In episode 7 of Bow to Fate we discuss the DNA Doe Project and the open source DNA matching database GED Match. If you enjoy this episode please visit our website bowtofate.com to stay up to date with current events and episodes
Hello and thanks for listening to Bow to Fate- a podcast focusing on true crime with an emphasis on the flaws in our justice system.
Normally we focus on a case of wrongful conviction, but today we are going to talk about the DNA Doe Project. For those of you that are unaware of this initiative, it is a not for profit organization that is focusing on identifying unknown victims. They are fighting the good fight using DNA to bring closure to families of victims of homicide, accident, or suicide across the country
The DNA Doe Project was formed in 2017 by Colleen Fitzpatrick and Margaret Press. Colleen Fitzpatrick is a real life badass, she started IdentiFinders International, a company that uses scientific testing to find murder suspects and solve crimes. She also helped to identify a passenger on the Titanic, that had stumped others for years. But before that she worked for both NASA and the Department of Defense. She is a trailblazer in her own right.
Margaret Press worked in computer programming, speech, and language consulting. She also is an author, a really fantastic author. I’ve read a few of her mysteries and I would highly recommend anything she has written. When she retired, as a hobby, in 2007 she started helping friends and adoptees find their biological relatives using genetic genealogy. This hobby led to her collaboration with Fitzpatrck to start the DNA Doe Project. Their organization uses genetic and traditional genealogy to identify victims and work with law enforcement to bring closure to their cases.
DNA Doe uses the GEDmatch database which is a free public DNA database. The DNA is supplied by different testing companies. You guys know the ones, where you send in your DNA to get tested to find family members or identify potential health issues. The database became famous when it was used by law enforcement to identify the Golden State Killer after a member of his family submitted their DNA to one of these companies.
GEDmatch has now become the go-to source for law enforcement to run searches of their unknown suspect DNA, preferring it over CODIS the FBI matching system.
White people are overrepresented on GEDmatch, and are believed to be underrepresented in CODIS, which is the FBI’s collection of DNA samples pulled from crime scenes, arrestees and criminal suspects. Thus, GEDmatch may be especially effective in facilitating the arrests of white suspects who might otherwise have eluded law enforcement.
Finding the Golden State Killer essentially let the cat out of the bag. The public was made aware that law enforcement was using their DNA without their knowledge and privacy groups got involved. In September of 2019 we saw the first official guidelines to federal employees regarding GEDmatch, now these guidelines do not pertain to individual state agencies where the majority of these cases are being investigated but it is a start. Even before federal guidelines were introduced, commercial DNA testing companies recognized the privacy concerns and were now asking that customers “opt-in” to allow law enforcement to use their genetic material to solve cases.
GEDmatch also tightened its rules as well, the once public open source database had been sold and the new owners hope to monetize the site, they have even set up their own dedicated forensic investigation unit to identify victims. Prior to the sale, GEDmatch was providing law enforcement access to user data without providing informed consent. In order to opt-in users must go to a third party site and enter their information. The process has severely limited the amount of data that was once available for matching services, approximately 185,000 of the 1.3 million users have opted in. Despite their policy, in 2019 when they were served with a warrant in Florida for access to their entire user database GEDmatch complied, even though users had not opted in to provide law enforcement with their data.
The legal & privacy issues are far from being resolved, but it appears that the DNA Doe Project may have been aware of the potential issues early on. Margaret Press had experience with locating families of adoptees, so she was aware of the delicacy concerns that may come into play when approaching these matters. She understood that sometimes your DNA could expose family secrets that some would rather remain private.
The DNA Doe Project generally conducts each case in the same way. They accept a case, usually from a law enforcement agency then extract various DNA samples for testing. Once they ascertain that they have a viable sample for sequencing, they will usually put out a fundraising campaign to pay for the various tests. When their funding is secure they move on to sequencing the sample and translating it into a digital data file that is compatible with GEDmatch. They would then upload the file to the site and use the tools to obtain a genealogical analysis looking for potential relatives to the subject DNA. They are then able to provide a tentative identification of the Doe to law enforcement. Law enforcement then verifies the identity using fingerprints or a DNA sample provided by an immediate family member.
Said aloud like that it seems like such a simple process, but it is painstaking and takes the conviction of many many volunteers to make an identification.
Anyone who has watched the HBO documentary “Into the Dark” know the difficulties of genetic genealogy. A lot of time was taken processing the genetic genealogy of the Golden State Killer. It takes more patience and persistence than most people possess.
The DNA Doe project website lists a few of the difficulties they have encountered when using genetic genealogy to identify bodies, these include:
Really large family trees, which can extend the investigation out of months
DNA contamination- either by bacteria or human error.
