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Police Use Genealogy Website to Crack 45-Year-Old Cold Murder Case

Linda Ann O'Keefe's family thought they would never find her killer. Decades later, police have arrested a suspect based on DNA match on a public genealogy site.

by Zing Tsjeng
Feb 22 2019, 7:40pm

Photo by Mauro Grigollo via Stocksy

It's been 45 years since the body of Linda Ann O’Keefe was discovered in Newport Beach, California. The 11-year-old had been sexually assaulted, strangled to death, and dumped in a grassy ditch in the Back Bay area. The police struggled to crack the case for decades, but a 72-year-old man has now been arrested for the girl's murder—and it's partly thanks to a genealogy website, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Police apprehended James Alan Neal in Colorado Springs, Colorado this week after they found a match for the killer's DNA on FamilyTreeDNA.com, which allows users to submit DNA samples to search for relatives and ancestors.

"Our investigators used forensic DNA testing and an online genealogy website to identify the suspect’s DNA as being consistent with DNA left at the crime scene," Newport Beach Police Chief John Lewis said in comments reported by the Daily Mail.

A DNA sample was recovered from O'Keefe's body during the investigation, but failed to yield any matches with samples on CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), the DNA database used by the FBI. O'Keefe's family had given up any hope of catching her killer. Her sister Cindy Borgeson was stunned when police told her of the arrest. "I really in my wildest dreams never thought this would be the outcome," she told the LA Times.

O'Keefe's murder isn't the only cold case that has been cracked thanks to public genealogy sites like FamilyTreeDNA.com. In early February, police charged a man named Jerry Arnold Westrom with stabbing a Minneapolis woman to death in 1993. Golden State Killer Joseph DeAngelo was charged with 13 murders in August 2018 after a distant relative posted their DNA on a genealogy site, allowing police to track DeAngelo through his family tree.

CeCe Moore, the chief genealogist at Parabon NanoLabs, a pharmaceutical company that provides police with genetic genealogy services, told the Star Tribune: "Genetic genealogy has incredible power for human identification. It’s revolutionary [for law enforcement]. There’s really no reason for there to be serial killers or serial rapists anymore. We should be able to identify them much more quickly and stop them from victimizing people." Moore estimates that genealogy websites have so far solved 50 or so cold cases in the US.

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But there are privacy concerns about law enforcement using public genealogy websites in order to catch criminals. "It is, of course, a good thing that DeAngelo, the alleged 'Golden State Killer,' was caught," Motherboard editor Jason Koebler writes. "But it should frighten you that police used an open-source genetic database to do it. As we’ve seen with so many other privacy overreaches, law enforcement uses questionable tactics on serial killers, child pornographers, and terrorists and later uses them on petty criminals."

In any case, everyone should think twice about submitting their DNA to a genealogy website unless they are comfortable with the idea of police using it in a criminal investigation. As David Kaye, a lawyer and Pennsylvania State University professor who specializes in forensic science, told the LA Times: “Anybody who uploads DNA thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll discover a long-lost relative,’ is running the risk that the DNA will be used in a police investigation. You also run the risk of finding out that one of your known relatives is a killer.”