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Golden State Killer Caught Thanks to DNA Ancestry Website
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Photo courtesy of Vox.

Summary: A suspect believed to be the Golden State Killer has been arrested this week. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, a serial rapist raped 50 women and murdered a dozen in northern and southern California. He was never caught or identified, even though he had left DNA at the scene, but this month, a man was taken in because of a DNA ancestry website.


According to CNN, Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, was arrested on suspicion of being the Golden State Killer. A retired investigator had entered crime-scene DNA into a public database used for genealogy, and this information led to DeAngelo’s capture on Tuesday.

Paul Holes, a retired investigator with California’s Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office, told CNN he entered the Golden State Killer’s DNA information into the online Florida-based GEDmatch database. The site allows people to enter their own DNA profiles that they obtained from paid services such as Ancestry or 23andMe to try to find family matches with other users.

Holes said that after he entered the killer’s information, he was given over 100 names of distant relatives, and investigators used this information to narrow down who the killer was.

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“This investigation lasted over 40 years, but with this course of DNA testing and matching, it took us only four months to get to the right pool of people,” Holes said. “This guided us to the right pool of people without having to ruffle the sensibilities of a whole lot of people.”

Curtis Rogers, a partner with GEDmatch, said that the site was not contacted by law enforcement when they were doing their investigation.

“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 uses, as set forth in the site policy,” Rogers said in a statement. “While the database was created for genealogical research, it is important that GEDmatch participants understand the possible uses of their DNA, including identification of relatives that have committed crimes or were victims of crimes. If you are concerned about non-genealogical uses of your DNA, you should not upload your DNA to the database and/or you should remove DNA that has already been uploaded.”

DNA was critical in helping law enforcement determine that one person was both the killer and rapist. According to CNN, “In 2001, DNA evidence determined the East Area Rapist was the same offender as the Original Night Stalker. Now, the man is known as the Golden State Killer.”

While news of the Golden State Killer’s capture is a relief for his victims and their families, it has also raised concerns about privacy and whether or not people become “genetic informants” if they choose to use these types of websites.

“Popular genetic testing companies 23andMe and are holding on to more than information about your family tree, which raises privacy concerns. Experts confirm DNA in these databases can be accessed by law enforcement and third party companies under certain circumstances, revealing intimate information about user’s medical history and biological relationships,” USA Today said.

The Golden State Killer was caught because the killer’s family members had voluntarily uploaded their information to a free public site, but 23andMe and Ancestry told USA Today that they would not release DNA information to law enforcement without a warrant. However, that could mean that if law enforcement does use legal means to obtain this information, it is available.

“People don’t realize that unlike most medical tests where you find out information, it isn’t just about you,” Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University’s School of Medicine, told USA Today.

What do you think of DNA sites having this type of information on subjects and their families? Let us know in the comments below.


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