Using Genetic Genealogy To Identify Unknown Crime Victims, Sometimes Decades Later

Listen Now

The latest DNA technology combined with the study of family history has given law enforcement agencies across the country new ways to solve decades-old crimes.

In at least two high-profile cases, the combination has identified killers who have gone undetected for decades. Most famously, Joseph DeAngelo, the so-called Golden State Killer, was arrested in April 2018 and now faces multiple charges of murder and rape that go back decades. DeAngelo was arrested after police used public genealogy databases to link him to DNA from the crime scenes.

In a second case, in Fort Wayne, Ind., police used genetic genealogy to arrest and charge John Miller. He murdered and sexually assaulted 8-year-old April Tinsley in 1988. Police initially recovered DNA samples at the scene, but were unable to do much with the samples.

Thirty years later, Fort Wayne investigators were able to make genetic matches to two brothers living near Fort Wayne. Officers then ran a DNA test, and yielded an exact match with one of the brothers, John Miller. They arrested Miller, who pleaded guilty. He was sentenced in December and is now serving an 80-year prison sentence.

Identifying victims

The same technology that helped police find Miller and DeAngelo has been adopted by genealogists to identify crime victims across the country.

Margaret Press is a co-founder of the DNA Doe Project, which aims to help identify John and Jane Does. Press said her motivation came from her experiences in helping adoptees find their birth parents.

"Because in both cases the parents are not known, or anything about the ancestry," Press said, "And once you find the parents, you can figure out where the Doe fits in the tree."

Last year, her group helped Ohio police identify Marcia Sossoman King, whose remains were found in a ditch nearly 40 years ago.

"You really need to look at all the ancestors and all the cousins in order to narrow in on the actual person," Press said.

Working with law enforcement, DNA Doe was able to locate one of King's first cousins using a public database called GEDMatch. GEDMatch gathers data from different DNA sites, and connects users that have matching DNA.

Press of the DNA Doe Project says this is only the beginning though. After the initial DNA tests are done, using clues gathered through police work, a more precise profile can be created for the John or Jane Doe.

Downloading and uploading genetic codes

Private DNA test kits like Ancestry and 23andMe offer users downloads of their genetic code, which they can later upload to sites like GEDMatch. These private DNA bases are closed to law enforcement due to privacy concerns. Press says access to private databases like 23andMe or Ancestry would make the search process for law enforcement much quicker.

Mark McKenna at the University of Notre Dame said those restrictions make sense. He compared DNA databases to fingerprint databases and said there are concerns with the way information is collected and how the information is handled.

"On the one hand, you get this kind of information, that has a lot of potentially positive uses, that helps you solve crimes," McKenna said, "but there's always a dark side to all of these things. So most people who work in privacy would say, there are questions about how you collect the data in the first place."

McKenna says right now, people are enthralled with how easy DNA tests are and the seemingly instant results about family history, so they aren't thinking long term about possible privacy violations.

John and Jane Doe

Searching databases is becoming an increasingly common way to look for hints into the lives of John and Jane Does.

So far the DNA Doe project has helped identify six people that are among the thousands that go missing each year.

In Steuben County, Ind., not far from the Tinsley and King cases, Detective Chris Emerick heads the investigation to identify a Jane Doe found in 1999. He's also using genetic genealogy to find out more about her background.

When this Steuben County Jane Doe was found, her body was in various stages of decomposition, so it's hard to tell how she died, whether it was foul play or natural causes. The aim in identifying her is not to find a culprit in her death, as in the Tinsley case, but also find clues to get her back home.

Emerick has a 3-inch binder where he keeps documented leads from other agencies hoping the Jane Doe is a match.

"We get really hopeful, maybe we've finally identified her, maybe we can put this case to rest, and bring her family closure," Emerick said.

Emerick says his motivation comes from the thought that if she was his relative, he'd want to know what happened to her.

Copyright 2019 89.1 WBOI. To see more, visit 89.1 WBOI.