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Genealogists Turn to Cousins’ DNA and Family Trees to Crack Five More Cold Cases


When the Golden State Killer case was cracked in April with the help of a genealogist and an open-source ancestry site, many wondered if this was the new frontier of criminal investigations.

This week all signs point to yes.

In the last seven days, genealogical sleuthing techniques that are old to a handful of genealogists but new to most law enforcement have led to arrests in Washington State and Pennsylvania and unearthed a lead in a 37-year-old murder in Texas. All three cases were only revived when crime scene DNA was uploaded to GEDMatch, the same open-source ancestry site used in the Golden State killer case.

CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist now working with Parabon, a forensic consulting firm, was involved in all three of the cases. She said she honed her techniques over a decade by helping thousands of adoptees track down their biological parents.

“There are so many parallels,” she said in terms of how she uses relatives’ DNA and other publicly available data to build the branches of a family tree backward and then forward to focus in on a single person.

GEDMatch, which contains about one million genetic profiles that people have uploaded after having their DNA analyzed by other companies such as 23andMe, updated its privacy policy, following the Golden State killer case to explicitly state that law enforcement may access a person’s profile to solve murder and sexual assault cases.

It’s unclear if any of the cousins whose DNA helped lead to arrests have been notified that they played a role. Whether they should be told — and whose responsibility that would be — are among the many unresolved questions that have been raised with this new approach.

It’s also wise to remember that a genetic match, on its own, is not an indicator of guilt. What it shows is that there is an extremely high probability that the DNA extracted from one source belongs to the same person as the DNA extracted from another source.

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Nurse arrested in 1986 homicide of 12-year-old girl

The victim: On March 26, 1986, 12-year-old Michella Welch was playing with her sisters in a park near her home in Tacoma, Wash. She offered to go pick up some sandwiches. She never made it back.

The suspect: Gary C. Hartman, 66, who has worked as a nurse, was arrested last Wednesday and charged with first-degree murder and first-degree rape. He pleaded not guilty.

The suspect: Raymond “D.J. Freez” Rowe, 49, was arrested on Monday. He has been working as a D.J. in Pennsylvania — and briefly in Southern Chile — since the late 1980s. These days, he not only performs at about 150 parties and events a year, he runs a D.J. academy, according to his website.

Raymond “D.J. Freez” RoweCreditLancaster County Dist. Attorney, via Associated Press

The path from cousins to suspect: Parabon is not saying which relatives provided the initial match, only that GEDMatch was critical yet again.

Once the building of the family tree — and other research — turned Mr. Rowe into a person of interest, police collected DNA from a piece of chewing gum and a water bottle at a party where he was D.J.’ing. It matched the genetic profile extracted from semen at the scene of the murder and Mr. Rowe was arrested, startling his community.

A lead in the 1981 murder of a Texas realtor

The victim: In December 1981, Virginia Freeman, a 40-year-old realtor in Brazos County, Tex., went to meet a potential buyer. She was later found strangled and stabbed.

Development: On Monday, the Brazos County sheriff announced that he believed James Otto Earhart, who was executed in 1999 for killing a 9-year-old girl, was responsible.

The path from cousins to suspect: Upon uploading crime scene DNA to GEDMatch, Ms. Moore identified two second cousins and two third cousins once removed. By building a family tree back to their great-grandparents, and then filling in the branches, Ms. Moore came up with a list of relatives to research further.

James Otto EarhartCreditvia Associated Press


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