Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer

Fact-based journalism is worth fighting for.

Donate
Oct 5, 2019

Catch a killer with your DNA

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Ever since police used genetic genealogy to crack the famous Golden State Killer case, this crime-fighting tool has solved dozens of killings and rapes that had gone cold for decades. Our show looks at the promise and perils of this powerful tool that combines DNA science with genealogy.

We start with the slaying of a young Canadian couple in Washington state. This was the first case after the Golden State Killer to employ genetic genealogy, and the person who identified the suspect walks us through how she did it. 

We then hear a cautionary tale from a man who was misidentified as a murder suspect by an early version of genetic genealogy and discuss the constitutional and privacy issues raised by this technology. 

Despite its power, genetic genealogy finds itself at a crossroads. The technology is heavily dependent on police having access to databases controlled by consumer DNA companies, and there’s a debate going on about how open those sites should be to law enforcement.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: Justice Department announces new interim policy on genetic genealogy
  • Read: “Unsolved Mysteries” story about the case from 1990
  • Read: Man appealing genetic genealogy murder conviction was a violent child, his family told police
  • Read: Trump administration to broadly expand DNA collection of migrants in custody
  • Read: Controversial DNA database bill in Arizona scaled back to patient care professionals only
  • Read: The police want your DNA to prove you’re innocent. Do you give it to them?

Credits

This week’s show was reported and produced by independent journalist Kate McMahon and Reveal’s Emily Harris. It was edited by Taki Telonidis.

We had production help from Najib Aminy and Katherine-Rae Mondo. Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Amy Mostafa. 

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Found, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: Hey, hey, hey before we get started, we have a slight favor to ask. Reveal is conducting our annual audience survey which ... I know, I know, it sounds a little boring ... but really it's important because it helps us serve you better. We want to know what you like about the show, what you don't like, how much of a raise you think I deserve ... big one. You know, important things like that. And listen, here's the even more enticing detail: tote bags.

 

Al Letson: Everyone loves tote bags. Insert the GIF of Oprah Winfrey screaming at the camera, "You get a tote bag, and you get a tote bag," and you, my friend, could possibly get a tote bag. You'll be entered to win one of our latest Reveal tote bags. To get started, just text the word ‘survey’ to (903) 201-2123. Oh, and you can text ‘stop’ at any time. Standard data rates apply. Again, text ‘survey’ to (903) 201-2123.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. In July of 2018, producer Kate McMahon was vacationing with her family in Victoria, British Columbia. One morning, Kate made a discovery that would send her into a year-long reporting journey. So Kate, tell us what happened that morning?

 

Kate McMahon: Well, I was going for a run, and I spotted a herd of deer in some woods across the road. So I decide to follow them to take video with my smartphone for my kids.

 

Kate McMahon: "See? It's a mama, a daddy, and a baby fawn!"

 

Kate McMahon: I realize I'm standing in this cemetery. One grave stone I'm standing over totally gives me chills.

 

Kate McMahon: "Tanya Van Cuylenborg. 1969-1987. She parts her wings and then she's gone."

 

Kate McMahon: She was only 18 years old. I'm wondering, car accident? Drug overdose? And so I take a picture of her grave.

 

Al Letson: Why'd you take a picture?

 

Kate McMahon: It was just a moment of feeling like I wanted to put good thoughts out there for this girl's family, whoever they were.

 

Kate McMahon: And then something mind-blowing happens later that night. I show my husband the photo, and he says, "I know that name." I don't believe him. We are in a foreign country and I had followed deer into a random cemetery. So I go online and find out he's actually right. Tanya's name had been in the news that week, and I find out how she died. She and her boyfriend had been murdered 31 years before, and no one had been arrested until now.

 

Al Letson: So what happened to them?

 

Kate McMahon: Well, I'm going to take us back to the beginning.

