Playing Catch a Killer With a Room Full of Sleuths
By Heather Murphy
Published Oct. 5, 2019
Updated Oct. 7, 2019, 11:04 a.m. ET
The New York Times
At a forensic conference in California, law enforcement officials grappled with how to avoid destroying one of the field’s biggest innovations in decades.
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — On a recent afternoon, under two giant chandeliers, some of the key people responsible for the future of crime and privacy tried to solve a murder.
“She was found in 1982 in Newark,” said the class leader, who opened the session by bursting into song. That plus the little plates of cannoli positioned on each table might have led an uninformed interloper to mistake the event for the $33-a-ticket catch a killer game across town.
But though the scenario was fictional, the players involved made it anything but a game. Seated in his deceptively low-key white shorts and hiking boots was Thomas Callaghan of the F.B.I., who was involved in overseeing Codis, law enforcement’s primary criminal DNA database over the past 25 years. He recently moved over to the F.B.I.’s rapidly expanding genetic genealogy unit. A few tables back to the right, the genealogist Barbara Rae-Venter, who helped crack the Golden State Killer case, chatted with a friend who was looking to invest big in this emerging industry. A few tables over still, Curtis Rogers, a co-founder of GEDmatch, the genealogy database that is fast becoming law enforcement’s go-to tool for solving crimes, sat checking his phone.
Diahan Southard, the instructor, offered an encouraging greeting to the 115 or so people who had signed up for her genetic genealogy workshop. “I believe anyone can learn to do this,” she said. Though some were old hands in the technique, a majority of the forensic scientists, detectives, coroners and family historians were novices, eager to learn how to identify bodies and suspects by using partial matches to cousins on genealogy sites.
The workshop, held in late September, capped a week of sessions at the 30th International Symposium on Human Identification, an annual gathering for 1,000 “rock stars of DNA” as one attendee called them. It offered a revealing, yet unconventionally performative, window into forensic genealogy, at a crucial moment in its trajectory.
At the same conference, a Department of Justice representative put forth the first ever guidelines for the technique, which burst into the forensic mainstream a year and a half ago, offering law enforcement an enticing and contentious way of identifying violent offenders.