Since the astonishing arrest of the man known as the Golden State Killer, authorities have been applying the same investigative method used in the decades-old serial homicide case to other unsolved crimes. Joseph DeAngelo has been charged with 12 counts of first degree murder, and is likely responsible for at least 45 rapes between 1974 to 1986. In the Sacramento area he was known as the East Area Rapist, and was also active in Contra Costa County, Stockton, and Modesto, California. Using a DNA profile they were able to create for their suspect, police plugged the data into an open source DNA ancestry website and located a pool of distant relatives, and from there they zeroed in on DeAngelo. It’s possible that this controversial new form of DNA investigation could now aid in finding criminals who have long escaped identification.
Just as DNA profiling broke into the realm of homicide investigation, DeAngelo’s spree of rapes and murders stopped. The significance of the rise of DNA evidence changed the game in the 1980s, and likely scared DeAngelo, a former police officer who would have known about the new technology, away from continuing his brutal crimes. With the use of genealogy websites, a similarly enormous shift in how crimes involving DNA are solved may be taking place.
The thing about DNA evidence is that, prior to this new technological revelation, it was only useful if the suspect’s DNA was already in the criminal database. Interestingly, the Golden State Killer case played a role in the establishment of California’s DNA database in the mid 90s, which required the collection of DNA from all accused and convicted felons. DeAngelo’s DNA had never been collected, and so he was able to evade identification for all these years.
Normally, a person would first have to submit a spit swab to a site like 23andMe or Ancestry.com in order to obtain a genetic profile for a comparison site like the one used to find DeAngelo, GEDmatch, which offers the service of finding personal ancestry and connecting with distant relatives. But investigators were able to create their own DNA profile for their suspect in a lab from an intact rape kit. From there, police plugged the profile into GEDMatch and found 10 to 20 distant relatives of DeAngelo, ones who shared the same great-great-great grandparents. The five investigators assigned to the case constructed a family tree, and from there they narrowed their search down to two suspects, the other of whom was ruled out by a DNA test. To be sure, they then collected DNA from unknown items that DeAngelo had thrown away outside his home, and it was a match. The whole process took about four months.
Now a second arrest has been made by the same investigative process. Police ran a 1987 double homicide suspect’s DNA profile through the same genealogy website, and through the creation of a family tree, found two second cousins of the suspect who then led them to the defendant, William Earl Talbott II. Just like in DeAngelo’s case, investigators obtained a discarded object from Talbot, this time a paper cup, and ran his DNA. It was a match.
Talbott has been charged with the 1987 Washington State homicide of 18-year-old Tanya Van Cuylenborg, and likely will be charged with the murder of 20-year-old Jay Cook. On November 24th, 1987, Tanya’s body was found in a rural area near Bellingham, WA. She had been left in a ditch, her hands bound with plastic ties; she had been shot in the head after being sexually assaulted. The couple had been traveling in Jay’s father’s van, which authorities found abandoned in Bellingham. When they searched the vehicle, they discovered plastic gloves and the same type of plastic ties used to bind Tanya. Two days later, Jay’s body was discovered 60 miles from Tanya’s; he had been beaten and strangled to death. It was discovered that the couple had taken the ferry, and likely met Talbott onboard and offered him a ride. It was through the van that they were able to collect a suspect’s DNA, but there had never been a match in the DNA database.
Authorities are already attempting to create a DNA profile for one of the highest profile serial killers of all time, the man known as the Zodiac Killer, who is responsible for at least five murders in the late 60s and early 70s. It has been reported that police are using DNA collected from the Zodiac’s many strange letters to the Bay Area press, including saliva from stamps or envelopes, though they are aware the killer may have used someone else’s salvia to seal his correspondences, in which he took credit for more than 30 deaths. Regardless, that profile could lead police closer to an answer. At this point, it is unknown as of yet whether they will be able to create a profile complete enough to submit to a public DNA database.
Since this is such a new method for investigators, there aren’t a lot of clear laws on the books when it comes to the use of public DNA information. Those who submit to sites like GEDMatch likely don’t consider the long term ramifications. Chief attorney for the forensic division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, Steve Mercer, told the Boston Globe: ‘‘People who submit DNA for ancestors testing are unwittingly becoming genetic informants on their innocent family. They have fewer privacy protections than convicted offenders whose DNA is contained in regulated databanks.”
‘‘It seems crazy to say a police officer investigating a very serious crime can’t do something your cousin can do on a Tuesday,’’ stated Erin Murphy, DNA expert and professor at New York University School of Law. ‘‘If an ordinary person can do this, why can’t a cop? On the other hand, if an ordinary person had done this, we might think they shouldn’t.”
Websites like 23andMe that actually create genetic profiles from spit swabs do not allow authorities access to their databases, citing their privacy laws. GEDMatch was unaware that their database had been used to track down the Golden State Killer. “This was done without our knowledge, and it’s been overwhelming,” co-founder Curtis Rogers stated. “We were not approached by law enforcement or anyone else about this case or about the DNA, [but] it has always been GEDMatch’s policy to inform users that the database could be used for other uses,” he told the Washington Post.
Critics note that because the technology of private and public DNA databases is so new, it’s difficult to know how the information could be exploited. “The law often lags behind where technology has evolved,” said Barbara McQuade, a University of Michigan law professor and former U.S. attorney. With DNA, “most of us have the sense that that feels very private, very personal, and even if you have given it up to one of these third-party services, maybe there should be a higher level of security.” Barbara worries that even if users are comfortable sharing such personal data, “they’re also making that trade-off with their extended family, their children, their children’s children. And they’re not just making it for 2018, but for 2020 and 2040, when data from the genome could be used in all sorts of different ways.”
For others, these long-term privacy concerns are a small price to pay in order to revive some of the 200,000 cold cases in the US. “Why in God’s name would we come up with a reason that we not be able to use it, on the argument that it intrudes onto someone’s privacy?” said Josh Marquis of the National District Attorneys Association. “Everything’s a trade-off. Obviously we want to preserve privacy. But on the other hand, if we’re able to use this technology without exposing someone’s deepest, darkest secrets, while solving these really horrible crimes, I think it’s a valid trade-off.”
On one hand, DNA is the most definitive piece of evidence that the prosecution can provide in a homicide case like those of DeAngelo and Talbott, helping to eliminate the possibility of the all-too-common false conviction, making the mining of public DNA databases an important tool for our ever-flawed criminal justice system. Just like the creation of DNA evidence scared DeAngelo into stopping his spree of rapes and murders, perhaps it will exist as a strong deterrent for other would-be rapists and killers. However, with such new technology, it is difficult to know what this process could look like in the future, how our most personal data could be used in ways we never consented to. Regardless, two men who have long evaded answering for their crimes are finally on trial. So far so good, but it's difficult to shake the lingering fear that we don’t know yet how our genetic information could be used, by police, by companies, by future institutions, in our lifetime or those ahead.