 

Kate McMahon: It's November 18th, 1987, and this young Canadian couple, Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook are taking their first big trip together alone. It's a short trip; just one night away from home. They're on an errand for Jay's dad, who needs them to buy a furnace part in Seattle. I recently retraced their steps.

 

Kate McMahon: They board the ferry in Victoria Harbor in Jay's van and head to Port Angeles. But Tanya and Jay never make it to Seattle.

 

John Van Cuylen: They left on a Wednesday, and they were to return, basically, by midday on Thursday was the expectation. When they didn't return on Thursday, my parents were of the firm view that there was something wrong.

 

Kate McMahon: That's Tanya's big brother, John Van Cuylenborg. Meeting him for the first time, it strikes me that if Tanya had lived, she might have grown into certain traits like John: courteous, gentle, dutiful. I notice a weariness in his eyes, though, and he fidgets with a water bottle as we talk.

 

Kate McMahon: John tells me that six days after the couple went missing, the police called his family's home. They had found the body of a girl in a rural area just north of Seattle.

 

John Van Cuylen: And then my father and I had to identify her, which, unfortunately, it was Tanya, so that was ... that was the very dark day.

 

Kate McMahon: What I'm about to describe is pretty gruesome.

 

Kate McMahon: The killer had shot Tanya in the back of the head, execution-style. A stranger's semen is found on her pants and in her body. Jay's van is found the next day, and his body the day after that, about 70 miles away from Tanya, in another rural area. Jay's head had been beaten, he'd been strangled, a pack of cigarettes stuffed into his mouth.

 

John Van Cuylen: There were just so many questions. No answers. The police couldn't give us any answers. They didn't know what the heck had happened. So you just had to ... I mean, you just kind of ... You know, I think in the short term you just kind of gave up.

 

Kate McMahon: The funeral takes place at the University of Victoria Chapel. There's standing room only.

 

John Van Cuylen: It was a huge attendance, as often happens when young people die.

 

Kate McMahon: I asked John about the epitaph on Tanya's grave that says, "She parts her wings and then she's gone."

 

John Van Cuylen: That was a line she'd written in some of her own poetry, and it obviously struck my dad as being oddly eerie, in one sense, of her having left us too soon like that.

 

Kate McMahon: The case remains unsolved for the next few years. In 1990, it's featured in an episode of America's Unsolved Mysteries.

 

Robert Stack: Next, the story of an innocent young couple whose romantic weekend was shattered by a sadistic and elusive killer.

 

Kate McMahon: The show interviews a Seattle police detective at the time who says surgical gloves were left behind by the killer.

 

Speaker 6: He leaves those behind as basically a sign to the police that, "You needn't look for fingerprints because I wore these gloves," and he has confidence that there's nothing that's going to connect him with these crimes.

 

Kate McMahon: The story generates no viable leads. Years peel by. The family still have no answers from police.

 

Kate McMahon: Then, new hope. DNA is taking the place of the fingerprint as law enforcement's most cutting-edge tool. In 1994, the FBI creates a DNA database called CODIS. It contains genetic profiles of people who've been arrested or convicted of crimes. Police can compare DNA they recover from crime scenes with this database to identify suspects.

 

Kate McMahon: In Tanya and Jay's case, police check CODIS periodically, but never find a match. The case goes cold ... until 2005. Detective Jim Scharf of the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office comes on the scene.

 

Det. Jim Scharf: This is where we book all of the evidence in.

 

Kate McMahon: I meet Detective Scharf at the evidence room in Everett, Washington.

 

Det. Jim Scharf: Package it here, log it into this computer.

 

Kate McMahon: And he likes to go by ‘Jim’. He shows me the process of booking evidence using a roll of tape as an example.

 

Det. Jim Scharf: So, we're going to book this into evidence, so we're going to take it and we put it in a sack.

 

Kate McMahon: Jim seals up the sack, writes his initials on it, and sticks it in a locker. I'm struck by how ... I don't know ... analog it all seems.

 

Det. Jim Scharf: And then shut it.

