In February 2017, Barbara Rae-Venter received a call from an investigator seeking help with a criminal case. "I agreed," says Rae-Venter, a patent attorney in northern California, who did not know she was going to try to catch one of the most famous serial killers and rapists in US history. Rae-Venter's work not only led to the arrest of the killer, but also demonstrated the powerful, albeit controversial, method of identifying criminals through genetic genealogy. "She opened the door for others who wanted to do this, but they had reservations," says CeCe Moore, who heads the forensic genealogy unit at the Parabon Nanolabs company in Reston, Va. Rae-Venter was first trained in genetic genealogy, He used DNA to complete family trees, to explore his own ancestry, and finally, he began to use the tools offered by the discipline to help others, for example people who had been adopted as children, which attracted the attention of Paul Holes , researcher at the Contra Costa County prosecutor's office in California.
The case followed the trail of a man who had terrorized California during the 70s and 80s. With 12 murders, 45 rapes and 120 robberies attributed to him, the aggressive perpetrator was known as "the East Area Violator", "the Stalker of the Night "and" the Golden State Assassin ". If Rae-Venter could piece together the murderer's family history, he could help find his real name. Rae-Venter uploaded a profile created from the DNA of the crime scene in GEDmatch, a public database used by genealogists. Although not as large as the commercial genealogy websites, GEDmatch's terms of service did not expressly prohibit police from doing searches.
Immediately, he found someone who appeared to be a third or fourth cousin of the killer. With the help of the FBI and local legal officers, he worked to triangulate a common ancestor and then build the family tree. Finally, he focused on Joseph DeAngelo, a former police officer who lives in Sacramento. A direct test of their DNA proved the pairing. Many in the genealogy community knew what application was possible and there were ongoing discussions about whether it constituted an invasion of privacy. Moore says that he had presented himself in the past with opportunities to help in this way, but that he refused precisely because of the controversy and because most people who used GEDmatch did not know what could be done. The highly publicized arrest of DeAngelo changed that: the genealogy community, in general, embraced this use of data, at least to find violent criminals.
The doors have now been opened for this type of case. Under Moore's direction, Parabon Nanolabs has uploaded some 200 criminal profiles to GEDmatch, which has generated at least 22 identifications and almost the same number of arrests.
Photo: Brian L. Frank / NYT / Redux / Eye