Last January, Carla Davis was on LinkedIn when she saw an intriguing post: “Identify the Victim of 1978 Tennessee Murder.”
Ever since the man’s burned remains were found on a campground outside Nashville, authorities had been trying to figure out who he was and who had killed him. After 42 years with no leads, the local sheriff’s office wanted to try a relatively new technique pioneered in the Golden State Killer case, combing through consumer genetic databases to find the man’s relatives, however distant, to triangulate his identity. The local sheriff couldn’t afford it, but a genetics lab called Othram was panhandling on the internet.
Othram’s founder and CEO, David Mittelman, a metaphor-loving geneticist, compares the forensic money request to Kickstarter. “Instead of a product, you’re getting justice for a family,” he said. “We’re crowdfunding for justice.”
That phrase has traditionally meant funding bail or legal bills for the accused, but Othram was seeking US$5,000 (168,700 baht) to sequence the victim’s DNA. On a whim, Ms Davis, a wellness coach who lives in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, donated the remaining $3,897.52 needed.
She didn’t stop there. Over the past year, Ms Davis has given more than $100,000 to Othram, as if it were a charity rather than a venture-backed startup, primarily for cold cases in Mississippi, her birth state.
“A friend told me I should just invest in the company,” Ms Davis said. “It didn’t matter to me that it wasn’t tax-deductible. These families have waited so long for answers.”
Ms Davis is part of a growing cohort of amateur DNA detectives, their hobby born of widespread consumer genetic testing paired with an unquenchable desire for true crime content. Why just listen to a murder podcast when you can help police comb through genealogical databases for the second cousins of suspected killers and their unidentified victims?
So far donors around the country have given at least $1 million to the cause. They could usher in a world where few crimes go unsolved — but only if society is willing to accept, and fund, DNA dragnets.
A growing cohort of amateur DNA detectives, their hobby born of widespread consumer genetic testing paired with an unquenchable desire for true crime content, is paying to solve cold cases. TOMASZ WOZNIAKOWSKI/nyt
‘Not quite Minority Report’
It’s hard to commit a crime, or do anything, without leaving some DNA behind. While crime scenes may include incriminating genetic evidence from perfectly innocent people, “probative” DNA — material that is clearly relevant to an investigation, such as a bloodstain — can be a powerful clue. But only if investigators can match it to the right person.
The case of the Golden State Killer, who committed 13 murders and dozens of rapes in California, went unsolved for decades, until the FBI decided in 2018 to use DNA evidence from a sexual assault to build out the perpetrator’s likely family tree.
The resulting identification and prosecution of a 72-year-old former police officer proved the value of what’s called “forensic genetic genealogy”.
What made the investigation possible was GEDmatch, a low-frills, online gathering place for people to upload DNA test results from popular direct-to-consumer services such as Ancestry or 23andMe, in hopes of connecting with unknown relatives. Authorities’ decision to mine the genealogical enthusiasts’ data for investigative leads was shocking at the time and led the site to warn users. But the practice has continued and has since been used in hundreds of cases.
Because many local agencies lack the resources to participate, philanthropists have stepped in to help. A group of well-off friends calling themselves the Vegas Justice League has given Othram $45,000, resulting in the solving of three murder-rape cases in Las Vegas, including those of two teenage girls killed in 1979 and in 1989.
“We want to help the police and the community just knock these out,” said Justin Woo, an online marketer who founded the Las Vegas group. “It’s not quite Minority Report, where you’re predicting and stopping, but if you get these people off the street through the DNA stuff, it’s really helpful.”
In the publicised cases in Las Vegas, the perpetrators were dead.
Mr Woo said people had contacted him to ask if they could donate money to prioritise the case of a loved one. “I don’t have that ability,” he said. “But I can pass this along to Las Vegas Metropolitan Police, and they decide.”
Natalie Ram, a law professor at the University of Maryland, expressed concern about “the public picking and choosing between cases”, saying investigative priorities could be determined by who can donate the most. Prof Ram said the “largest share” of cases solved so far with the method “tend to involve white female victims”.
An existing bias toward prioritising white victims, which has been documented in media coverage, could be compounded by the demographic makeup of the genealogy databases. Their composition “skews heavily white”, according to a recent law review article, which contrasted these databases to state collections of DNA, such as the FBI’s CODIS, which overrepresent black people, who are more likely to be arrested and have their DNA taken.
Prof Ram is also concerned about the constitutional privacy issues raised by the searches, particularly for those people who haven’t taken DNA tests or uploaded their results to the public internet.
Even if you resolve never to put your DNA on a site accessible to law enforcement authorities, you share DNA with many other people so could still be discoverable. All it takes is your sibling, aunt or even a distant cousin deciding differently.