 

Kate McMahon: Jim has a neatly-trimmed gray mustache, and his eyes are soft in the corners. When I ask him about restaurants in Everett, he tells me he usually just goes to Arby's. I glimpse a pistol under his jacket when he sits down.

 

Det. Jim Scharf: I was a major crimes detective and we were just getting ready to start the cold case team.

 

Kate McMahon: Jim re-opened Tanya and Jay's cold case, and for more than a decade, he followed all kinds of leads, but like the detective before him, never found a DNA match in CODIS. Then, in 2017, he hears about a new way to use DNA to identify people.

 

Speaker 8: Investigators say they were able to create these sketches of a possible suspect using DNA phenotyping.

 

Kate McMahon: Phenotyping is this revolutionary new forensics technology. It takes DNA from a unknown person and creates a computer drawing of what they look like.

 

Det. Jim Scharf: It provided information of the person's hair color, eye color, complexion.

 

Kate McMahon: The DNA found on Tanya generates three faces of a white man. First, as he appears at age 25, with reddish-brown hair. Then, 45, and 65. He has deep facial lines and is going gray. To Detective Scharf, it's like staring the killer in the eye for the very first time.

 

Kate McMahon: The phenotype helps. Scharf is able to vastly shrink the haystack of suspects by ruling out people who don't look like the sketch. But still, no DNA match.

 

Kate McMahon: Then, in April 2018, news from California changes everything in the world of DNA and crime-solving.

 

Speaker 9: Tonight, a four-decade-old search for one of history's most infamous serial killers may be over.

 

Speaker 10: We found the needle in the haystack.

 

Speaker 9: Police, announcing the capture of 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo, a man they say is the elusive Golden State Killer.

 

Det. Jim Scharf: I'm like, "Who's the Golden State Killer? I've never even heard of this guy."

 

Speaker 10: Scharf goes online and learns he's a serial killer and rapist who victimized more than 60 people in the '70s and '80s in Northern California. The alleged Golden State Killer was found with a mind-blowing new forensics technique called ‘genetic genealogy’.

 

CeCe Moore: Genetic genealogy is using DNA to learn more about someone's family history and family tree.

 

Speaker 10: That's CeCe Moore. She's one of the top genetic genealogists in the world. She even appears as the DNA expert on the hit PBS television series ‘Finding Your Roots’ with Henry Louis Gates Jr.

 

Henry Louis Gat: She's a detective with skills that would put Sherlock Holmes to shame.

 

Speaker 10: In addition to helping people trace their ancestors, CeCe uses genetic genealogy to find the living ... usually adoptees searching for their birth parents.

 

CeCe Moore: For any type of human identification, there really isn't anything more powerful than DNA and genetic genealogy.

 

Speaker 10: There are two main reasons genetic genealogy is so powerful: first, because it reaches far beyond the FBI's CODIS database of convicts and people who've been arrested; and second, it incorporates much more genetic data. It's really complicated, but here's the gist of it:

 

Speaker 10: Law enforcement uses CODIS to analyze 20 genetic markers. Genetic genealogy analyzes about 800,000. It can identify very distant relatives and ancestors from generations ago. It casts a really wide net, but only works if it can access a lot of DNA profiles.

 

Speaker 10: By 2018, more than 25 million consumers had added their DNA to the leading ancestry databases, but those companies ... like 23andMe and Ancestry.com ... keep each other locked out of their customers' data. Police are locked out, too, unless they get a court order. So what was the key in the Golden State Killer case? Well, there's this website called GEDmatch. It allows people who get their DNA tested by one company to compare their genetic profile with customers who used other companies. It's sort of like a DNA swap meet. And it's open access to the public.

 

CeCe Moore: If you test at 23andMe, I was at AncestryDNA, and we wanted to see if we shared DNA, we could both upload to GEDmatch without having to pay for another test.

 

Speaker 10: Typically, only serious genealogists use GEDmatch, but in the case of the Golden State Killer, the cops got in and were able to access about a million users' genetic profiles.

