Last January, Carla Davis was on LinkedIn when she saw an intriguing post: “Identify the Victim of 1978 Tennessee Murder,” reported The New York Times.
Ever since the man’s burned remains were found on a campground outside Nashville, the authorities had been trying to figure out who he was and who had killed him. After 42 years with no leads, the local sheriff’s office wanted to try a relatively new technique pioneered in the Golden State Killer case, combing through consumer genetic databases to find the man’s relatives, however distant, to triangulate his identity. The local sheriff couldn’t afford it, so a genetics lab called Othram was panhandling on the internet.
Othram’s founder and chief executive, David Mittelman, a metaphor-loving geneticist, compares the forensic money request to Kickstarter. “Instead of a product, you’re getting justice for a family,” he said. “We’re crowdfunding for justice.”
That phrase has traditionally meant funding bail or legal bills for the accused, but Othram was seeking $5,000 to sequence the victim’s DNA. On a whim, Ms. Davis, a wellness coach who lives in Dubai, donated the remaining $3,897.52 needed.
She didn’t stop there. Over the last year, Ms. Davis has given more than $100,000 to Othram, as if it were a charity rather than a venture-backed start-up, primarily for cold cases in Mississippi, her birth state.
“A friend told me I should just invest in the company,” Ms. Davis said. “It didn’t matter to me that it wasn’t tax-deductible. These families have waited so long for answers.”
Ms. Davis is part of a growing cohort of amateur DNA detectives, their hobby born of widespread consumer genetic testing paired with an unquenchable desire for true crime content. Why just listen to a murder podcast when you can help police comb through genealogical databases for the second cousins of suspected killers and their unidentified victims?
So far donors around the country have given at least a million dollars to the cause. They could usher in a world where few crimes go unsolved — but only if society is willing to accept, and fund, DNA dragnets.
It’s hard to commit a crime, or do anything, without leaving some DNA behind. While crime scenes may include incriminating genetic evidence from perfectly innocent people, “probative” DNA — material that is clearly relevant to an investigation, such as a bloodstain — can be a powerful clue. But only if investigators can match it to the right person.
The case of the Golden State Killer, who committed 13 murders and dozens of rapes in California, went unsolved for decades, until the F.B.I. decided in 2018 to use DNA evidence from a sexual assault to build out the perpetrator’s likely family tree. The resulting identification and prosecution of a 72-year-old former police officer proved the value of what’s called “forensic genetic genealogy.”
What made the investigation possible was GEDmatch, a low-frills, online gathering place for people to upload DNA test results from popular direct-to-consumer services such as Ancestry or 23andMe, in hopes of connecting with unknown relatives. The authorities’ decision to mine the genealogical enthusiasts’ data for investigative leads was shocking at the time, and led the site to warn users. But the practice has continued, and has since been used in hundreds of cases.
Because many local agencies lack the resources to participate, philanthropists have stepped in to help. A group of well-off friends calling themselves the Vegas Justice League has given Othram $45,000, resulting in the solving of three murder-rape cases in Las Vegas, including those of two teenage girls killed in 1979 and in 1989.
“We want to help the police and the community just knock these out,” said Justin Woo, an online marketer who founded the Las Vegas group. “It’s not quite ‘Minority Report,’ where you’re predicting and stopping, but if you get these people off the street through the DNA stuff, it’s really helpful.”
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