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Free genealogy database used to track Golden State Killer suspect

Free genealogy database used to track Golden State Killer suspect

Public debate spurred over genetic privacy issues.

The former cop accused of being the notorious “Golden State Killer” made a dramatic first court appearance on Friday afternoon in a wheelchair.

Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, was shackled to the chair with handcuffs as he confirmed his name but did not enter a plea.

The balding, unshaven alleged serial killer appeared weak and struggled to answer the judge’s questions.

Asked if he had a lawyer, DeAngelo replied in a raspy voice: ‘I have a lawyer.’

A public defender has been appointed to represent DeAngelo.

The tense courtroom was filled with people who knew many of the suspected serial killers’ 12 murder and 51 rape victims.

During the appearance, he was surrounded by victims and family members of those he raped and killed.

Tissues were passed around among emotional audience members in the front row of the courtroom, who appeared to be members of the victims’ families.

When one attendee was asked by reporters how she felt to see DeAngelo in court, she replied that he looked like “an old man.”

“I feel like justice is starting,” she said.

Police officials indicate that a free-to-use, publicly accessible genealogy and DNA database was instrumental in ultimately identifying DeAngelo.

Investigators knew the killer only through a string of DNA recorded at several of the dozen murder scenes. Shaun Hampton, a spokesman for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, said officials had struggled for years to figure out whom that DNA belonged to. Recently, they tapped genealogical databases that the public uses to search for relatives and ancestors, he said.

Law enforcement sources told The Times that information from the websites dramatically reduced the the size of their search. Eventually they narrowed the investigation to several families listed in the database, with a pool of about about 100 men who fit the age profile of the killer, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Investigators have not said which online sites were used in the investigation, but both and 23andMe (two of the more popular services) said they weren’t involved in the case.

There is speculation that relatives of DeAngelo may have farmed out their genetic information to third party sites, which are less privacy-oriented that the testing sites many of us are familiar with.

…[C]ustomers can themselves choose to export the raw data file from these and other DNA-testing services to a third-party site, such as GEDmatch. These third-party sites are less user friendly than the websites of 23andMe or AncestryDNA, but they offer a more powerful suite of tools. For example, GEDmatch allows users to find profiles that match only one particular segment of DNA. It also lets users who have tested with different services match with each other without shelling out for another one. GEDmatch offers premium tools but is largely free to use.

Using this approach, investigators in another cold case, were able to identify the remains of Ohio’s Buck Skin Girl. Through the DNA of a first cousin, the researchers of the DNA Doe Project were able to identify her as Marcia L. King, whose body found in a roadside ditch near Troy, Ohio, in 1981. In 4 hours, the scientists were able to determine an identity that had remained unknown for nearly 40 years.

While the results of the biological sleuthing in case of the “Golden State Killer” and the “Buck Skin Girl” are certainly gratifying, the discovery of the use of the open database now has genetic testing firms scrambling to address privacy issues.

The public is expressing their concerns upon the disclosure of the use of relative’s data to track down an individual.

I suspect the legal paperwork will be much more substantial for future clients of DNA testing services. However, I believe many people will still sign-up, and police will retain a valuable, new crime-solving tool.

After all, how many people have given up Facebook or Google in the wake of their substantial privacy violating escapades?


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They’re making it easier to find serial killers. Not seeing how this is breaking new ground in invasion of privacy.

    JusticeDelivered in reply to maxmillion. | April 28, 2018 at 2:33 pm

    It is breaking new ground, now the question is weather or not it is worth doing so. I am glad he has been caught, but how long before insurance companies refuse to insure using information which they should not have access?

The only real question, in this case, is what are the privacy limits to accessing an identifiable DNA sample, or any DNA sample, for that matter. And, I’m sure that it will come up shortly.

not sure how I feel about this, but I like that the police have all the tools at their disposal to find a serial killer.

Similarly the fact that FISA warrants CAN be abused does not mean we should not have FISA warrants. The problem seems more along the lines of not punishing individuals who abuse the system.

amatuerwrangler | April 28, 2018 at 2:49 pm

Think of the number of lives that this can save. What if this technology and access were available 40 or 50 years ago? This could have cut short the runs of Bundy or Gacey or Henry Lee Lucas, leaving those we now know as victims to live out their lives.

Now that there has been a pioneering effort yielding a perpetrator, many will follow. Each run will eliminate the dead ends that the first people had to deal with, computer programs will be developed to sort through things faster, etc. And all those “rape kits” we hear about that the various agencies don’t have the funds to evaluate or the DNA has not come into the system yet. What if Bloomberg decided to fund a DNA lab to process these kits and run the searches rather than spend his money attacking the Bill of Rights? Lots of stuff could happen.

So, it seems the public at large has already determined that the accused is guilty. Of course they put great faith in organic chemistry, and it works because they’ve seen it on one CSI or other. And math, too—it gives people headaches, but they figure somebody else must understand it, and that’s good enough.

