Nine months after the dramatic arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, alleged to be the Golden State Killer, the emerging field of investigative genetic genealogy has given birth to a new forensic science industry.
Just weeks after DeAngelo’s arrest, Parabon NanoLabs launched a commercial forensic genealogy service. Since May, it has identified suspects in 36 cold cases, according to its lead genealogist, CeCe Moore. Now Parabon has competition. This week, the biggest forensic DNA testing company in the US, Bode Technology, announced that it is launching a rival genealogy business.
In regular crime scene investigations, detectives look for an exact match between a crime scene sample and DNA profiles stored in law enforcement databases to identify a suspect. Forensic genealogy, by contrast, generates investigative leads from DNA databases used by people researching their family trees.
Investigators look for genetic profiles that partially match with DNA from a crime scene. They work out how closely these individuals are related to the perpetrator from the amount of DNA that they share. If they find a promising match — for example, a second cousin or closer — genealogists can then use birth, death, marriage, and other public records to build family trees that reveal possible suspects.
Potentially, this is a multimillion-dollar business that could help crack tens of thousands of violent crimes. According to analyses of FBI data by the Murder Accountability Project, there have been around 250,000 unsolved murders across the US since 1980 — although how many of those case files contain usable DNA evidence is unclear.
Parabon offers initial DNA testing, basic information on a perpetrator’s likely skin, eye, and hair color, and an assessment of whether a case might be solved through genealogy for $1,500, its CEO, Steven Armentrout, told BuzzFeed News. If a case looks promising, Parabon charges $3,500 for up to 15 hours of research by an expert genealogist.
“We’re going to be fairly consistent with Parabon’s pricing,” Andrew Singer, Bode’s director of marketing and sales, told BuzzFeed News.
If just 1 in 10 unsolved murders could be tackled using genealogy, that means there could be $125 million in revenue up for grabs. But the big question is who is going to pay, because local police and crime labs already have stretched budgets and are struggling to keep up even with the demand for conventional DNA testing.
“When we’re dealing with law enforcement, we keep running into the same problem: funding,” Ryan Backmann, founder of Project Cold Case, based in Jacksonville, Florida, told BuzzFeed News.
Backmann’s father was killed in a robbery in 2009. The killer has not been found. Since 2015, Backmann’s organization has built a database with information on more than 10,000 cold cases. Last month, he launched a fund to raise money to help police departments investigate these cases, and he is now looking for corporate donors.
One new source of funds for forensic genealogy has recently become available, however, to look for rape suspects. As part of its efforts to reduce a nationwide backlog of untested rape kits, the federal Department of Justice earlier this month announced that grants to local law enforcement agencies to clear this backlog can include efforts to solve sexual assault cases using genealogy.
Bode Technology has in the past three years processed 50,000 rape kits, about 35% of which have yielded enough DNA to run against CODIS, the national network of law enforcement DNA databases run by the FBI. But of those cases, only about half have identified a suspect. The rest, potentially, are candidates for forensic genealogy — although Bode’s Singer cautioned that the testing involved requires more DNA, so it won’t be feasible in every case.
For its new forensic genealogy service, Bode is working with Family Tree DNA, which BuzzFeed News last month revealed had opened its genetic genealogy database to law enforcement. The company also said that its lab would generate DNA profiles for cops from crime-scene samples.
Until Family Tree DNA started working with the FBI, forensic genetic genealogists had been limited to a public database called GEDmatch, which now contains about 1.2 million DNA profiles. Family Tree DNA’s database contains about a 1 million profiles, which Bode Technology will have access to for its service.
The number of profiles available to search for partial matches is important because finding a close-enough relative to the perpetrator of a violent crime to solve a case by building family trees is largely a numbers game. The odds of finding a suspect’s relatives go up as more people upload their DNA to genealogy databases.
Parabon hasn’t yet secured permission to use Family Tree DNA’s database, but it is trying to do so, Moore told BuzzFeed News by email. “[T]hat is in the best interests of resolving as many violent homicides and sexual assaults as possible,” she wrote.
The current explosion of interest in forensic genealogy stems from the rapid growth of genealogy databases containing DNA profiles for hundreds of thousands of genetic markers spread throughout the human genome.
Previously, some law enforcement agencies have tried to get leads from a smaller number of markers on the Y chromosome, carried only by men, which genealogists can tentatively link to family names. Since 2011, Colleen Fitzpatrick, a genealogist in California who runs a company called Identifinders International, has offered this service.
Fitzpatrick told BuzzFeed News that she has worked on more than 100 cases, coming up with one to three possible family names in about 45% of them.
But the Y chromosome approach can give false leads. In her first case, Fitzpatrick gave cops investigating the 1991 murder of 16-year-old Susan Yarborough of King County, Washington, the surname “Fuller.” That led to a friend of the family with the same name briefly coming under suspicion, before being cleared by a conventional DNA test.
And in 2014, the Idaho Falls Police Department targeted a New Orleans filmmaker called Michael Usry for the 1996 rape and fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Angie Dodge. Usry had some ties to Idaho, had made a movie about the trade in memorabilia linked to violent crimes, and Y chromosome markers from a semen sample at the crime scene partially matched a profile from his father in a genealogy database.
Again, subsequent DNA testing showed that Usry was not the killer.
Like dozens of other cold cases, the Dodge murder is now coming under the lens of the newer genome-wide approach to forensic genealogy.
According to the GovSpend database, Idaho Falls police late last year ordered a genetic genealogy analysis from Parabon, following an earlier contract through which the company produced a reconstruction of the facial features of the killer, based on an analysis of the crime scene DNA.
“We still have hopes to make ground on this case,” the department’s lead detective William Squires told BuzzFeed News.