Would You Forfeit Your Privacy to Catch a Killer? The Golden State Killer Suspect and DNA

On Tuesday, police arrested the man they believe is one of the most notorious serial rapists and murderers in American history. The news came, astonishingly, thanks to some unidentified person who was likely just intrigued about genealogy and ethnicity. The Sacramento District Attorney's office has attributed the capture of suspected Golden State Killer, ex-cop Joseph James DeAngelo, to "genealogical websites that contained genetic information from a relative." Which, if you've ever spit into a tube and dropped it in the mail, has got to make you wonder.

The potential for justice in a series of shocking, sadistic crimes that began more than 40 years ago was cause for excitement among crime obsessives and relief for the family members of victims. This week, a survivor who was just 13 when she was raped during a 1979 home invasion called the break in the case "the greatest gift ever." But along with the jubilation over the arrest, there were concerns over the implications of the case for privacy rights and questions over how DNA can be collected and used.

Speaking with KGO-TV news this week, San Francisco attorney Bicka Barlow warned that amateur genealogists should know that "When you provide them with a sample, they have all your DNA," and that for all its crime-solving potential, the testing "is not foolproof." She added, "I don't think it's safe." And Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University's School of Medicine, told USA Today Friday that “People don’t realize that unlike most medical tests where you find out information, it isn’t just about you.”

There are other concerning issues around DNA collection. In California, where DeAngelo was arrested, authorities can obtain samples not just from persons convicted of felonies but those merely arrested for them. CNN reports that the state now has roughly two million profiles.

In light of all the attention, two popular testing services issued statements alluding to the DeAngelo case this week. 23andMe affirmed that it has "never given customer information to law enforcement officials," and Ancestry.com stated it "will not share any information with law enforcement unless compelled to by valid legal process," adding that it had received "no valid legal requests" from 2015 to 2017. The free, open source DNA analysis company GEDmatch is believed to have provided the key DNA information that helped investigators in the DeAngelo case. The site's terms of service note that "It is important that GEDmatch participants understand the possible uses of their DNA, including information of relatives that have committed crimes or were victims of crimes."

But DeAngelo's case doesn't just hinge on that one relative. Once authorities found a familial DNA link to their crime scene evidence samples, they honed in on potential suspects who fit the age and location parameters, before obtaining a DNA sample from "something [DeAngelo] discarded."

The murky areas around obtaining DNA samples have been explored before — notably in another case of a long unsolved series of brutal crimes. When law enforcement was closing in on Dennis Rader, aka the Kansas serial killer known as BTK, in 2005, a judge ordered the university hospital where his daughter had been given a pap smear years before to provide a sample of her DNA. It soon provided a link to the semen found at a quadruple homicide two decades earlier. A 2015 profile of Kerri Rader described how "violated" the experience made her feel, even as she subsequently grappled with "The terrible things [Rader] did to the victims," and how "Women were scared — my own mother was scared to go home."

When you grow up with a lot of questions about your biological family, you always know that your curiosity may lead you toward information you may not like. As USA Today noted this week, "You just wanted to find out if you were Portuguese or Spanish, but instead you found out you were related to a mass murderer." I always assumed in my case it would be an "and," not a "but."

Thanks to my own secretive family and substantially unknown genealogical background, I decided to try out a DNA testing service a few years ago. I'd wrestled with the question of whether or not to do it for a long time beforehand. I had concerns about privacy and how the data could be used. I wondered if I'd find something or someone who surprised me. But by that point in my life, I'd also spent two years in a clinical trial and already blithely handed over so much of my genetic information for the sake of science, I was ready to part with some of it for my own personal use.

The results offered no bombshell revelations about where my ancestors came from, nor did they provide me any tearful family reunions. They didn't tell me I was related to any killers though, so that's nice. But that doesn't reassure me in any way that I'm not. A quick search of recent arrests near the town where I grew up, using my family's less common maiden names, quickly yields the phrase "meth ring." Could a distant cousin of mine be a local drug lord? I'll likely never know for sure, but that would not exactly be surprising.

I have relatives who I love very much and am proud of. I also come from a line of petty criminals, a few low level violent offenders and some people I'd give the amateur diagnosis of straight up sociopathic. There's a chilling lack of empathy in my gene pool, swimming in there with the blue eyes and poor math skills. When I think of guys like Dennis Rader and Joseph James DeAngelo, fellows described by their neighbors as "unpleasant" and "always angry," I see a simmering dark side that I recognize right away. When I recall the pathology of Ted Bundy, I see the faint echo of charming, skilled manipulators I know intimately. That familiarity is likely the reason for my finely tuned instincts for spotting abusers, and my fascination with true crime.

My information is on a testing site that says it doesn't share it, but the rapid developments in DNA testing over just the past few years have given me cause to think about these things, and the ways commercial DNA sites can be used for good. In 2016, forensic genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick used samples submitted to two DNA sites to link the daughter of a deceased identity thief known as Lori Erica Ruff to the woman's surviving family. Fitzpatrick has since been involved in other high profile cases involving previously unidentified decedents, including — just this month — the Ohio murder victim known as "Buck Skin Girl," through the DNA Doe Project.

I learned through my clinical trial that we carry secrets in our bodies that can crack open the deepest, most confounding mysteries. I still have a lot of questions about the unforeseen implications of commercial and open source DNA tests have for all of us in the long run. I have absolutely legitimate concerns about the repercussions for my privacy and that of my children. But when I consider the possibility of something in my saliva one day leading law enforcement to the door of someone in my family tree who's done something bad, that does not feel like a stretch of the imagination. It feels like the best possible use of a little spit.

True crime, real life


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