Adoptions into the family tree, which interrupt the genetic genealogy. Fitzpatrick described this as having to “solve a mystery to solve a mystery,”
Ethnicity for which there are not yet large DNA databases, such as Native American and African American.
Persons descended from or who are themselves recent immigrants to the United States, there would not be ancestral genealogy records in the US.
Intermarriage among related families, making lines of descent and individuals more difficult.
Amounts of DNA being too small for adequate testing, especially with difficult bone extractions. This status could require multiple extractions for a suitable sample.
Finally the most common issue……Degraded DNA.
In an interview with the ISHI Network Press and Fitzpatrick were asked about the difficulties with their work, let’s listen to a clip from that interview
AN INTERVIEW WITH THE DNA DOE PROJECT- IDENTIFYING THE UNKNOWN THROUGH GENETIC GENEALOGY
6:49-9:30 PRESS & FITZPATRICK – DIFFICULTIES
Despite these difficulties, DNA Doe Project has taken and solved many of the mysteries and brought peace to countless families.
They have been instrumental in providing names of victims. Victims like Dana Nicole Lowrey, a mother of two who was selling magazines door to door in Ohio when she knocked on the wrong door. Convicted serial killer, Sean Grate felt that the woman was attempting to scam his mother. He strangled her and burned the body. Without any identifying information her family thought that she had simply disappeared and moved on with her life. Police caught Sean Grate and he was convicted of the murder, but his victim went unidentified since 2006.
Without the help of the DNA Doe project, she would have remained that way. Using GED Match and genealogical analysis they were able to confirm her identity after one of her children provided a DNA sample for comparison. The DDP provides closure for the families of victims that may have never gotten to experience it before.
Another interesting identification is that of the headless torso. The torso was found in 1979 in a network of caves in Idaho, in 1991 a girl located the arms and legs. Many experts tried to identify the remains. It is one of the oldest cold cases in Idaho, the victim was first murdered and them dismembered. Experts surmised that he was likely murdered in the caves.
DNA Doe Project was able to sequence the DNA and build the family tree. Eventually they were able to identify the remains as belonging to Joseph Henry Loveless. Some deeper investigation found that Loveless was born on December 3r, 1870 in Utah. He had been married two times, his first wife divorced him after claiming that he had abandoned both her and their daughter. He later remarried Agnes Octavia Caldwell and they had four children together. Some guessed that Caldwell participated in some of Loveless’ illegal shenanigans. Regardless, Loveless murdered Caldwell with an axe on May 5th, 1916.
He was quite the outlaw in his time and was adept at escaping from jail cells. His children even said that no one could hold him in a cell for long. He was arrested for the murder of his wife, and sure enough it was not long before he escaped the jail cell, by sawing through the bars. It is thought that he died shortly after that escape probably by nefarious means in some way related to the murder of his wife. Although the case still remains a cold case in Idaho, the remains now have a name.
Colleen Fitzpatrick and Margaret Press met on facebook of all places. Colleen was working on the identification of a John Doe, named Joseph Newton Chandler III, with her own company Identifinders. She was intrigued, she wondered if genetic genealogy could help identify her John Doe.
They knew that Joseph Newton Chandler was a fake identity. This man had killed himself in a hotel room in 2002. He had marked off the days until his suicide in his calendar. The state of OHIO cremated the body and was ready to move along when it was discovered that he had $82,000 in a bank account. This complicated matters as it would be necessary to identify his descendants to settle the estate. It was found early on that Chandler was an assumed identity. Our now Joe Doe assumed the name Chandler in 1978. The real Joseph Chandler III was an 8 year old boy that died in an automobile accident along with his parents in 1945 in Texas.
After over 1500 hours of exhaustive genealogical work they identified John Doe as Robert Ivan Nichols, an electronics draftsman from New Albany, Indiana. The identity was such a heroic effort especially considering the DNA was severely degraded, just 7% of the genome remained after the sample was placed in chemicals to keep it “fresh”.
Unfortunately there are still so many unknowns in this case. We still have no idea why Nichols assumed another identity, went into hiding, and ultimately killed himself so many years later. We know that he was described as eccentric and quiet and that shortly before he committed suicide he was diagnosed with colon cancer. There are rumors that he may have been involved in some form of crimainal activity, some tie him to the Zodiac killer and others guess that he was Nazi trying to run from war crimes that he committed. The investigation is ongoing at this point, but at the very least, his family now knows what happened to him.
