Genetic genealogy is solving high-profile cases, helped link suspect to ‘Idaho 4 murders’

Genealogy databases have been used to solve decades-old cases. Databases use DNA and trace it back generations to find a match through a family tree.
Published: Jan. 2, 2023 at 9:08 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Sources have confirmed Bryan Kohberger was caught for the Moscow, Idaho college student murders using public genealogy databases to confirm a DNA match. It is not the first high-profile crime case to be solved this way- the success rate for DNA companies has been extremely high.

So, why aren’t more law enforcement agencies using this, and is this truly the way of the future in forensics? This is probably the most revolutionary forensic advancement in decades. Companies that do this can look at tiny amounts of DNA, trace it back many generations in databases, and narrow down the family tree to find a match. “Until now it’s been used to solve older cases, but now this is like a fresh case that just happened, so we’re moving into the next era where it’s been established its been proven,” said forensic genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick is a forensic genealogist and founder of the company Identifinders International. Some law enforcement has turned to her to help solve cases when traditional technology can’t. “There were some agencies that were very forward thinking, like the Phoenix Police Department, that were willing to try something new,” said Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick helped Phoenix PD solve the suspect DNA match for the infamous “Canal Murders” in the 90s. She used forensic genealogy after Phoenix Police gave her the the Y-chromosome profile on the case, which consisted of 17 DNA markers . From there, Fitzpatrick found six matches in the database to profiles associated with the name ‘Miller.’

Phoenix Police looked in their case files for Millers. Out of 2,000 people, there were only five, which led them to arrest Bryan Patrick Miller in 2015.

A more sophisticated version of how forensic genealogy works these days is DNA is collected from a crime scene, and these companies can read hundreds of thousands of markers of DNA through genetic sequencing, then use that profile to see if it has any familial matches through sometimes their own databases, but databases like GEDmatch and Family Tree DNA.

A company at the forefront of this is Texas-based, ‘Othram,’ a company with the only purpose-built lab to do this work all in-house, solving cases left and right.

Because of their unique and innovative lab, on top of one of the most powerful genetic sequencers in the country, they can create and build high-performing DNA profiles that regular genealogy companies can’t. From there, they have forensic genealogists in house, and have their own database called DNASolves. All of this sets them apart with how little DNA, or damaged DNA, they can use and still see success.

“To focus on receiving very small amounts of DNA that’s often times very contaminated, very degraded,” said Michael Vogen, Othram’s Director of Account Management. For example, their company solved the 1960 “Little Miss Nobody” case out of Yavapai County in Arizona, identifying a 4-year-old homicide victim who had no identity for decades.

Companies like Othram and Identfinders International have solved cases with as little as 5-12 human cells, so they said this is the future, whether a case is old or brand new, like the “Idaho 4.” “It should become the norm and it is. There’s been a lot of folks I’ve mentioned that we’ve helped with current active cases, that once they realize the process that’s available to them, it changes the way they handle a hot case that just comes in,” said Vogen.

Fitzpatrick said the Department of Justice says agencies are supposed to exhaust all other options before you go to genetic genealogy. Still, she’s hoping that it can be used immediately moving forward. Othram says it typically takes 12 weeks to build a profile an their lab and find a match, but if it’s an active case with somebody dangerous on the loose, they can expedite it to a few days.

There is a difference between the CODIS law enforcement database and what these companies can do. The CODIS database can only match offenders of violent crimes already in the system and can only look at about 20 markers of DNA so you would need a close family match.

These genetic genealogy companies can look at hundreds of thousands of DNA markers, compare them to public databases, get hits on distant relations like a seventh cousin, and trace it back to the person. They don’t have to rely on somebody having to be arrested to have their DNA too.