The breakthrough forensic science known as genetic genealogy is back in the news in the case of the “Idaho Four” home invasion slayings, highlighting yet again what a game-changer this latest crimefighting tool is.
Or, rather, could be.
The brutal stabbing of four University of Idaho students on Nov. 13 as they slept in their Moscow, Idaho, home terrorized a normally peaceful campus and community. Detectives found clues but nothing definitive. Traces of DNA on a knife sheath left at the scene matched no one in the FBI’s massive DNA database of past offenders. As the investigation dragged on, students and residents stopped going out at night, fearing the killer might strike again.
Then investigators turned to genetic genealogy, the ingenious forensic tool that relies on the home DNA tests used by millions of Americans to explore their roots. It leverages that data to identify violent criminals who can’t be found in police files or databases.
In short order, detectives had a suspect in handcuffs: Bryan Kohberger, a 28-year-old criminology graduate student at Washington State University in Pullman, just across the state line from Moscow. Four grieving families had answers and a community could breathe again, all because of this unique combination of cutting-edge science and old-school family tree research called genetic genealogy.
If that seems almost magical, you’re not wrong. Genetic genealogy entered the limelight nearly five years ago as the key to arresting California’s Golden State Killer. At the same time, a cold case detective in Snohomish County, Washington, used it to solve the 1987 murder of a young couple on a road trip from Canada to Seattle, leading to the world’s first genetic genealogy criminal trial (the subject of my new book, “The Forever Witness”).
Killers who had eluded justice for decades were landing in jail because of this new forensics tool that appeared out of the blue, ending enduring mysteries in a matter of weeks – or less. In the Snohomish County murders of 18-year-old Tanya Van Cuylenborg and her 20-year-old boyfriend, Jay Cook, it took a mere two hours to identify a killer who roamed free for 31 years. Seattle truck driver William Earl Talbott II is now serving two life sentences for the crimes.
These cases showed genetic genealogy as arguably the biggest crime-solving breakthrough since the fingerprint, yet even more powerful, because it goes beyond merely matching crime scene to criminal. It’s also a search tool, the Google of crime.
When these cases broke in 2018 and others followed, it seemed we were entering a new age of crime-solving miracles. This latest triumph in the Idaho Four case seems to confirm the revolution is well underway.
Except … it’s not. The Idaho Four case really proves the opposite, an example of rarity rather than revolution.
Instead of genetic genealogy becoming what it should be after five years – a staple of everyday police work – genetic genealogy remains a novelty deployed in only a handful of “high-profile” investigations. Meanwhile, thousands of “ordinary” murders, rapes and other unsolved violent crimes languish.
The consequences of this failure to launch are stark. Between 500 and 1,000 cases of violent crimes and unidentified human remains have been solved in the last five years through genetic genealogy – averaging at most 200 a year. But there were nearly 60,000 unsolved violent crimes just last year that, like the Idaho Four, came up empty in the FBI’s DNA database, and would have been suitable for genetic genealogy.
It’s hardly a revolution if only 200 out of 60,000 crime victims benefit. Instead, we have two-tier justice, with the latest and greatest going to a select few, while most victims and families continue to wait for answers. Meanwhile, criminals run free, the dead stay unidentified and the innocent remain under needless suspicion when genetic genealogy could rule them out in a heartbeat.
“We expected to be so much further along by now,” says pioneering genetic genealogist CeCe Moore, who solved the Snohomish County case and more than 200 others, making her the leader in the field. It’s a title she would happily relinquish if genetic genealogy truly took off. “We could be doing so much more.”
So why does the vast promise of genetic genealogy remain unfulfilled?
The short answer: money. The feds and the states have dropped the ball. They have provided none of the funding, legislation, transparency, oversight or training that have been a given to lift earlier forensic breakthroughs from obscurity to ubiquity. So most crime labs can’t do it. Most cops don’t understand it. Genetic genealogy is not part of their standard operating procedures.
This is shameful, but not hard to see why: It’s all about origins, turf and pride.
Genetic genealogy came not from forensic experts, crime labs and law enforcement, but from hobbyists researching family trees. More than 40 million Americans have bought inexpensive DNA tests online, spit in a tube and sent those kits to 23andMe, Ancestry or other consumer DNA companies. All the while, they were doing genetic genealogy without knowing it, crowdsourcing family trees by sharing DNA profiles in big databases.
Then pioneers such as Moore realized this could be a powerful tool for other things: to help adoptees find birth families, or amnesiacs learn their identities – or to find the distant relatives of killers, then build out their family trees until the culprit’s name was revealed.
The forensics community scoffed when Moore first suggested this “investigative genetic genealogy,” and even after Golden State and Snohomish County, these experts were slow to accept that citizen scientists with their $69 DNA tests bought on Amazon could do things the best crime labs in the world could not.
But it’s time they got over themselves, and it’s time Congress, the Justice Department and the states put up the dollars needed to turn a novelty into the daily business of police work. Funding is needed to ramp up two big moves: training local police nationwide and equipping the hundreds of public crime labs to process DNA for genetic genealogy. Right now, about a half-dozen private labs are handling this for the whole country, a very expansive bottleneck.
“There’s no question in my mind that this technology should be the law enforcement standard,” says Anne Marie Schubert, the former Sacramento County District Attorney who presided over the Golden State Killer case, now working at DNA forensics company Verogen. “This is the greatest tool since the fingerprint.”
Tens of thousands more murders, rapes and other violent crimes will continue to go unsolved each year if this “novelty” doesn’t become an everyday reality. Let’s honor the Idaho Four by making sure that every other case counts, too.
Edward Humes is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of “The Forever Witness: How DNA and Genealogy Solved a Cold Case Double Murder.”