DNA has been the single most valuable tool in solving crimes in the last century. Genetic evidence has proven capable of solving crimes that have been unsolved for decades but the problem is often how to get the DNA needed to solve those crimes. It’s not enough for a criminal to leave evidence at a scene, law enforcement needs something to match it to. Enter the genealogy industry. So many people in recent years have been voluntarily uploading their own DNA information to public websites that law enforcement has been able to solve literally dozens of once unsolvable crimes.
10. The Golden State Killer
In what is likely the most famous case of DNA from an ancestry site being used to solve a crime, the infamous Golden State Killer was caught in 2018, more than 30 years after he stopped a spree of rapes and murders that left 13 victims dead and 50 raped.
During his original crime spree, the Golden State Killer was known by several names, including the original Night Stalker, the Visalia Ransacker and the East Area Rapist. It wasn’t until 2001 that DNA evidence was used to confirm all three of those criminals were the same guy, who had originally been committing his acts in the 1970s and ’80s.
In 2018, law enforcement took the novel step of looking to genealogy websites to find a match to the DNA they had on file. Using the databases of genetic material uploaded by people who were just interested in finding out about their family history, they were able to score some partial matches. That meant people who were genetically related to the killer had used the services.
A family tree was made to pinpoint the killer that consisted of 1,000 people. The tree was then trimmed by getting rid of people who were the wrong age or lived in the wrong part of the world at the time of the deaths. In time, only one name was left on the list: Joseph James DeAngelo.
The former police officer was arrested and charged with multiple murders. He took a plea to avoid the death penalty and at age 70 the Golden State Killer was given 12 life sentences.
9. The Death of Helene Pruszynski
Helene Pruszynski went missing in January 1980. It was believed she had vanished on her way to a bus stop. The next time anyone saw her was when her body was discovered in a field. She had been raped and stabbed to death. The police were not able to follow up on many leads and no one was ever arrested for the crime. Not until many years later.
Jesse Still made use of the site 23andMe in 2018 in an effort to learn more about her family tree, like so many other people have. What she couldn’t have known at the time was that she was tipping off the police to what happened to Helene Pruszynski 40 years prior.
Still’s DNA was flagged by law enforcement. It shared some of the DNA with the genetic material on file for the murder. Not Stills herself, of course, but a family member. Stills turned out to be the cousin of Helen Pruszynski’s killer.
Ironically, Still added her DNA to the site because she was a fan of true crime and had been very interested in the case of the Golden State Killer. She knew that the killer had been caught thanks to DNA from a genealogy site and wanted to upload her own in the hopes maybe it could be helpful somehow to someone one day. Two months later, law enforcement contacted her about a connection to the killer.
With Still’s help, law enforcement built a family tree and came up with James Clanton, a relative she didn’t even know she had.
8. The Cobb County Rapist
In 1999, there were a series of three unsolved rapes that took place in Cobb County, Georgia. The police were able to gather DNA from the crimes but there was no match in the criminal database to narrow down the field to a suspect.
Law enforcement went to Parabon Nanolabs, a company that specializes in something called DNA phenotyping which can assist law enforcement in solving crimes. Phenotyping is being able to predict the appearance of something based on genetic markers so essentially the company can analyze DNA and then predict what the suspect looks like. It can’t give a precise photo of the person but it can tell you things like hair color, eye color and skin color. Mix in the DNA ancestry data and you have a very solid tool for catching killers.
With the help of Parabon, law enforcement was able to find a distant ancestor of the killer on the site GEDMatch. That allowed them to narrow the field down to a suspect in the rape cases.
Police found a suspect who already had a criminal history of burglary and being a peeping tom. They took a DNA sample from the suspect for a comparison and confirmed that he was, in fact, the rapist. However, shortly after providing the sample to law enforcement the man committed suicide, preventing the case from going any further.
7. The Murder of Lorrie Ann Smith
Back in 1997, 28-year-old Lorrie Ann Smith was discovered in her own room by her parents. She had been shot to death and there was no sign of forced entry in the home. Police had very little to go on and the case was stalled out.
There was no robbery, but there were signs Lorrie had tried to fight off her attacker. That had resulted in DNA being left at the scene but, as with many of these cases, it has no match in the system.
Fast forward to 2017 and a relative whose DNA matched up with the killer’s submitted a sample to an ancestry site. With Parabon’s help, law enforcement was able to identify Jerry Lee, a corrections worker, as the killer. How he knew the victim or the nature of the crime has not been fully revealed, but Lee was also charged with burglary.
6. The Chameleon
Curtis Kimball is a murderer. So is Larry Vanner and Gordon Jenson. Of course, they’re all the same person. And Kimball famously admitted at a pre-trial hearing in 2003 that he had murdered Eunsoon Jun, despite pleading no contest to second degree murder previously.
Kimball, whose name is actually Terry Peder Rasmussen, had previously served time for child abandonment and other crimes. What no one knew at the time was that he had a host of aliases and had been a prolific serial killer of women and children for years. This led to law enforcement calling him the Chameleon.
Police were able to connect the man who abandoned a 5-year-old daughter in the 1980s to the murder of Eunsoon Jun and determine that Kimball, Vanner and Jenson were all the same man. But they still didn’t know he was Terry Peder Rasmussen at this point and wouldn’t learn as much for over a decade after.
