Type of DNA genealogy research used in April Marie Tinsley case described as possible ‘game-changer’ in cold cases
The type of genetic genealogy research that helped identify a suspect in the April Marie Tinsley murder case has the potential to assist in a wide range of police investigations, one of the technique’s pioneers said.
“It definitely is a game-changer for cold cases, and it could be a game-changer for cases that are not that cold,” genetic genealogy expert CeCe Moore said during a phone interview Sunday night with News-Sentinel.com.
Recently, DNA profiling and Moore’s research allegedly identified two brothers as potential suspects in then-8-year-old Tinsley’s abduction and murder in early April 1988, a probable cause affidavit filed Sunday in the case said.
By 12:45 p.m. Sunday, Fort Wayne Police and Indiana State Police had arrested one of the brothers, John D. Miller, 59, of the 13700 block of Main Street in Grabill, on preliminary charges of murder, child molesting and confinement in connection with the Tinsley case.
Miller allegedly confessed to abducting and sexually assaulting Tinsley and then choking her to death to prevent her from reporting him to police, the affidavit said. Miller then reportedly dumped Tinsley’s body in a ditch in the 5000 block of DeKalb County Road 68 near Spencerville.
GENETIC GENEALOGY A PROMISING TOOL
Though Moore couldn’t talk about the Tinsley case in detail because it still is under investigation, she said it is one of several cold cases reportedly solved in the past few months using genetic genealogy research, and she expects more cold cases to be solved in the near future.
Moore’s research has been used to identify suspects in five cold cases, including a 1987 double murder in Washington state.
The same genetic genealogy techniques also can be used with recent cases to narrow down the list of persons of interest to a small group, which will improve police officers’ use of time on investigations, she said.
In addition, genetic genealogy research can help rule out innocent people so they don’t get caught up in police investigations, she added.
HOW IT BEGAN
Moore, who lives in California and operates The DNA Detectives, works as the DNA expert on the public television genealogy show “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.” She also donates her time to help find the biological families of people who were adopted or who don’t know the identity of their parent or parents.
Last Friday, for example, Moore was featured on the ABC News program “20/20” as she helped two adoptees who had been abandoned as newborns and wanted to find their biological mothers.
She first began thinking about the use of genetic genealogy research with criminal cases after Georgia law enforcement officials asked her if she could help them determine the identity of a man suffering from amnesia who had been found there in 2004 and who had been trying for 11 years to find out who he is.
Moore eventually identified the man’s real name and that he was from Lafayette in west-central Indiana, allowing him to reunite with family.
HELPING LAW ENFORCEMENT
Over the years, she received inquiries from law enforcement departments asking if she could help with criminal cases. She always declined, she said, because she didn’t believe it would be right to track down criminals using DNA data that people had uploaded to a family history database without knowing the data was being used by law enforcement agencies.
Her viewpoint changed in April after the arrest of a man suspected of being the Golden State Killer who was wanted for several murders and a string of rapes in California.
News coverage reported extensively that he had been identified by genetic genealogy research using the free, open-source GEDmatch genealogy database, Moore said. The operators of GEDmatch then changed their terms of service to let users know their data could be checked by law enforcement personnel.
THE VALUE OF GEDMATCH
Most of the approximately 1 million people who have uploaded DNA data to GEDmatch are doing family history or adoption research, Moore said. Since they now know their data could be searched for law enforcement purposes and the users can delete their data from GEDmatch if they want, she felt OK about helping police with searches on the database, she said.
GEDmatch is valuable for law enforcement searches because it includes a population of people who typically aren’t in the nation’s law enforcement DNA database, she said. It also includes a wider ethnic cross-section of people, as well as a broader range of people because it includes DNA information that people have uploaded from the major consumer DNA genealogy companies — Ancestry, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage.
As part of getting involved in genetic genealogy research in criminal cases, Moore formed a partnership with Parabon NanoLabs in Reston, Va., she said. The company already had been helping law enforcement by using DNA evidence and analysis to develop sketches of potential suspects in crimes, including one for local police investigating the April Tinsley case.
THE NEXT STEP
After GEDmatch users became aware that law enforcement officials were using the database, Moore said Parabon asked police agencies it had worked with on sketches if it could upload their cases’ DNA data to GEDmatch and see if it produced any leads.
The DNA match results typically come back within about eight hours, she said. Moore then starts her detective work, building family trees and trying to determine where possible suspects were at the time of a murder or crime.
She passes along her findings to law enforcement officials investigating that case, and law enforcement personnel have to confirm a potential suspect’s identity and determine if he or she is a valid suspect, she said.
Today’s DNA technology allows her to track down people through distant cousins, something that wasn’t possible with the older DNA technology police began using in the 1980s, Moore said.
However, the technique may not work for every cold case: In some cases, she said the DNA sample may have been lost or may have degraded to the point it won’t work well for analysis.
Moore said she really appreciated that Fort Wayne-area police allowed her and Parabon to help them with the Tinsley case.
“Being able to help law enforcement give this answer to the Tinsleys is very fulfilling,” she said.
The GEDmatch open, public database of DNA profiles also has been a great asset for people doing family genealogy research, said Sara Allen, a genealogy librarian at the Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center.
The autosomal DNA testing people get done through consumer companies such as Ancestry, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage can help adopted people find their birth family, help others find cousins or family members they weren’t aware of, and determine their ethnic makeup, Allen said.
If you are searching on one of the company DNA databases, you only will find relatives who also got their DNA test done by the same company, she said. Law enforcement can’t freely access those company databases, however.
GEDmatch, which is free and open to anyone who registers, is useful because people can upload DNA profile results from any of the major consumer DNA companies, Allen said. For example, a person who had their test done at one company still can find a match with relatives who used one of the other companies, as long as the relatives also uploaded their DNA profile to GEDmatch.
Noted genetic genealogist CeCe Moore, who presented seminars at the library last October as part of the genealogy center’s Family History Month programs, was one of the pioneers in using GEDmatch to help solve criminal cases, Allen said.
The recent arrest in the Golden State Killer case in California, which law enforcement officials attributed largely to genetic genealogy research, really brought that type of genealogy work into the spotlight.
“As soon as I heard about the Golden State Killer, I thought this April Tinsley case would be a great one to be resolved this way,” Allen said, noting she didn’t realize that would become reality.
Allen said local law enforcement officials haven’t asked the library’s genealogy center to provide any assistance in criminal cases. The closest they came was helping the Allen County Coroner’s office track down the identity of relatives of a man who died here with no known next of kin.
Genetic genealogy research occasionally can turn up some surprises – such as learning the person you believe to be your father actually isn’t, she said. But she normally advises people to use GEDmatch if they are doing family DNA research.
“I didn’t doubt it could be done,” she said of using DNA to make an arrest in the Tinsley case. “I think it will bring a lot of closure to the community.”
The Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center has a DNA and Genealogy Interest Group that meets at 6:30 p.m. on the first Thursday of the month in the genealogy center’s Discovery Center.
The meetings are open people of all experience levels.
For more about the library’s genealogy center, click here.