Last year, the Mobile Police Department (MPD) used a private genealogical testing firm to help find possible relatives of a man whose DNA was found on three victims who reported being raped in 1987.
Lt. Matthew James, commander of MPD’s special victims unit, said the genealogical testing was paid for through a federal grant that has helped test hundreds of sexual assault kits connected to MPD cold cases.
During that process, investigators found DNA from the same man in three sexual assault kits collected from victims in 1987. All three victims described a similar suspect to investigators at the time, as well.
“These cases were all reported in the neighborhood around Williamson High School and all within a few months of one another,” James told Lagniappe. “One victim was a small child and the other two were adult females, and in varying ways, they had similar circumstances. In two cases, a home was entered through an unsecured window, and the third occurred while someone was walking down the street.”
The federal Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) grant MPD has received funding through for the past five years pays for sexual assault kits in workable cases to be retested using the latest DNA technology, and then crosschecked with the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) maintained by the FBI.
However, even though testing was able to link the same suspect to these three, 32-year-old rapes, that suspect’s DNA didn’t match with any sample in the CODIS database. Given the gravity of the crimes and the fact there could have been other victims, James said MPD turned to genetic genealogy.
“That is the first time we’ve ever used it here,” he said.
The rise in popularity of DNA testing kits from companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com has created vast databases of DNA samples from people across the U.S., and in recent years law enforcement agencies have been using that information to find relatives of potential suspects whose DNA is found during criminal investigations.
Whether or not a suspect has ever used one of these services, DNA technology is such now that police are able to find genetic relatives who have. As James says, police just need to “play connect the dots” to locate the suspect. It’s a relatively new law enforcement tool, but it has already led to arrests in several high-profile cold cases.
Most notably is the arrest of former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo, who investigators identified as the Golden State Killer in 2018 using GEDmatch — an online service that compares DNA from different testing companies. DeAngelo is believed to be responsible for at least 13 murders and more than 50 rapes reported across California between 1974 and 1986, evading capture for decades.
Last year, investigators in Ozark, Ala., hired Parabon NanoLabs, a forensic consulting firm specializing in genetic genealogy, to test DNA samples collected in 1999 at the scene where two teenage girls’ bodies were found after they’d been raped, shot in the head and left in the car they were driving. After years of speculation and exhausted leads, police in Ozark charged 45-year-old Coley McCraney with capital murder and rape in connection to the deaths of Tracie Hawlett and J.B. Beasley.
James said MPD detectives met with police in Ozark after McCraney’s arrest was announced to discuss the process of using a service like Parabon. They also reached out to the Department of Justice (DOJ) to see if the federal SAKI grant would cover the costs of using a third-party testing service like that.
“The cost of using those services can get really expensive, but through the grant, we were able to get approval from the DOJ,” James said. “We reached out to Parabon and were able to provide them with a sufficient sample, which they put into GEDmatch. Unfortunately, there were no family members or anyone closely related to this person that could have remotely led us to a possible match.”
According to James, Parabon was paid a little over $3,000 for the testing and some other services like a full DNA profile of the suspect, a confirmation of his ancestry and even age-progression composites of what the suspect might look like today. However, because there were no “distinct features” on those composites, James said investigators still haven’t publicly released them publicly.
James said most sexual assaults are committed by offenders who the victim knows, but those involving strangers are “particularly frightening” for victims, as well as the community. While the testing in these cases didn’t lead to an arrest, James said these cases were a good example of the kind that might warrant using new techniques like genetic genealogy that haven’t been used in Mobile in the past.
It’s also likely this won’t be the last time MPD turns to genetic genealogy.
“Obviously, it’s a tool that we can use. We can certainly vet some cases now for that, using those SAKI funds, because they don’t have to be used only on cold cases,” James said. “Eventually, I think the city would be willing to cover some of the costs when those SAKI funds dry out, but those decisions would have to be vetted by the [police] chief and a determination would need to be about when to use it.”
James also acknowledged there’s still a lot of unregulated gray area when it comes to genetic genealogy’s application in law enforcement. Consumer backlash has led some ancestry companies to adopt policies allowing customers to opt-in and agree to share their DNA during police investigations.
That has severely limited and in some cases eliminated entire sources of DNA information. While most consumers support the idea of their DNA helping to solve a rape or murder, it’s completely at law enforcement’s discretion as to when geological databases are accessed and how they’re used.
“There’s still a lot of things that are up in the air about genetic genealogy and where it’s going to go in the future, as far as law enforcement is concerned,” James said. “I definitely foresee a potential court case in the future about some of that to determine what’s going to be legal and what isn’t.”
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