Killer App? DNA Site Had Unwitting Role in Golden State Hunt

(Bloomberg) -- Curtis Rogers is used to helping people track down their relatives. The 79-year-old Florida grandfather of six founded a genealogy website that helps hobbyists like himself trace the branches on their family tree.

In the past few weeks, though, Rogers has been fielding inquiries from a different kind of user: the police.

Rogers runs GEDmatch, a free, open-source website that became headline fodder last month when it helped investigators find the suspected Golden State Killer, who terrorized California with a series of break-ins, rapes and murders in the 1970s and 1980s. GEDmatch lets users voluntarily share raw genetic data from DNA-testing companies such as 23andMe Inc., and try to find relatives who may have sent in samples from a different service, like AncestryDNA.

Nearly a million people have uploaded profiles to GEDmatch. Hoping for a lead in the Golden State Killer case, investigators used DNA data from one of the killer’s crime scenes to hunt the site for relatives who could lead them to a suspect.

When 72-year-old former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo was charged in the case after eluding authorities for four decades, and investigators said GEDmatch played a key role in finding him, Rogers was as surprised as anyone. Nobody from law enforcement reached out to him, he said in an interview with Bloomberg News.

Companies offering to test genetic samples for unexpected ancestors, faded family ties and hints of disease have proliferated in recent years. GEDmatch’s pivotal -- and unwitting -- contribution to unraveling a decades-old murder mystery speaks to the unexpected ways in which consumers’ most intimate data might be used when it flows freely in the marketplace.

“All your life you work hard to succeed at some job,” Rogers said in the interview. “Well, this is something we didn’t try to succeed at ever.”

Powerful Tool

Since the arrest, Rogers says that he and his partner John Olson, a Texas electrical engineer in his sixties, have been overwhelmed with requests from investigators looking for leads in dormant cases. Parabon NanoLabs, a Virginia-based forensic DNA company, asked Rogers for permission to load DNA from about 100 crime scenes into GEDmatch’s database, and found close familial matches in about 20 of them. Already, the tactic has led to a suspect in a 1987 Washington double murder.

“We’ve been aware for a long time that this was possible, but there was a time when GEDmatch just wasn’t as large as it is,” said Steve Armentrout, president of Parabon. “Now it is clear that this is going to be a very powerful tool.”

When Rogers and Olson started GEDmatch in 2010, they didn’t think it would be used by anyone other than fellow genealogy enthusiasts. They never advertised. GEDmatch -- the name refers to a data file that stores family history and genealogical data -- has collected 929,000 genetic profiles, but just 7,300 users shell out $10 a month for a premium membership. Rogers said the site turns a modest profit.

Initially, when Rogers found out that investigators had made fake GEDmatch profiles without permission, he was upset.

“I feel very strongly about wanting to protect our users,” said Rogers. “On the other hand, I’m so glad we were able to help get this person.”

“There is no doubt in my mind that this will be very normalized in a year or two,” said Rogers.

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, which arrested DeAngelo, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Changing Terms

More than 12 million people have ordered DNA kits from 23andMe and AncestryDNA. In the aftermath of the Golden State Killer case, the services have stressed that they won’t hand over personal data without a court order.

By contrast, GEDmatch invited the authorities in. It updated its terms of service to make clear that police could use the database to identify perpetrators of violent crimes or deceased victims, and forced users to agree or delete their account when logging in.

Rogers said the site has received some pushback. A few users have left. But, to his surprise, Rogers said many more people reached out in support. One woman wrote to him and said her father was a serial killer, and she signed up for GEDmatch hoping to help track down others like him.

“There was a very positive reaction among large sections of our community who actually wanted to contribute their results to help in the searches,” said Debbie Kennett, a British genealogist. But Kennett said she’d like to see guidelines governing when genealogy databases can be used in an investigation.

In an ethical framework published on Monday by bioethicists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the authors said that recent events require DNA-testing companies to have clearer terms of service and consent documents.

“This does raise some issues that I think we as a society need to think through before this becomes an everyday practice,” said Benjamin Berkman, the study’s lead author.

Those issues are ones Rogers, who had a long career as an executive at Quaker Oats and other companies, never imagined being caught up in. He expected to spend more time with family in his late seventies, maybe take a cruise. Instead, a hobby is now a full-time job.

“One of these days I’m going to retire and climb on an ocean liner,” Rogers said. “Just get out in the middle of the ocean and be away from all this hassle.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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