 

Speaker 13: Investigators found DeAngelo using DNA from crime scenes decades ago, which they submitted to a publicly-shared genealogy website called GEDmatch.

 

Speaker 10: It worked so well that GEDmatch decided to make clear that law enforcement can search it.

 

CeCe Moore: And they put a big notification on the home page of GEDmatch that said, "Law enforcement used the database; we're allowing that use."

 

Speaker 10: That's when CeCe, and a company called Parabon NanoLabs saw an opportunity and decided to team up. Parabon made the computer drawings of the suspect's face for Detective Scharf. He remembers getting a call from the CEO soon after the Golden State Killer arrest.

 

Det. Jim Scharf: And he said, "Well, if you give me written permission, I'll upload our DNA profile to GEDmatch for you for free."

 

Speaker 10: In other words, Parabon was offering to plug the DNA file from Tanya's crime scene into GEDmatch to try and find a relative of the killer.

 

CeCe Moore: So it was uploaded on, I think, a Friday, and I waited, no matches, no matches. Saturday morning I woke up and there were matches, and I got to work on it.

 

Speaker 10: The GEDmatch algorithm points her to people who share DNA with the unknown suspect. Then the family tree building comes in. I wanted to understand what it looks like, so I asked CeCe to show me.

 

Speaker 10: We're in her living room with a view of the Pacific Ocean. She settles into her work place ... the sofa ... and opens up her laptop. I see graphics pop up of a family tree with people represented in pink and blue blocks.

 

CeCe Moore: And all 800,000 genetic markers were compared to everyone else's genetic markers in the database. Then we get a list of people that share significant amounts of DNA with that unknown suspect.

 

Speaker 10: She tells me the top two matches share about 3% of their DNA with the unknown suspect.

 

CeCe Moore: Which would mean that they're second cousins or similar. So that means that my first theory is they share great-grandparents with the suspect. So I have to figure out who these matches are, because sometimes it's not obvious.

 

Speaker 10: But in Tanya and Jay's case, CeCe's very first one that could lead to an arrest, the answer comes quickly. In just two hours, she finds the suspect that had eluded police for more than three decades. She shows me the path she took through the family tree. From those second cousins, she finds a family with four children. One is a son.

 

CeCe Moore: The DNA is pointing to this one person, and this is the only other option. So by Monday, we communicated that to Detective Scharf.

 

Speaker 10: Jim is out walking his little black pug dogs when he gets a message from the CEO of Parabon to tall him. He's got good news.

 

Det. Jim Scharf: And I'm like, "Well what's the good news?" And he says, "Well, Jim, I've got a name for you." I don't think I can believe this. "You've got a name for me?" And he goes, "Yep. We've narrowed it down to one individual. They found his mother's obituary, and the obituary said that she had three daughters and only one son. So it has to be that son." I said, "Can you give me the name?" and he said, "It's William Earl Talbott II."

 

Speaker 10: Jim runs Talbott's name through public records, finds out where he lives and works. But before he can make an arrest, Scharf has to prove Talbott is the exact match to the crime scene DNA. He needs to get a saliva sample from him.

 

Det. Jim Scharf: Well if you can get a cigarette butt or a coffee cup or a soda bottle or something that's been in the person's mouth that has their saliva on it, that's a much better source of DNA to know that it's a reliable source.

 

Speaker 10: What happens next might sound like a cop show on TV. For several days, Jim's team of detectives follow Talbott, scout his work place ... a trucking company ... lurk outside his house. Then, while tailing him through Seattle, they get a breakthrough.

 

Det. Jim Scharf: And he drove up to the stop light at Spokane Street and stopped, and for some reason, he opened the door of the semi truck, and when he did that, somebody spotted a white paper cup on the street underneath the door. And they're like, "Hey, I think that fell out of his truck."