Robert Nichols son Phillip was interviewed by WCPO 9 news after the identification and he had this to say…
WCPO 9 INTERVIEW WITH PHILLIP NICHOLS
3:10-3:22- PHILLIP’S HOPE
The DDP leaves these mysteries to law enforcement. They decided early on that they did not want to venture into the ethical weeds with their non-profit. But it wasn’t long before law enforcement asked them to identify a baby that was found frozen to death in a parking lot in 1988. They baby still had the umbilical cord attached, Press and Fitzpatrick knew that they had the technical know how to identify the baby, but struggled with the legal and ethical concerns of taking the case.
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GED Match was a free public service and they did not want to deal with the legality of identifying suspects. Their mission was to give names to the nameless. They feared the blowback from the geneology community and from the public. By the time the sequencing from the frozen baby came through they had made the decision that they were not going to identify the child.
They knew that identifying the baby could ultimately lead to the arrest of a young woman who had abandoned him in that parking lot. They wanted to help people with their identifications not go after suspects. They could not even imagine the circumstances related to why the baby’s mother would leave their child in the parking lot wrapped in a blanket, but it was not their place to judge. Fitzpatrick’s for profit company Identifinders has taken on the case. The baby and mother were identified, however no arrests have been made. The mother was young at the time, she had called the fire department to go and pick the child up, much like a safe haven. The fire department had even responded, but they were unable to locate the child. The case is still open.
Press and Fitzpatrick both had decided that the DNA Doe Project would remain a neutral party. They were interested in the mystery not the controversy. They also were afraid that GED Match which was instrumental in their work would become the center of a public outcry. Fitzpatrick and Press were acutely aware of the privacy and ethical concerns that were just below the surface.
Listen to Margaret Press in an interview with ISHI Network addressing why they chose not to focus on suspect DNA.
AN INTERVIEW WITH THE DNA DOE PROJECT- IDENTIFYING THE UNKNOWN THROUGH GENETIC GENEALOGY
5:24-6:15 MARGARET PRESS- CONTROVERSY
And then the Golden State Killer was identified……
0:00-0:15 IDENTIFYING THE GOLDEN STATE KILLER
That was a segment from KPIX CBS after the renowned Golden State Killer had been identified and the police and DA finally confirmed, that their new “DNA technology” did in fact use the information from ancestry websites.
Genetic genealogy was thrust into the forefront of the public eye. Everything they were concerned about came to pass. There was public outcry over the privacy concerns. On the flip side, law enforcement finally got what they had been trying to explain to them. Agencies who had stared at them with blank faces were suddenly returning their calls.
Many agencies were now interested in starting forensic genealogy departments. In 2018 the state of Florida created a Genetic Genealogy Program to use GED Match to solve cold cases, a year later they had solved 4 cold cases. The scrutiny surrounding GED Match had started to build and was putting pressure on the two creators who depended on a group of volunteers to operate the site.
With thousands of unidentified bodies The DNA Doe Project phones were ringing off the hook. They have had great success so far and their work has become the inspiration for a new fictional television series called Blood Relative. Both Press & Fitzpatrick agreed to help with plot lines and writing of the series. The pilot episode was filmed in December of 2019. They became overnight celebrities, not that they weren’t already.
They said that their goal is to continue identifying those who the rest of the world thought were lost forever, so far they have given the names back to 25 people. They understand the gravity of their work and they know that they must continue to expand. They are becoming more structured. The 40 plus volunteers they have are also working diligently, they are breaking into teams and pouring through family trees in the middle of the night on their off time.
The field is expanding as well, because there has not been a lot of regulation, many people fall into this as a hobby. For the first time, there will be a class offered at university on genetic genealogy, there will be certifications to obtain and education that can help those interested in joining the hunt. This field will go from being a hobby to a full time career.
Press and Fitzpatrick have a warning to those wanting to start doing this from home, don’t. It is tedious work and the risk of destroying entire families because of a simple mistake will always be lingering in the background.
The women are more empathetic in their work now, they prefer to hand off the discoveries to agencies and stay out of the notification if possible. They will speak to families if they are asked, but try to allow the agencies to perform the final and full identification. They want the DNA Doe Project to stay above the cloud of controversy. They see their work as too important to risk even the slightest appearance of impropriety.
They have found controversy in their work, but it is mostly related to the online communities that they work with. They need funding to perform their sequencing and once they find that they have enough DNA to sequence they add a donate button to that case on their website. Many of those donors come from online communities, where people have spent years privately investigating these cases.
You can imagine, as many of you like myself consider yourselves as amateur armchair detectives, that when they have completed an identification, these members feel like they are owed the name of the victim. Unfortunately things do not always work out that way. Sometimes the family asks that the names stay private, this creates a lot of animosity within the online community, they feel that the families have given up on their loved ones and they have spent years trying to solve the mystery. The DDP have even had members of these communities attempt to obtain the victims names through a freedom of information act request. Press and Fitzpatrick have said countless times that their duty is to the family and again have refused to release names of victims without the family’s consent.
