A DNA profile uploaded to a small Florida-based genealogy website was the key tool in capturing East Area Rapist suspect Joseph DeAngelo, a lead investigator on the case said Friday.
Paul Holes, a recently-retired investigator with the Contra Costa District Attorney's Office, said he used a website called GEDmatch to match crime-scene DNA with genetic information supplied by one of DeAngelo's relatives.
The computerized crime-scene DNA profile matched with a pool of people in the GEDmatch database. Investigators eventually narrowed down the potential matches to DeAngelo, who was arrested at his Citrus Heights home Tuesday in connection with a string of rapes, murders and other crimes that terrorized Californians in the 1970s and 1980s.
GEDmatch is a third-party or "open source" database where people trying to find lost relatives upload computer files containing genetic information they've obtained after supplying saliva samples to commercial sites like Ancestry.com. The commercial sites analyze the sample and send the customer a general snapshot of their ethnic background — plus a lengthy computer file packed with genetic data. It's the computer file that some customers then upload to a site like GEDmatch.
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Colleen Fitzpatrick, who runs a nonprofit organization in California that tries to identify John and Jane Does through DNA, called the Florida site a "watering hole" for people hoping for a DNA match.
"It's open to ... people who've been tested by all the DNA companies," Fitzpatrick said. "Everyone can use it." She said GEDmatch is far and away the largest open-source site, with genetic information supplied by about 800,000 users.
GEDmatch touts itself on its website as "a FREE, nonprofit, 'do-it-yourself' genomics website that allows DNA testers to upload raw data from FTDNA, AncestryDNA, and 23andMe to compare with a large database of data that has been voluntarily uploaded by other testers."
In a statement Friday, the website confirmed that its data was used in the DeAngelo case.
"We understand that the GEDmatch database was used to help identify the Golden State Killer," the statement read, using one of the other names applied to the East Area Rapist. "Although we were not approached by law enforcement or anyone else about this case or about the DNA, it has always been GEDmatch's policy to inform users that the database could be used for other users, as set forth in the Site Policy."
Nonetheless, lawyers and DNA experts said investigators' use of GEDmatch to track down DeAngelo could raise legal problems for prosecutors. Before submitting a DNA profile, a user must check a box on GEDmatch's website acknowledging "that any sample you submit is either your DNA or the DNA of a person for whom you are a legal guardian or have obtained authorization to upload their DNA."
Holes said he used an "undercover profile" in setting up his account at GEDmatch. The website allows the use of aliases.
Joel Winston, a Pennsylvania lawyer who specializes in data privacy law, said GEDmatch's terms could give a defense lawyer an opening to get the evidence against DeAngelo tossed out of court. If law enforcement officials didn't have the authority to upload crime-scene DNA information to GEDmatch, that could taint the computer match and all the subsequent evidence obtained as a result of the GEDmatch findings, under the so-called "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine, he said.
"That's problematic," Winston said. "It's not their DNA."
But Jennifer Mnookin, an evidence expert and dean of UCLA's School of Law, said that even if law enforcement officials breached the website's policies by uploading crime-scene DNA material, they likely didn't violate DeAngelo's constitutional rights.
"I doubt it would get tossed out of court on that basis," she said.
The Sacramento County District Attorney's Office wouldn't confirm GEDmatch was used to nab DeAngelo, but said it's prepared for any legal issues that could arise. "I think everything in the case will be challenges, as they always are, and we'll address that when the time comes," said Steve Grippi, chief deputy district attorney.
Holes, who worked on a task force reporting to the Sacramento County DA's office, said an FBI agent who's also a lawyer working on the East Area Rapist manhunt had told him it was OK to submit the crime-scene DNA data to GEDmatch.
"We just went ahead and did it," Holes said. "It's an open-source site and a public database. We likened it to Facebook."
The big commercial genealogy websites, including Ancestry, 23andMe.com, Living DNA and MyHeritage, have taken pains to say they didn't release any DNA information to law enforcement officials working the DeAngelo case.
Frederick Bieber, a genetics expert at Harvard who pioneered familial DNA forensics, said the larger the database, the more difficult it is to find a useful match. The type of DNA used by many genealogical sites is different from that used in law enforcement, and could lead to hundreds if not thousands of hits. "They lucked out," said Bieber. "I think this was a stunning success."
But Jay Stanley, a privacy expert at the ACLU, said he's concerned about the use of public databases for solving crimes.
"A success like this gets trumpeted in headlines all over America. But for every success like this, how many people are having their lives put under the microscope of law enforcement ... because a relative uploaded their DNA?"