Forensic genetic genealogy is a fairly new technique in the area of crime investigation. It is used to identify unknown suspects or victims in criminal cases. Everyone can find out their own DNA-profile, by using a commercial DNA platform, like ancestry.com. A DNA-database, such as GEDmatch, uses these DNA-profiles in their database. GEDmatch is accessible to law enforcement, as many of these other databases are not.
To attempt identify an unknown victim or perpetrator, the DNA-profile is uploaded into a database such as GEDmatch. In each DNA-profile there are segments of DNA which indicate ancestry and will match between members of the same family. The closer the family member, the stronger the match. After uploading the unidentified DNA-profile, genetic genealogy depends on the DNA of known people matching with the unknown DNA-profile. With these known people, a family tree can be constructed to lead investigators to possible identities for the unknown profile.
So, you can see that forensic genealogy has huge potential in solving cold cases with an unknown perpetrator or an unknown victim, where DNA is available. There are also pitfalls of using genetic genealogy. It can take a long time and huge amount of manpower to build the family trees, especially when the matches are distant relatives. Also, most big DNA-databases don’t allow their data to be used in criminal investigations. Ancestry tests can be misread and the commercial DNA-profiles can contain mistakes, thus possibly leading investigators to the wrong person. It is also almost impossible to differentiate between siblings, when using genetic genealogy, due to their ancestral DNA-parts being too similar. Thats why forensic genealogy is most useful in combination with ‘old-school’ detective work and can’t be used alone.
Let’s now dive into 10 cases that were solved by using genetic genealogy!
1. The Golden State Killer
Probably the most well-known case on this list. Joseph DeAngelo, then 74, was arrested in April 2018 after combining ‘old-fashioned’ police work with genetic genealogy. Between 1974 and 1986, DeAngelo committed at least 13 murders, 51 rapes and 120 burglaries across California. DeAngelo was a former police officer, so he thought he avoided leaving any evidence… but he did leave his DNA. In 2017, several investigators working together on the case of the unknown rapist and murderer – then known by the moniker EARONS (East Area Rapist, Original Night Stalker) or the Golden State Killer – decided to upload the DNA profile found on several victims to DNA-database GEDmatch. Through the database, 20 people with the same great-great-great grandparents as the Golden State Killer were identified. A team working with genealogist Barbara Rae-Venter used the data to build a very large family tree. Only two possible suspects were identified from this tree, one was ruled out by DNA and the other was Joseph DeAngelo. In 2020, DeAngelo pleaded guilty to 13 counts of murder and he was convicted to life without parole.
2. The murder of Jay Cook and Tanya van Cuylenborg
1987, November 24th. A passerby finds the naked body of a woman in a ditch in Skagit County, Washington. She had been sexually assaulted and was bound with plastic ties. Her cause of death was a gunshot to the head. The remains were later identified as Tanya van Cuylenborg. Tanya had been in a relationship with Jay Cook, 20, for about 6 months. They had left together on November 19th in a Ford van, owned by Cook’s father, on a overnight trip to pick up some parts for the Cook’s family business.
Investigators first suspected Jay of Tanya’s murder. However, on November 26th Jay Cook’s body was found 60 miles from where Tanya had been found. He had been severely beaten and strangled. The case turned cold and went unsolved for 31 years.
In 2018, a DNA profile found from semen on Tanya’s trousers was uploaded to GEDmatch. On the list of matches were two people who shared enough DNA with the killer to be his second cousins. These cousins did not share DNA, meaning they were from two different sides of the perpetrator’s family. Fortunately, one of these cousins had a very unique name and was easy to find. So, through the help of CeCe Moore, a genealogist, the name of the killer was finally identified; William Earl Talbott II. Talbott, who was 24 at the time of the murders, was arrested in May of 2018. It was the first jury trial to decide on evidence gathered by using genetic genealogy. Luckily, the use of this new technique was not contested in court. Talbott denied being involved in the murders, but the jury did not believe him. He was convicted to two life terms in prison without the possibility of parole.
