Western New York leaders eager to use genealogy testing to solve violent crime

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A simple swab of the cheek is all that’s needed to determine your DNA heritage.

More and more people are purchasing at-home DNA kits to learn more about their ancestors and to connect with relatives.

But now, genealogy is helping to fight crime.

This concept first made headlines last year when California police arrested a man known as “Golden State Killer”.

Joseph DeAngelo is believed to be responsible for at least 13 murders.

Investigators tracked him down by comparing genetic profiles from genealogy websites to DNA from crime scenes.

They received a ping on one of DeAngelo’s distant relatives who had entered their information into a public database.

It’s a crime solving technique that intrigues Erie County District Attorney John Flynn.

“Great police work and something I’m not only fascinated by but I am all in if I can find the right case,” said Flynn.

For the past year, Flynn has directed one of the Assistant District Attorneys to specifically tackle cases involving DNA evidence.

“I’ve had a DA go through all these hits that we have, these DNA hits, and go back and try to find evidence to link that suspect and we’ve been successful in that,” said Flynn.

Flynn’s office isn’t just using genealogy testing to make that match, just yet.

But he says the work they’re doing is a step in the right direction.

In fact, there’s been so much success with other cases around the country, there’s a sense of excitement genealogy testing could solve cold cases in our area.

“You get reinvigorated that you might be able to get a break in a case that means so much to a family,” said Niagara County District Attorney, Caroline Wojtaszek.

In order to connect the dots, it begins at the state’s crime lab in Albany.

“You’re really trying to find that needle in the haystack,” said Ray Wickenheiser, the director of the New York State Police Crime Lab.

Wickenheiser has spent the past 36 years in forensic science.

He’s seen the use of DNA testing evolve and change drastically.

20 years ago, they needed a dime or nickel size spot of DNA in order to get results.

“Now we’re down to if we can see it, we’re pretty much getting a dna profile, said Wickenheiser.

To put it into perspective, they’re able to use less than a billionth of a gram to positively identify someone’s DNA.

A scientist showed us how they conduct these tests, using a t-shirt with a DNA sample.

The forensic scientist uses a light source to see if the sample tests positive for bodily fluids.

This type of information is then entered into the state’s database.

But if the suspect’s identification is unknown, forensic genealogy comes into play.

Investigators take genealogy information that people knowingly enter into a public database, like GEDmatch, and search for potential matches to their DNA sample from the crime scene.

It’s a lengthy process.

“Depending on how close the relatives are will generate how big the family tree is going to have to be. So if it’s a third or fourth cousin — typically people have 800 to a thousand or more of relatives in that range so you’re searching through a lot of people,” said Wickenheiser.

This search process comes with some major privacy concerns.

Earlier this month, the Department of Justice announced an interim policy to govern the growing use of genealogical DNA databases in criminal investigations.

For example, a case must meet certain requirements and police are not allowed to make an arrest based on a match found in a genealogy database.

Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek says the policy, combined with the requirement of a subpoena for private genealogy databases, should put people at ease.

“People just don’t get to go rouge in looking at this stuff. There’s specific case criteria. It’s only the most violent and heinous crimes in our community that you’re allowed to do these types of searches,” said Wojtaszek.

If there’s a chance your genealogy test results could help others, our local leaders ask… why would you hold back?

“If your profile can be used even remotely to bring justice to some family member or distant family member you may not even know about – and bring justice to a family who has gone through a horrific homicide or rape – then, I mean, how can you be against that?” asks Flynn.

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