When police performed a paternity test on Lisa, the girl he was arrested for abandoning in the 80s, they found out Ramussen was not the father. The man he claimed to be, Curtis Kimball, simply did not exist before that arrest.
Police had the girl, now in her 20s, put her DNA on Ancestry.com and 23andMe. The data turned up some distant cousins and a family tree was built with the data they found. They were able to find the girl’s grandfather, whose own daughter had long ago gone missing. That daughter ended up being Lisa’s mother. The grandfather last saw his granddaughter in 1981 when she left with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, a man named Bob Evans. Evans was, of course, Rasmussen.
Police then tested the DNA of four bodies that were found in barrels over the years in Bear State Park, hoping to find Lisa’s mother. The DNA didn’t match. But the DNA of one did match Bob Evans. He had killed a relative.
A new family tree was built using his DNA and police were able to track Rasmussen down. He was sent to prison and died in 2010.
5. The NorCal Rapist
The NorCal Rapist terrorized much of the same area as the Golden State Killer had some years before and law enforcement used the same methods to trap him. A serial rapist, he had victimized at least 10 women between 1996 and 2006.
Using the same game plan that caught the Golden State Killer, law enforcement checked the genealogy databases and got a hit: a 58-year-old safety specialist from UC Berkeley. It took only 10 days for them to track him down based on genetic information from the site.
When he committed his crimes, one of his victims managed to stab him in the arm with a pair of scissors. Though he tried to clean the crime scene, he was unable to get it all. That DNA is what eventually led to his capture.
4. The Billboard Murder
In 1998, a crew of landscapers discovered the body of 10-year-old Bobby Whitt under a billboard in California. When the body was first discovered, it was a John Doe. No one had reported a child missing, and there was no evidence of who he might have been. His identity wasn’t discovered until 2019.
Police followed up on a connection between the boy and the case of an unidentified woman found the same year in South Carolina. DNA comparisons confirmed the woman had been the mother of the boy. The woman, Myong Hwa Cho, had told friends she was returning to South Korea so when no one saw her again they thought nothing of it.
DNA was able to track down her relatives and then John Russell Whitt, whom she had met when he was stationed in South Korea and who was the father of the boy.
Whitt, who was already serving a sentence for armed robbery, had the murder convictions added to it.
3. Serial Killer and Rapist Robert Brashers
In 1999, Robert Brashers took his own life during a standoff with police. The cops were after him thanks to a long rap sheet of crimes. In 2018, DNA linked him to three cold case murders, which included a 12-year-old girl.
The crime took place back in 1998. After the murders, the killer tried to continue his crime spree at another home with another family. Though he did shoot the victim, they didn’t die and were able to describe the assailant.
When a relative of Brashers uploaded their DNA to GEDMatch, the sample was linked to the rape of a 14-year-old girl. Police described Brashers as a serial killer and rapist who had a long list of other crimes ranging from impersonating a police officer to burglar to weapons charges.
Even though Brasher was already deceased, there was at least some closure for families of his victims who were never certain what happened to their loved ones.
2. The Potomac River Rapist
The man known as the Potomac River Rapist was feared throughout Washington, DC in the 1990s. He committed at least 10 rapes from 1991 to 1998 by cutting phone lines and restraining and raping women in their own homes.
As his crime spree progressed, he became more violent and would brutally assault his victims and eventually even murder Christine Mirzayan. Unfortunately, police were only coming up with dead ends at the time and the killer escaped justice for decades.
It wasn’t until one of the killer’s own relatives did a home DNA test and submitted their results to GEDMatch that the tides turned. Parabon Labs was able to identify a link between the family member’s DNA and genetic material from the crimes. They were able to then track down 60-year-old Giles Daniel Warrick and charge him with the rapes and murder.
1. The Church Assault
The case of an elderly woman being assaulted in her church is unique among nearly all cases that have made use of genetic testing to track a subject down. Like many others, Parabon Nanoloabs was integral in helping law enforcement find the perpetrator but what was unique here was the crime. This was one of the few times that the criminal did not rape or kill their victim, instead it was an assault that was being investigated.
Police argued that the perpetrator had the potential to offend again so going to extreme measures was necessary to find them. Parabon used GEDMatch and a sample of DNA that was found at the crime scene. The attacker had broken a window to gain access to the church where they strangled the woman from behind as she played the organ. She lost consciousness several times and did not see who it was. But the person had left blood on the window they came through.
The sample was not in any criminal database, but GEDMatch proved to be more successful. The sample was matched to an uncle of the suspect who pointed law enforcement to a relative who lived near where the crime took place. Police tracked the suspect down, a 17-year-old high school student. They had school officials monitor him at lunch one day and took a discarded milk container from his meal after it was thrown in the garbage. They matched the DNA from the milk container to the blood on the window.
The case isn’t all that remarkable in and of itself, but it did send some shock waves through the industry. That Parabon would use their technology to track down someone who had committed an assault rather than using it for more violent crimes was very unusual. GEDMatch states that they do not allow their database to be used by law enforcement except in cases of murder, rape and kidnapping. The CEO broke his own rules to allow this one to go through, and that causes a serious backlash. The result of that was GEDMatch changing their rules to make them much more strict about how and when law enforcement can access records.