When a notorious serial killer was arrested earlier this year thanks to the DNA of a relative.. it opened the door to a sea change in crime fighting. Forensic techniques have advanced dramatically since the first use of fingerprint technology. But Lisa Fletcher reports on a new Science of Sleuthing.. That’s also raising concern.
News conference: There were upwards of 50 rapes, 12 murders, crimes that spanned 10 years across at least 10 different counties.
Last spring, more than 40 years after the first crime, Joseph James DeAngelo, known as the 'Golden State killer' or the 'East Area Rapist' was arrested and charged for a string of crimes that terrorized parts of Northern California for decades.
Survivor: He put me in bed and said if you move, I'm going to kill you. So, you know, laid there for 2 hours.
What cracked the cold case, was a new tool in DNA forensics.
This year, detectives uploaded decades old DNA from the killer's profile to a genealogy web site. That site revealed likely connections between family lines - and those relatives narrowed the link to DeAngelo. Agencies across the country raced to use the same technique to break cases, stopping not just in the Golden State killing spree, but rapidly moving to help solve the murder of a 12-year-old girl in Washington state, the killing of a Pennsylvania teacher, and the murder of an 8-year-old child in Indiana.
The key is a publicly searchable DNA web site- GEDMatch.com. Curt Rogers, now 79 years old, founded the site in 2010. He did not anticipate that his home-grown web site, built for connecting families, would connect the dots on violent crimes.
Lisa: What were your thoughts after all of that unfolded?
Curt Rogers: I learned about it when someone wrote me an email saying, hey, there was a press conference and it was announced that you’re instrumental in finding the Golden State killer, I was confused, I was surprised. Did not anticipate it. Had no knowledge it was coming. I was very concerned about our users, what they would think, how they would handle it.
The new genetic sleuthing is happening at this unassuming lab in Reston, Virginia - 20 miles outside Washington DC.
Steve Armentrout: So we have nearly 50 active cases that we're working currently.
Steve Armentrout is the CEO of Parabon Nanolabs.
Steve Armentrout: We treat the DNA like a blueprint. If you have that DNA sample from the crime scene, we can tell you about the ancestry of this person and suddenly start giving investigators somewhere to turn to.
Here's how it works. Police send crime scene DNA to Parabon. That DNA gets uploaded to that a publicly searchable database of genetic material, GEDmatch. That doesn't always lead to a suspect. What it often leads to is a relative. Genealogists build out complex family trees to find out who shares genetic data, and who could have committed the crime. The result - a scientifically based 'tip' for police to work from.
The day we showed up for our interview, Parabon was credited with solving another decade old case. Darold Wayne Bowden was arrested and charged in 6 rapes in one small neighborhood in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Steve Armentrout: The Ramsey street rapist. They announced that they got a DNA match and they had made an arrest. I know there are a lot of people very happy about that.
Lisa: Have you had any contact with the founders of GEDmatch?
Steve Armentrout: We were in touch with them before the golden state killer. They've been aware of our activities from the get go and they've been nothing but supportive.
Lisa: Have you been supportive of them from the beginning?
Curt Rogers: I knew of them. Nothing, nothing deep. After the golden state killer and they were mentioned, not in that particular case, but in other cases, then I got to know them much better and yeah, there's no way we can prevent them from doing it. I would much rather work with them than be fighting with them. So we get along.
Gedmatch - unlike other big players like 23andMe and Ancestry.com allows law enforcement to search the site. It's explained in clear terms in the user agreement- quote, "In the end, if you require absolute privacy and security, you agree that you will not provide your personal information, raw data, or genealogy data to GEDmatch."
Curt Rogers: I'm sure we, we’ve scared people away because we are much stronger on saying, hey, if you’ve got any concerns, don’t use GEDmatch.
Even if you decide not to use GEDmatch, there’s a good chance a distant relative has. Rogers estimates an average person has 25-30 3rd cousins on the site. According to a recent study published in the Journal Science, that means about 60 percent of white Americans could be identified - without ever having uploaded their own DNA. And as the databank grows, so does its crime-fighting power.
Rogers: A woman who wrote me and said very simply two sentences, I would like to have my information as visible as possible on your site because my father was a serial killer
...And how quickly a cold case can break.
Steve Armentrout: You're wasting less time. You're going to solve more cases. You're going to make the world a safer place. These technologies are making law enforcement unequivocally more efficient.
Steve Mercer: If efficiency of law enforcement investigations is our only concern, well, there’s a few countries in the world that abide by that principle. But I dare say we’re not interested in the law enforcement values of Russia, China, North Korea or Iran.
Attorney Steve Mercer has been a law professor for 15 years. He's concerned about the explosion of private DNA databanks being searched by Police. Steve
Mercer: There’s no warrant. There’s no subpeona even. There’s no judicial supervision. Even if a family member is the one who puts it up that should not be left to the self regulation of law enforcement because in the competitive business of law enforcement, they're going to push the envelope.
Lisa: Critics have said, you know, there is no legal oversight for law enforcement when they submit this material to you to pursue these cases.
Steve Armentrout: This is really a very little concern. Police are still responsible for building out a case, so when we give them information, they're going to go conduct their own investigation.
But in these times, when science and technology seems to be expanding at an ever increasing rate, Rogers, in a sense the grandfather of DNA databases, has concerns.
Lisa: You had wrestled with the idea of this being used as a law enforcement tool early on. Are you still wrestling with that?
Curt Rogers: I’m uncomfortable not because of privacy. I’m uncomfortable because of expectations that the people have when they put their data on Gedmatch. I don’t want to violate that expectation.
Parabon charges police $5,000 a case. Curt Rogers -- who founded GEDmatch.com -- does not make money when it's used to fight crime. We don't know if these cases will hold up in court. The courts have never ruled on whether searches of genetic databanks violate the 4th amendment.