DNA research is helping investigators track down suspects in unsolved cases. But how does it work? – The Boston globe

First, IGG is a methodology, David Gurney, an assistant professor at Ramapo College in New Jersey who directs the school’s Investigative Genetic Genealogy Center, said in an email, using the technique’s acronym.

IGG practitioners combine genetic genealogy with desk research to produce clues in violent crime cases and to help identify human remains, according to Gurney.

These clues are then confirmed by law enforcement using traditional DNA methods, he continued.

Historically, investigators had to rely on a federal DNA database containing profiles of people previously arrested. If a suspicious DNA profile was not in the system, called CODIS, that person could not be identified.

But ancestry sites have changed the game.

Now the authorities can present an attackers autosomal DNA profiling to two commercial genealogical databases, GEDmatch and FamilyTree DNA, which are used by consumers to trace their ancestry or locate relatives. Customers must consent before their information is shared with law enforcement agencies.

The GEDMatch website states that customers, when uploading their DNA, can choose the level of privacy they want for their DNA kit.

Customers who select the Public Opt-In option, the site says, have their DNA entered into a database that is open to users (including law enforcement agencies) attempting to identify unidentified human remains and to law enforcement agencies who attempt to identify perpetrators of violent crimes. … The operators of GEDmatch encourage everyone to check this option.

The companies eventually provide law enforcement with a list of relatives and the percentage of DNA they share with the submitted sample.

In many cases, a person’s closest genetic relative may be a third or more distant cousin, Cairenn Binder, who heads Rampao College’s IGG certification program, said in an email.

The more distant the genetic relatives, the more difficult the case will be, Binder said.

While not all customers on the sites agree to make their DNA profile available to investigators, many do.

Binder pointed to a 2022 study that found more than 500,000 users of GEDMatch had decided to make their profiles available to law enforcement agencies. But not all genetic testing companies make customer DNA profiles available for law enforcement comparisons.

The only companies that allow law enforcement searches are FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch Pro, Binder said. AncestryDNA has been unsuccessfully sued many times.

Gurney said Ancestry and MyHeritage have by far the largest number of DNA profiles in their possession.

[I]If they changed their terms of service to allow for IGG research, it would dramatically impact the number of cases that would be resolved with IGG’s help, Gurney said.

Requests for comment were sent to Ancestry and MyHeritage on Tuesday.

In the case of New Jersey attorney Matthew James Nilo, 35, detectives used technology to identify him as a suspect in April and then staked out him in the New York area. according to prosecutors and court records.

Ultimately, investigators collected DNA from glasses and utensils they saw Nilo use at a company event, prosecutors said. When they analyzed the DNA, it presumably matched the samples in the rape kits from the 2007 and 2008 assaults. Nilo pleaded not guilty.

Gurney said the courts have consistently upheld this practice [of surreptitious DNA collection in public events] and found that it doesn’t violate the 4th amendment since individuals don’t have a privacy interest in the DNA they discarded in public.

Law enforcement officials did not say which relative of Nilos submitted a DNA profile to an ancestor site that ultimately led to him being identified as the alleged perpetrator.

Most of the people who have uploaded their DNA profiles to GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA are of Western European descent, Gurney said. The IGG can and does provide guidance in cases involving people of other ethnicities, but on average those cases will take longer, she said.

In addition to identifying suspects, genetic genealogy has also been used to determine the identity of murder victims. Last year, the FBI announced it had identified The Lady of the Dunes, a Cape Cod mystery that had eluded law enforcement for nearly 50 years.

Some civil rights advocates have raised privacy concerns about investigative genetic genealogy and have called for increased regulation of company databases and oversight of the police, labs and genealogists involved in the process. And advocates for sexual assault survivors say these types of cold-case strategies need to be executed in a way that continues to give victims a voice in the process.

A major technology breakthrough, experts say, is putting suspects with clean records on law enforcement’s radar, since people who haven’t been arrested aren’t in the federal CODIS system of DNA samples.

This happens over and over again, said Barbara Rae-Venter, an investigative genetics genealogy consultant who works with police across the country to help identify murder and rape suspects, in a recent interview. The people we identify have no priors. I’m not on anyone’s radar.

But with investigative genetic genealogy, Rae-Venter said, authorities can identify people you otherwise wouldn’t be able to identify.

Although it may take some time.

The process can take from a few hours to many years, Binder said. To give some examples, I worked in the team that he identified [serial killer John Wayne] Gacy Victim 5 in eight hours, but I worked the Apache Junction Jane Doe case [in Arizona] for nearly five years and remains unidentified.

Material from previous Globe stories was used in this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at [email protected].

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