 

Speaker 10: One of the cops dashes out in the middle of traffic and grabs the cup in the street. Now Scharf has something he can work with. He takes the cup to the state patrol crime lab, and returns the next day to hear the results from the DNA supervisor.

 

Det. Jim Scharf: She says, "Jim, you have a match." So I fight back the tears, and I just screamed, "We got him!"

 

Speaker 10: The plan for the arrest is set. It goes down in the yard of the trucking company after Talbott gets off work. Detective Scharf is waiting outside in plainclothes. There are undercover agents hiding in black ski masks and SWAT gear as backup.

 

Speaker 10: At about 6:00 p.m., Talbott walks out.

 

Det. Jim Scharf: And I said, "Are you William Talbott?" He said, "Yes." I said, "I'm Jim Scharf. I'm a detective with the sheriff's office." I reach out, he reaches out, I shake hands with him.

 

Speaker 10: Jim explains he's investigating a homicide case and needs to rule out suspects. He tells Talbott he's one of many people on the list.

 

Det. Jim Scharf: He says, "Why don't you come back tomorrow? Or the next day?" And I said, "Well, we've come a long way. Can you give me your drivers license so I can check and see your ID to verify it's you?" And he says, "I told you who I am." So I could see that he was not going to cooperate.

 

Det. Jim Scharf: I said, "Okay, you're under arrest. Turn around and put your hands behind your back." And he says, "What for?" I said, "For first-degree murder."

 

Speaker 10: Jim arrests Talbott. He'd finally cracked the unsolved murder of Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook that had haunted their families for decades. He calls Tanya's brother John.

 

John Van Cuylen: So, yeah, I remember he told me that, "Yeah, we've arrested him, John," and I said, "Really?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "Well, where is he?" He says, "In the backseat," and I'm like [inaudible] So all of a sudden, after 31 years, here's Jim, this great guy, and he's telling me he's in the same vehicle as this guy at this point, and I remember a chill went down my spine. I was just like ... It was just a real moment of realization, like, "Holy cow. There's actually, this is really, really concrete," and yeah, it was fantastic.

 

Al Letson: So, after three decades, police arrest a suspect in a murder case that had seemed unsolvable. For Tanya and Jay's family members, and for police, genetic genealogy seems like the greatest invention ever for solving crime.

 

Al Letson: But some people worry that this powerful tool could be turned into a weapon.

 

Michael Usry: Wouldn't it be terrible if our DNA information was used to persecute and prosecute people that didn't agree with them politically.

 

Al Letson: You're listening to Reveal.

 

Byard Duncan: Hey, Byard Duncan here, Reveal's engagement reporter. I want to invite you to be part of a group that's core to what we do: the Reveal Insiders. When we have something big or new that we're working on, we sometimes turn to the Reveal Insiders to get feedback. It's simple to participate, and it's a tangible way to support us. To sign up, just text the word ‘insider’ to (903) 201-2123. You can text ‘stop’ at any time, and standard rates apply. Again, text ‘insider’ to (903) 201-2123. Thanks.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: We're on the trail of a killer today. On May 18th, 2018, one day after Detective Jim Scharf cornered William Talbott at work, his boss, the sheriff, calls a news conference to announce the arrest.

 

Sheriff: Good morning and thank you all for being here. Yesterday we took into custody a 55-year-old SeaTac man who is suspected of the 1987 murders of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg.

 

Al Letson: Detective Scharf then steps to the podium to explain how they used genetic genealogy to identify Talbott as a suspect.

 

Det. Jim Scharf: If it hadn't been for genetic genealogy, we wouldn't be standing here today, and if ti's not allowed to be used in law enforcement, we would have never solved this case.

 

Al Letson: Right after Talbott's arrest, police around the country start using genetic genealogy and making arrests.

 

Speaker 17: For three decades, the death of eight-year-old April Tinsley has baffled Indiana investigators. But this morning, police believe they finally solved the murder mystery.