3. The murder of Shirley Ann Soosay and Ventura County Doe
On July 15th, 1980, the body of a young woman was found in an almond orchard in Delano, California. She had been stabbed 29 times and then left in the orchard. DNA was found underneath her fingernails and on her clothing. A beer bottle was found on the ground next to her.
July 18th, 1980, Ventura County, California. The body of a young woman was found in a high school parking lot. She was found partially naked, strangled and she had been stabbed 16 times. Sadly, at autopsy it was discovered VC Doe was 5 months pregnant.
Investigators found that one perpetrator was responsible for both of these crimes, when the DNA found in the fingernail scrapings of both victims matched. In 2012, it also matched with a known offender and rapist, Wilson Chouest Jr. He was arrested in 2015 and went to trial in 2018. He was convicted to two life terms in prison, without parole. But… his victims were still unidentified.
The DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit volunteer organisation trying to identify unknown remains using genetic genealogy, took on the cases. In 2020, they made a post on Facebook talking about the difficulty identifying people of an Indigenous decent, due to underrepresentation in DNA databases. Violet Soosay read this post and decided to send in her own DNA sample, as her aunt had lost contact with her family in 1979 and she had promised her grandmother to find her. The DNA Violet had sent in matched with the first victim found on July 15th in the almond orchard. She got her name back; Shirley Ann Soosay. Her remains were returned to her family. The other victim of Wilson Chouest remains unidentified to this day.
4. The murder of Helene Pruszynski
Helene wanted to be a journalist. A junior at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. Helene was interning at a local radio station in Denver in 1980. On January 6th she was walking home after work, when she was kidnapped. Her body was found the next day, abandoned in a field. Her hands had been tied and she had been sexually assaulted. Helene had been stabbed in the back multiple times. No leads were found and her case went cold. In 2017, investigators sent DNA – found on Helene’s body and clothes – to a genealogy database (including GEDmatch). Several people were identified as distant relatives and an extensive investigation was started to research the results. After two years, Curtis White was arrested and charged with the murder of Helene. He plead guilty to raping and murdering Helene and was sentenced to life in prison. A cold case detective involved in this case said about genetic genealogy: ‘We had our traditional techniques that we used, and we couldn’t get anywhere with those. This new tool gave us the opportunity to reopen the case and identify a suspect. It’s been a remarkable tool for detectives to utilize’.
5. The murder of Jody Loomis
Jody Loomis, 20, absolutely loved horses. August 23rd, 1972, she was on her bike, riding to the stables where her horse stayed. She was found later that day, barely alive, lying on a path. Jody had been sexually assaulted and had been shot in the head. She was rushed to hospital, but unfortunately died on the way there. Her case soon went cold, until DNA samples found on her body were sent to a lab for testing. A partial profile was constructed from a semen stain on Jody’s boot. The partial profile was sent in to DNA databases, where it matched with relatives of the contributor of the original sample. A genealogist built a family tree, identifying Terrence Miller as the likely perpetrator. A coffee cup – discarded by Miller- was used to confirm the match. Terrence Miller was charged with the murder and rape of Jody Miller, but committed suicide before the trial could start.
6. The Grim Sleeper
An orange Ford Pinto pulled up to Enietra Washington as she walked along the road in Los Angeles. A man stepped out of the car and offered Washington a ride. She felt sorry for him and accepted. She later recalled: ‘He seemed nice enough’. He drove off in the opposite direction, telling her he needed to pick up something. When she turned toward him, he shot her in the chest. While struggling to remain conscious the man sexually assaulted Enietra. She woke to flashing lights and realized he was taking photos of her. The man pushed her out of his car, thinking she was dead. She dragged herself to a nearby friend’s home, who called an ambulance.
In the 1980’s 7 young black women were killed in a similar manner, strangled or shot by a .25 caliber handgun – or both. The LAPD realized in 2008 (!) that ballistics and DNA linked these 7 murders to other murders of young black women in 2002, 2003 and 2007. This killer was dubbed the Grim Sleeper by the L.A. Times, due to a hiatus in the killings from 1988 to 2002.