There is no doubt that the work that they are doing needs to be done. They have spent their own time and money trying to solve these mysteries. Their work has provided closure for some families or at the very least the knowledge that their family member is truly gone. I cannot imagine not knowing what happened to a member of my family. Some families have not moved or changed their numbers with the hope that their missing relative will come back or call one day. The DNA Doe Project obviously does not bring a happy ending, but they do bring the final piece of the puzzle so that these families can bury their loved ones and start the process of moving on.
In December of 2019 it was announced that the creators of GED Match were selling to the for profit company, Verogen. Verogen is based in California and has a reputation of working with law enforcement. They have resources though and once the field of genetic genealogy really took off, GED Match desperately needed resources. Before the acquisition the site was basically ran by volunteers, they would not have the infrastructure or the resources to fend off the impending legal battles or the know how to challenge warrants by law enforcement. Because genetic genealogy is the equivalent to the Wild West at this point, regulation and understanding are desperately needed.
Just stop and think of it this way, we now have the basic technology to create a facial reconstruction of a person using only their DNA profile. The power of DNA is enormous, but very little is fully understood about how much your life could be exposed from your DNA. The excitement of new technology can be invigorating, but also dangerous. Without regulation, there are far too many potholes in the road right now.
An entire investigation could be derailed and countless time and money could be lost identifying the wrong person. Even in the case of the Golden State Killer, the police upended the life of a man in a nursing home, eventually compelling a judge to give them a warrant for his DNA. The DNA was found to not be a match, but it was still an incredibly stressful incident in a completely innocent man’s life.
More information needs to be provided to consumers and the general public about how their DNA profiles are going to be used or could be used by law enforcement or anyone else. People submitting their profiles to find family members may not know that they could have the police show up at their home or worse the home of one of their family members because they added the DNA profile to an ancestry website looking to connect. At this point as more information is brought to light and the media focuses on the potential implications about 200-300 DNA profiles are removed from GED Match each day by users.
We know from our cases on wrongful convictions that DNA is a powerful tool in making sure that the right person ends up behind bars. DNA cannot solve every crime, but as the technology evolves it will be a useful tool in apprehending murders from cases that went cold 20, 30, and even 40 years ago. They may evade arrest for years, but eventually their time will come to pay the piper. Terrence Miller found this out in April of 2019. 47 years earlier, he raped and murdered a 20 year old woman. With the help of a genealogist the Washington state police were able to identify and arrest 77 year old Miller in his home. They confirmed his identity from a discarded coffee cup.
The ethical arguments will still need to be fought about the use of genetic genealogy. Law enforcement still needs to confirm the DNA match, which requires a court order from a judge. Doing this alleviates some of the instances of wrongful convictions in these cases. Personally, I can say that these individuals did not play fair in raping and/or murdering their victims, so I do not feel bad about law enforcement invading their privacy, but that is not the issue.
The issue arises, when an unsuspecting person has their life turned upside down because potentially their DNA could match a suspect. Remember, that genetic genealogy is really just filling in the blanks, like everything else in police work, you are putting together a very complex puzzle. You do not upload the DNA sequence and find an exact match, you find a similar match and then slowly and meticulously backtrack the family tree, using known facts and evidence to rule out individuals. This could mean that one day the police knock on your door and haul you into an interview room because someone in your family decided to submit their DNA profile to GED Match or another similar site. You could have nothing to do with the crime in question, but a series of unfortunate events could lead to police scrutiny, legal bills, and the eventual surrender of your DNA to clear your name. Lawyers are not cheap, but through no fault of your own, you could be forced to fork over handfuls of cash to defend yourself against accusations you know nothing about. And therein lies the problem with genetic genealogy.
In an interview Craig Klugman, a bioethicist at De Paul university talked about the potential ethical issues regarding using genetic genealogy during investigations, on another note he mentions one of my favorite movies right at the beginning of the clip.
ETHICAL ISSUES AROUND INVESTIGATIVE GENEALOGY
11:51-13:40 CRAIG KLUGMAN TALKS ETHICAL ISSUES
Everyone wants to see rapists and murders caught, but the dangers and repercussions of new techniques and technologies need to be fully explored before we institute them. Fitzpatrick and Press knew this from the very start, they knew the underlying issues and concerns and this just goes to show how far ahead of the curve they really were. None of this is meant to take away from the amazing work that they are doing. The DNA Doe Project is truly a fantastic initiative.
The DNA Doe Project is a 501-C, a non-profit entity, and they have taken great care to not rock the boat. Their goal is to identify the John and Jane Does in our country, their work needs to be supported, you can find cases you would like to support on their their website dnadoeproject.org.
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