Humans certainly do put a lot of faith in concepts they don’t understand. An odd foible of hominid intelligence which accounts for many strange things.

    ConradCA in reply to tom_swift. | April 28, 2018 at 8:16 pm

    Once they thought they had found their criminal they obtained his DNA from his garbage. Then they compared his DNA against the killer’s and got a match. This is close to 100% accurate.

    Mac45 in reply to tom_swift. | April 28, 2018 at 11:12 pm

    This will be an interesting case.

    As I understand it, LE identified a rather unique genetic marker in the Golden State Killer’s DNA. Then they went to these DNA databases and found people with a similar marker and added them and their relatives to their person of interest list. Once they screened that list to potential people with this marker by age, they still came up with around 50,000 potential suspects. How they narrowed it down to DeAngelo will be interesting to see. I have not heard that his DNA was conclusively matched to the suspect sample prior to his arrest, though it may have been. And, there has not been time to process a DNA sample, since his arrest.

    Using DNA evidence to identify a perpetrator is great. So are fingerprints and other forms of identifying physical evidence. But, obtaining samples of an individual’s identifying material has to follow certain rules or it runs afoul of the exclusionary rule. We’ll have to see how this turns out.

    Milhouse in reply to tom_swift. | April 28, 2018 at 11:43 pm

    Both the public and the legal system put far too much trust in forensic scientists’ testimony, and don’t understand how speculative a lot of it really is.

    puhiawa in reply to tom_swift. | April 29, 2018 at 9:10 pm

    I agree with Milhouse on this. How soon we forget that the vaunted FBI “mishandled” every DNA case prior to the year 2000 and those verdicts had to be thrown out.

“Steve Mercer, chief attorney for the forensic division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, said privacy laws are not strong enough to keep police from accessing ancestry sites, which have fewer protections than databases which hold the DNA of convicts.

‘People who submit DNA for ancestors testing are unwittingly becoming genetic informants on their innocent family,’ (Steve Mercer) said.”

Sorry, Mr. Mercer. If DNA evidence points to a family member, then the family member is far from ‘innocent.’

Mercer, a Maryland public defender, is just upset that the police have another weapon to catch the bad guys, i.e. Mercer’s clients.

    amatuerwrangler in reply to Redneck Law. | April 28, 2018 at 9:50 pm

    Mercer should be happy about this. If the police did not identify these turds and drag them into court, he would be out of a job. He would be stuck chasing ambulances. This way they come to him.

Back in the day, I represented a client in a paternity suit. DNA was taken from the man, the mom and the child. When it came back at 91%, I was sure that my client was the father. After all, 91% is pretty darned high for any academic test I’ve taken.

The Assistant DA in charge of the case called by up and said. “Results are back. There is no way your client is the father.”

My point is that DNA matching has to be nearly 100% for a conviction. Using family DNA to narrow down the subject pool does not pose any threat to any ‘innocent’ family member.

    Mac45 in reply to Redneck Law. | April 29, 2018 at 1:09 pm

    “My point is that DNA matching has to be nearly 100% for a conviction. Using family DNA to narrow down the subject pool does not pose any threat to any ‘innocent’ family member.”

    Unless it leads to the arrest of an innocent man. In order for DNA evidence to be conclusive, the evidence sample has to be directly compared to a sample FROM THE SUSPECT. Using a comparison from a family member may add some circumstantial evidence to the mix, but it is not conclusive. Barring a direct match between DeAngelo’s DNA and a sample from the Golden State Killer, this is only circumstantial evidence, at best. There are also a number of other factors to consider, including the viability of the original sample [DNA evidence does degrade over timer] as well as the potential for contamination of the original sample at the time of collection.

      Mac, I totally agree. The less exact ‘familial’ DNA should never be used to prosecute, but should be available to narrow down the list of those investigated.

      In this case, once the family DNA was matched to the perps known DNA, the detectives narrowed their focus. (As pointed out earlier, the suspect initially investigated was not charged because his DNA wasn’t a close enough match). DeAngelo wasn’t arrested until an actual matching sample of DNA was fished out of his trash can.

        If the authorities based an arrest on a match between a 20+ year old evidence sample and organic material fished out of a garbage can, there may be some very interesting challenges in court. I have heard the discarded DNA collection story, but have not seen any follow-up on that. We’ll have to wait to see exactly what the details of the discarded DNA are, as I am sure that it will be challenged in court.

        It is one thing to have a relatively fresh sample of DNA which can be conclusively attributed to the perpetrator and a clean sample of the suspect’s DNA and obtain a very high order match. It is quite another when the perpetrator sample is 20+ years old, and the people who collected, handled and stored that sample may no longer be around, and you are using DNA thought to belong to the subject, which was collected from an environment other than the person’s body. All kinds of things can happen, both scientifically and legally. It is going to be interesting to see where this goes.