Police ran the DNA found in these murders multiple times, but in 2010 a match came up. This DNA – in the database after an arrest for firearm and drug offenses – was so closely linked to that of the perpetrator that it must be his son… His father was Lonnie Franklin Jr, who lived right in the middle of the area where all the victims had been left. A police officer acting as a waiter in a restaurant collected Franklin’s half eaten pizza crust. Franklin’s DNA was a match to that of the killer.
Enietra Washington faced Lonnie Franklin Jr. (63) in court and pointed at him saying: ‘ That’s the person who shot me. I am 100% certain it’s him’. Lonnie Franklin Jr. was found guilty of the murders of 9 women and one teenage girl; Debra Jackson, Henrietta Wright, Mary Lowe, Bernita Sparks, Barbara Ware, Lachrica Jefferson, Monique Alexander, Princess Berthomieux, Valerie McCorvey and Janecia Peters. He was sentenced to death.
Police suggest that Lonnie Franklin Jr could be responsible for the murder of up to 25 women, as they found more than a 1000 photos of women (some unconscious and bloodied) during the search of Franklin’s house. A lot of these women remain unidentified. Franklin will never tell investigators anything again, since he was found dead in his prison cell on March 28, 2020.
7. The murders of Susan Tice and Erin Gilmour
Susan Tice, 45, was a single mother of 4 children and worked as a social worker in Toronto, Canada. August 17th 1983, she was supposed to attend a family party, but her family got worried when she did not arrive and she could not be reached by phone. Her brother-in-law went to her home and discovered Susan dead in her bed. She had been sexually assaulted and stabbed.
Four months later, December 1983, Erin Gilmour (22) was found dead in her apartment in Yorkville, Canada. Erin was working to become a fashion designer. She had been sexually assaulted and also stabbed.
In 2007, police investigators learned that DNA found at both crime scenes linked the cases and the women had been murdered by the same killer. In 2019, a DNA profile was constructed to use in forensic genetic genealogy. After an investigation spanning 39 years, finally a match was found, leading to the identification of Joseph George Sutherland, then 61 years old. He was charged with the first degree murder of Susan and Erin. Sutherland has not been convicted yet.
8. The murder of Marise Chiverella
Marise Ann Chiverella was a 9-year old girl living in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Her siblings later said she was a quiet, sweet girl, who wanted to become a nun. Marise left her house in the morning of March 18th, 1964, to walk to school to give her teacher some canned goods. Later that day, a 16 year old and his uncle – giving his nephew driving lessons – drove multiple times by a coal mining pit, where they thought they saw a large doll. Upon further inspection, they saw this was in fact not a doll, but the body of Marise.
Marise had been sexually assaulted and strangled, and left in the pit with her bag. Her wrists and ankles had been bound by her shoelaces. There were no solid leads, so the case went cold. Until 2007, that is. The state’s DNA lab was able to get a DNA profile from a semen stain on Marise’s jacket. In 2019, the sample was uploaded into the GEDmatch database and a very distant relative was identified. Then, help came from an unlikely source. Then 18-year old college student and genealogist Eric Schubert volunteered his help to construct a family tree. He had already helped other police departments with their cold cases. Eric identified closer relatives, who were approached to supply their DNA to help to narrow the options down. Eventually only one option remained: James Paul Forte. His DNA later matched the DNA taken from the stain on Marise’s jacket.
Forte, 22 at the time of the murder, was a bartender from the Hazleton area. He lived close to Marise at the time of her murder. After Marise’s murder, Forte had been arrested in 1974 for involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and sexual assault. Forte had pled guilty and had served 1 year probation. He died in 1980 from a heart attack at the age of 38, so he was never convicted for the murder of Marise. Marise’s sister Carmen Marie Radtke said to CNN when the identity of Forte became known: ‘Our family now knows the identity of her murderer. Justice has been served today.’
What are your thoughts on using DNA and genetic genealogy to solve cold cases? Tell us in the comments!