What the Golden State Killer Tells Us About Forensic Genetics

Before the Golden State Killer case broke, Virginia-based Parabon had been known for its work reconstructing facial sketches from crime-scene DNA. But in the weeks after, the relatively small forensic firm shot to prominence by hiring Moore and becoming the industry’s go-to contractor for family-tree forensics. Publicly, the company has been involved with 49 identifications—47 suspects and two Does. But Moore says the real number is higher.

Her team of four genealogists has worked up a further 80 cases, meaning they’ve spent up to 15 hours (and charged $3,500) per case building trees and coming up with a list of names for the investigating agency. Another 80 are either waiting for a genealogist to do an initial evaluation, to see if there are enough matches in GEDmatch to merit more work, or waiting for a police agency to sign off on moving forward with the next phase. Moore says that out of her team’s 49 positive identifications, in only a single case had the name of the person they came up with ever appeared in a police file.

Bode has yet to publicly disclose any positive identifications of its own, and Singer declined to say how many cases the company’s team of contracted genealogists is working on. But he says there’s plenty of demand. Singer spoke to WIRED Tuesday from Phoenix, where Bode is hosting its annual DNA technology conference for prosecutors and public crime lab officials. Over the past 18 years, attendance has never topped 275 people. This year 400 showed up. Most attendees arrived a day early to catch a two-hour workshop on genetic genealogy. “Everyone is extremely excited about this, but we’re really just at the beginning,” Singer says.

One of the speakers at the workshop on Tuesday was Lori Napolitano, chief of forensic services for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. A few years ago, she began delving into genetic genealogy in her free time while searching for information about her adopted father’s biological family. She even attended a few of Moore’s seminars. After the Golden State Killer case broke, she convinced her bosses to let her spin up her own genetic genealogy unit to support investigations across Florida’s 300-plus law enforcement agencies. When it officially formed in September, Napolitano’s team became the first state-level in-house investigative genetic genealogy unit in the country. (The FBI has its own unit, trained by Barbara Rae-Venter.)

In January, BuzzFeed revealed that in addition to GEDmatch, the FBI had been searching the vast genealogical database belonging to FamilyTreeDNA, one of the leading private genetic testing companies. Shortly after, FamilyTreeDNA changed its terms of service to explicitly allow any law enforcement agency, or private lab representing them, to send in a crime scene sample or upload a genetic file to the database, provided it meets the company’s criteria. There was some initial backlash, but a FamilyTreeDNA spokesperson says only 1 percent of its 2 million customers decided to opt out of the familial matching services that would make their profiles discoverable by the FBI, local law enforcement agencies, and private labs like Bode. FamilyTreeDNA says the chips Parabon uses to generate a genetic profile are largely incompatible with its platform, though the two companies are in talks about how to resolve the issue. For now, Parabon’s search capacity is limited only to GEDmatch.

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