AP: Subpoena of genealogy website led to wrong man in "Golden State Killer" probe

Golden State Killer suspect and DNA

LOS ANGELES -- Investigators hunting for the so-called "Golden State Killer" subpoenaed a genetic website last year while investigating an Oregon man who was misidentified as a potential suspect. The revelation that investigators compelled a genetic company to provide user information adds to a growing debate about legal and privacy concerns involving law enforcement and companies whose millions of users submit their DNA to discover their heritage.

Court records obtained by The Associated Press last week showed investigators persuaded a judge in Clackamas County, Oregon, a year ago to order a 73-year-old man in a nursing home to provide a DNA sample.

Genealogy sites scrutinized in wake of Golden State Killer probe

Investigators compared crime-scene DNA linked to the serial killer to information on a free online genealogical site, YSearch.org. They said they spotted a rare genetic marker that the Oregon man shared with the killer who is believed to be responsible for 12 killings and nearly 50 rapes in the 1970s and 80s.

The website's parent company, which also owns FamilyTreeDNA.com, said Tuesday it received a subpoena the same month that "sought limited information, with respect to a single user account" from federal investigators in California.

The company, Gene-by-Gene Ltd., said it complied with the subpoena "to the minimum degree legally required" but didn't notify the user because it didn't want to interfere with the investigation.

Court documents said there was only one match among more than 189,000 searchable genetic records on the website. The documents identified a specific user ID, the user's first name and the most distant paternal relative in the family tree.

Gene-by-Gene wouldn't say whether the subpoena specifically identified that person, citing its privacy policy.

A company spokeswoman told the AP last week it hadn't been contacted by law enforcement, but later disclosed the subpoena after a further review of company records.

The Oregon City man is in extremely poor health in a rehabilitation facility and was unable to answer questions Friday. His daughter said his family weren't initially aware authorities took his DNA but later worked with the FBI before investigators ultimately determined none of her relatives were viable suspects.

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A car is backed out of the garage of a home searched in connection with the arrest of the suspected "Golden State Killer," Wednesday, April 25, 2018, in Citrus Heights, Calif.  AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Detectives turned to a different genealogical site, GEDMatch, and arrested a man last week who they say was one of California's most elusive serial killers.

Joseph James DeAngelo, a 72-year-old former police officer, was charged with eight counts of murder, and additional charges are expected. He didn't enter a plea when he appeared in court Friday.

GEDMatch is a free site where users who have obtained DNA profiles from commercial companies such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe can upload them to expand their search for relatives. Ancestry.com and 23andMe said Thursday that they weren't involved in the case. Major for-profit companies do not allow law enforcement to access their genetic data unless they get a court order.

Officials did not need a court order to access GEDMatch's database of genetic blueprints, said Paul Holes, the lead investigator in the case.

DeAngelo, 72, was arrested last week after investigators matched crime-scene DNA with genetic material stored by a distant relative in GEDMatch. From there, they narrowed it down to the Sacramento-area grandfather using DNA obtained from material he'd discarded, police said.

The Golden State Killer

The technique has garnered scrutiny amid privacy concerns. There are not strong privacy laws to keep police from trolling ancestry databases, said Steve Mercer, the chief attorney for the forensic division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.  And it's not clear whether people who use public DNA databases like GEDMatch fully understand that it's possible their DNA could later be used to incriminate a relative.

In a statement released to Friday, GEDMatch says it makes clear to users that the genetic information they upload, while primarily used for the purpose of finding relatives, isn't private.

GEDMatch is also used by the DNA Doe project, a non-profit that works to name the deceased who remain unidentified. Most recently, the DNA Doe project was hailed for its work with Ohio authorities to use a the database to identify "Buckskin Girl," an unidentified murder victim found with a distinctive Buckskin jacket near an Ohio roadway in 1981, as 21-year-old Marcia King of Arkansas.

DNA Doe co-founders Margaret Press and Colleen Fitzpatrick, who are genetic genealogists, told Crimesider they've chosen to focus their work with law enforcement only on identifying victims -- not searching for suspects -- in order to avoid privacy and ethical concerns.

"This is uncharted territory,"  Press said of the use of GEDMatch in the "Golden State Killer" case. "No one has hashed this out in court, had any public discourse or ethical arguments one way or another and it's a conversation that needs to be had. Now is the right time for that."