70, the California-based genetic genealogist who worked with the FBI and with various divisions of state law enforcement to pinpoint the identity of the Golden State Killer. (Neither genealogist has worked with Parabon.)
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