The Forever Witness

From The Wall Street Journal:

In November 1987, a scavenger searching for bottles found the body of a half-naked woman near a rural road north of Seattle. Days later, beneath a bridge 60 miles away, a hunter found a dead man, bludgeoned with rocks and asphyxiated by a pack of cigarettes shoved down his throat. Police identified the bodies as Tanya Van Cuylenborg, 18, and her boyfriend Jay Cook, 20.

A week earlier, the couple had driven down from Canada on an errand and vanished. The police had zero witnesses and little physical evidence they could tie to a suspect. They did have one clue: semen on Tanya’s pants, which yielded a DNA sequence. By itself, however, that sequence meant little: Because the killer’s DNA didn’t appear in any crime databases, the police couldn’t match it to anyone. The case quickly went cold, leaving not only local law enforcement but the FBI, the Mounties and Interpol all stumped.

That’s the backdrop to Edward Humes’s thought-provoking true-crime thriller, “The Forever Witness,” which details how the police finally nabbed the alleged killer. More important, the book explores why the tool that broke the case open, genetic genealogy, has proven so controversial in detective work—and why the rest of us should (maybe) fear it as well.

. . . .

However well told, though, the story probably wouldn’t merit book-level treatment if not for how the police snared Talbott. As originally conceived, DNA forensics required police officers to match a specific genetic sequence from a piece of evidence to a specific person in a database. If the search came up empty, the case went cold. But genetic genealogy casts a wider net: Open public databases like GEDmatch, where people upload DNA for genealogical purposes, allow cold-case detectives and genealogists to find people with merely similar DNA—relatives. Based on the percentage of DNA overlap, you can tell whether the person who pops up is the killer’s sibling or uncle or third cousin. From there, you use traditional genealogy (obituaries, census records, birth certificates) to piece together a family tree and find the likely killer’s name.

This method of drawing a web around a killer first made headlines in the Golden State Killer case in April 2018. Strikingly, though, at the time the police portrayed the Golden State case as a “moonshot”—the product of months of painstaking work undertaken only out of desperation. Such an effort might never be duplicated, the thinking went.

As Mr. Humes notes, the Cook-Van Cuylenborg case exploded that idea. In May 2018, the cold-case detective working the murders in Washington state, Jim Scharf, chatted with a genetics company about finding the unknown killer’s relatives. The CEO said they’d try to have a suspect in four days. Mr. Scharf chuckled. After 31 years, he didn’t expect a quick fix. As it turned it, naming a suspect didn’t take four days. A woman sitting on her couch in sweatpants found Talbott in two hours.

That woman was CeCe Moore, a onetime TV-commercial actress who became obsessed with genealogy after constructing a family tree for her niece; she eventually quit acting to pursue genealogy full time. Ms. Moore was not involved with the Golden State case, but more than anyone else she realized the potential power of genetic genealogy not only for identifying criminals but for identifying nameless victims. After fingering Talbott, Ms. Moore solved four more cold cases in five weeks, cases police had spent 126 collective years working. By September 2021, she’d identified 175 criminal suspects and John and Jane Does.

These were staggering results, which helped dozens of victims’ families heal. So how did the genetic-genealogy community react to Ms. Moore’s sleuthing? Many were outraged.

The protests sprang from a commitment to absolute privacy. It’s a knotty problem: Ms. Moore and the police conducted the genealogy searches without warrants or court orders. In short, they were trawling through people’s DNA—perhaps the single most private thing about them—without permission, using the DNA in ways the people it came from hadn’t consented to. That’s discomfiting—especially because such genetic information can also expose affairs, secret adoptions, and other dark secrets. This is all the more fraught because the police officers using the information often have no scientific training and have easily jumped to wrong conclusions in some cases.

Then again, opposing genetic detective work means, in effect, putting up hurdles to solving violent crimes—and not only in cold cases. Mr. Humes details the story of a man who raped a 79-year-old Utah woman in 2018. Police feared he’d strike again and begged Ms. Moore to find him. The case proved tougher to crack than Talbott’s: Ms. Moore spent three 18-hour days on her laptop. But she hunted him down and got the guy off the street. In cases like this, should absolute genetic privacy, even for millions of people, outweigh clear and present danger?

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG says the genie is out of the bottle on DNA testing.

If one of your parents or one of your siblings or one of your children takes a commercial DNA test (which, in PG’s opinion, they are completely free to do), their DNA can be used to determine that you are related to them if a court orders you to provide a DNA sample for comparison.

PG has had his DNA analyzed under a program sponsored by Ancestry.com. He just checked on Ancestry’s DNA website and discovered that he is related to 44,935 other people who have also taken an Ancestry.com DNA test. He recognizes several of the names as belonging to his known relatives, but is confident that the names and identities of over 44,000 of the people are completely unknown to him.

And Ancestry.com and several other competitors are happy to help people locate additional information about their ancestors. PG just checked and, for the first time, found the gravestone of his great-grandmother and great-grandfather.

PG’s Ancestry DNA analysis discloses lots of Swedish, English, Scottish and Irish forbearers, which he would have expected, but also shows he has distant ancestors who lived in Mali and on Sardinia.

Does one of PG’s Sardinian tenth cousins six times removed have a gripe about PG’s DNA test results being used to link the two of them together?

PG says that if someone who is closely related to him commits a murder, PG has no problem with his own DNA results being used to point a finger at the malefactor.

PG has practiced law for long enough to see the counsel from adoption agencies for adoptive parents evolve from not telling their adopted child about the fact of adoption to being frank with the adopted child, when she/he reaches an appropriate age, about the adoption to minimize trauma in the event the adopted child later learns about the lack of a genetic connections with her/his parents.

PG believes he is entitled to keep facts disclosed by his own DNA private, but he doesn’t have the right to tell his sister she can’t publicly disclose what her DNA shows or to prevent his children from learning whatever DNA analysis tells them about their ancestors. After all, PG received his DNA from others in the first place.

(Disclosure: PG was a vice-president of Ancestry.com almost twenty years ago, but sold his stock not long after moving on and has no continuing relationship with the company today other than taking the Ancestry.com DNA list and having the ability to access Ancestry.com genealogy data online.)