A forensic scientist prepares a sample prior to forensic grade genome sequencing at Othram’s lab in The Woodlands, Texas. MICHAEL STRAVATO/nyt
The GoFundMe generation
As donations pour in for these searches, the fortunes of the services that make them possible are also on the rise. The two main consumer databases used for law enforcement searches — FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch — have both recently been acquired by larger companies, while DNA testing behemoths Ancestry and 23andMe, which have largely resisted police access to their databases, have valuations in the billions of dollars.
Even a former FBI lawyer who worked on the Golden State Killer case is getting in on the action. Steve Kramer, who said he helped the FBI establish three forensic genetic genealogy units across the country, left the agency in November to help found a company seeking to automate genealogical research.
“I don’t consider genetic genealogy for just cold cases. We’ve solved active homicides within weeks,” said Mr Kramer, who has already come up with a catchphrase. “We want to take the word serial out of serial killer.”
The philanthropy is also being fuelled by true crime, an entertainment genre that has come to dominate podcast charts. Audiochuck, an Indiana company with a slate of popular true crime shows, has donated approximately $800,000 to organisations doing investigative genealogical research, including Othram, and an additional $700,000 to a non-profit started by Ashley Flowers, a host of the network’s Crime Junkie.
“What keeps me sane is knowing we’re doing something to make it better,” said Flowers, whose show recounts the details of shocking murders.
The non-profit, called Season of Justice, has raised another $250,000, some through crowdfunding, and so far has made grants toward 53 unsolved murders.
“I was pretty stunned when we put our PayPal button up and raised that money almost without trying,” said Steve DuBois, the non-profit’s executive director. “This is the GoFundMe generation; this is what they do.”
The processing of DNA evidence typically costs around $5,000. And then there’s the painstaking creation of the family tree by forensic genetic genealogists. This new breed of experts are often women, like Ms Davis, who honed their skills initially as amateurs piecing together their own family history.
Defendant Joseph James DeAngelo, a former US policeman dubbed the ‘Golden State Killer’, in Sacramento, California, in this file photo taken on Aug 20, 2020. afp
A ‘search angel’
For most of her life, Ms Davis did not know who her father was. Her teenage mother, who had kept the man’s identity a secret, died in a motorcycle accident when Ms Davis was five years old. Raised by her grandmother in a Mississippi town with just 2,000 people, a population that almost certainly included her father, Ms Davis had no way to find out who he was.
That is, until four decades later, when relatively inexpensive consumer genetic tests became popular. Starting in 2013, Ms Davis sent vials of her saliva to 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA and Ancestry, which extracted and analysed her DNA for about $100 each, and then provided lists of other customers to whom she was genetically related, unearthing third cousins.
From there, she tracked down census records, marriage licences, death records, obituaries and social media accounts to build out her unknown father’s family tree, much like putting together a puzzle, but one filled with relatives. After three years, she found the missing piece: her father was a drag car racer who had lived a few kilometres from her childhood home. He had died of prostate cancer, but his brother took a DNA test to confirm the match.
“It felt like the weight of the world had lifted off me, like I had finally learned who I was,” Ms Davis said. “I started learning everything I could about DNA and how to build trees.”
By then, Ms Davis had moved from Mississippi to the United Arab Emirates, where her husband’s real estate company was based. Her daughter was grown, and Ms Davis was working as a nutrition and lifestyle consultant, advising people virtually. After absorbing books and YouTube tutorials about genetics, she joined a Facebook group called DNA Detectives, which led to a new calling: helping more than 200 strangers identify their unknown parents.
“I’m a volunteer search angel,” she said.
Donate money … or DNA
Mr Mittelman, Othram’s CEO, said his company had received more than $400,000 from philanthropic donors. According to Crunchbase, the startup has also raised $28.5 million from institutional investors to corner the market around this new investigative technique. Founded in The Woodlands, Texas, in 2018, the company now has 30 employees, said Mr Mittelman, including five full-time genealogical researchers, and will soon move to a new building, with a lab four times the size of its current one.
Othram’s pitch is simple: government labs lack the expensive equipment needed to process DNA evidence — cigarette butts, bloodstained fabric, bone — which may be decades old, degraded or mixed with non-human materials. For now, private labs must do the work of creating genetic profiles that are compatible with those generated, much more easily, from a consumer’s saliva. Then forensic genetic genealogists must do the time-consuming labour of sorting through third cousins and population records. Finally, another DNA test is typically required to confirm a suspected match.
Othram wants to be authorities’ one-stop shop for the whole process.
In addition to money, Othram encouraged supporters to donate their DNA, a request that some critics called unseemly, saying donors should contribute to databases easily available to all investigators.
“Some people are too nervous to put their DNA in a general database,” said Mr Mittelman, who declined to say how large his database is. “Ours is purpose-built for law enforcement.”
Ms Davis has donated her DNA, as well as that of her daughter and son-in-law. Her husband declined.
Police arrive at a crime scene in the Bronx on Aug 13, 2020. The New York Police Department instructs detectives to offer water, soda, a cigarette, gum or food to people whose DNA is sought — and collect the item once they leave. GREGG VIGLIOTTI/nyt
After reassuring Othram that her large donation was intentional, Ms Davis expressed interest in another DNASolves case: the “Talladega Superspeedway Jane Doe.”
The decomposing remains of a white woman of average height had been found nine years earlier in the yard of an abandoned house near the famous racetrack. According to law enforcement officials, the deceased, who had lung cancer, had been wearing dentures inscribed with the word “Powders”. The local police department in Lincoln, Alabama, believed her body might have been dumped by someone who planned to steal her identity to access her finances.
Othram had come across the case while perusing the approximately 14,000 unidentified people catalogued in NamUs, a database maintained by the Justice Department, which describes when and where a body was found, its condition, and any clothing or accessories.
The case seemed likely to have usable DNA, so in 2020, Othram contacted Shannon Hallmark, the Lincoln police captain of investigations, describing what the company could do if it could raise enough money.
“A lot of small agencies don’t have the funding to do something like that,” Ms Hallmark said.
The case jumped out to Ms Davis because she had already researched families from the area while searching for someone’s parent. “I’m not sure if Othram accepts the help of volunteers,” Ms Davis wrote in an email, “but if so, I would like to help solve this particular case”.
She donated nearly $4,000 again, so that Othram could process a bloodstain card collected during the woman’s autopsy, using a million-dollar DNA sequencing machine called the NovaSeq 6000.
From there, Othram generated a data file containing her autosomal DNA, the genetic material that is shared among families. When uploaded to GEDmatch Pro, a special investigative version of the service, it revealed that the woman had over 1,000 distant relatives in the database.
Othram asked Ms Hallmark whether she was interested in a civilian volunteer, and Ms Davis became part of the cold-case task force, a scenario that Ms Hallmark called “very rare”. Then the sleuthing started.
‘Where is Jean?’
Ms Davis works from a guest bedroom that she has converted into a his-and-her office decorated in the style of a high-end hotel room. She has the research abilities of a digital archaeologist, the can-do energy of a personal trainer and the fervour of a true believer. “This is what I know is my purpose,” she said.
GEDmatch told her how many centimorgans, a measure of genetic linkage, each of the relatives shared with the victim. Ms Davis fed the 25 closest relations into software called DNA Painter that predicted how they relate, to build a possible family tree: is it a great-grandniece or a second cousin? She then used Ancestry.com to map the tree, keeping it private so only she could see it.
“The DNA unfolds and tells a specific story, and you just have to follow the story and see where it leads,” Ms Davis said. It’s not usually a story that unfolds easily. People on GEDmatch typically list anonymous email addresses. It’s one thing to put your DNA publicly on the internet; it’s another to explicitly say it’s yours.
After five months of digging, Mr Davis figured out where on the tree the victim had to be, a branch with two sisters. One was alive, but when Ms Davis searched for the other on Facebook, she gasped at the post that came up: “Where is Jean?”
A retired biology teacher and grandmother who had lived in Georgia, Jean Ponders had been declared missing in July 2013. “I was very emotional,” Ms Davis said. “I finally had a face to look at.”
Carla Davis, a genetic genealogist, at her home in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. NATALIE NACCACHE/nyt
Ms Davis emailed her findings to Ms Hallmark, asking whether the “Powders” on the dentures could have been “Ponders”. Ms Hallmark got contact information for the Ponders family from local authorities, and a daughter, Jennifer Hazelwood, provided a DNA sample. It was a match.
For years, Ms Hazelwood had longed to know her mother’s whereabouts, Googling her frequently. “My mind was tortured,” Ms Hazelwood said. “It really touches my heart that someone cared enough to keep pushing to find her family.”
Ms Hallmark is now investigating how Ponders got to Alabama from Georgia and who dumped her body in the yard.
Ms Davis hopes that more family members like Hazelwood can get closure, but that is relatively rare so far. Beyond the funding issues, the genealogical databases have limited populations. Tens of millions of Americans have taken DNA tests, but only a small portion have made that DNA available to investigators.
Of the 24 cases Ms Davis has funded, seven previously unknown individuals have been publicly named, but some have stalled out, including the Tennessee murder victim. He is still unidentified.