 

Al Letson: From the day police picked up Talbott to a year later, genetic genealogy cracked more than 50 cases of murder and rape. That's a rate of more than one a week.

 

Speaker 18: Police say they did it using genetic genealogy. The company ran the then-unknown DNA profile through a public database, and there was a partial match.

 

Speaker 19: I hope it sends the message that obviously we're not going to quick on these cases.

 

Speaker 20: My hope is that it brings hope to other families that haven't had a resolve yet.

 

Al Letson: Most are cold cases, years old, but some just a few months. Genetic genealogist CeCe Moore, who helped finger William Talbott, is convinced her work with police is not just solving crimes, it's preventing them.

 

CeCe Moore: I've worked cases that were three months old, that have a really high chance of re-offending, and even escalating. And I'm sure there are people that were potentially serial killers that have been or will be stopped because of this.

 

Al Letson: But even as police crack cases faster than they ever thought possible, some people warn genetic genealogy is moving too fast, giving law enforcement too much access to personal information, and it needs to be reigned in now.

 

Al Letson: Reveal's Emily Harris has been working with reporter Kate McMahon on today's show, and Emily picks up this part of the story.

 

Emily Harris: One person who believes genetic genealogy needs to be reigned in is this man.

 

Michael Usry: My name is Michael Usry. I live here in New Orleans, and I work in the film industry down here.

 

Emily Harris: It's Sunday morning. I reach Michael on the phone as he's sitting in a small office in his house. He tells me about an encounter he had with a precursor of genetic genealogy back in 2014. He was visiting his parents a few hours out of town—

 

Michael Usry: And I got a call from the police down here in New Orleans who told me my vehicle matched the description of a hit-and-run.

 

Emily Harris: He knew he wasn't involved. He told the police he'd be happy to chat; he could meet them at his house around 2:00 that afternoon.

 

Michael Usry: I pulled up at exactly 2:00, and at 2:01 three officers were at my door. And I have a big 90-pound Labradoodle, and he likes to bark at people at the door, so he was all excited when they came in, and within about 30 seconds to a minute, they were asking me if I would mind going down to the station to talk to them.

 

Emily Harris: Michael still has his Labradoodle, Bobo.

 

Michael Usry: You want to go outside? Come on!

 

Emily Harris: And as he left Bobo that day five years ago, getting into the backseat of the police car, Michael asked one of the officers if they really wanted to talk about a hit-and-run.

 

Michael Usry: And at that point, he said, "Well actually we'd like to talk to you about some other things, too."

 

Emily Harris: Just one other thing, it turned out: a murder. A young woman named Angie Dodge had been raped and stabbed multiple times in 1996 in Idaho. Michael had visited Idaho in the mid-1990s ... his sisters had gone to college there ... and he'd co-produced a short film about people who get obsessed with killers. It's called Murderabilia.

 

Speaker 22: Tell me what you remember. Start when you entered the trailer and follow through until you left.

 

Emily Harris: It's made up. It's a fictional film. But parts of it are pretty gruesome, and one killing described in it resembles what happened to Angie.

 

Speaker 23: And I was shoving her and blocking her from the door and stabbing at her. Little nips, like [inaudible]

 

Michael Usry: This is one of the things that the police saw online when they were researching me. They said, "Look at this. He makes short films about men sneaking into houses and murdering young girls."

 

Emily Harris: How and when did they get a sample of your DNA?

 

Michael Usry: Probably two to three hours maybe into it, in walks what turns out to be a Louisiana State Police, and he was a very large man ... it seemed like, at the time, he was seven feet tall and 400 pounds. He had a mouth swab, two latex gloves, and he was walking directly towards me right from the door. And he's like, "We're going to take your DNA now," and I backed up and I went, "Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. What is this? This is crazy. Should I get a lawyer?" And he said, "Well, do you see this warrant? That means that you have to give your DNA to us right now."

 

Emily Harris: What the officer said was true. Like with any search warrant, a judge can sign an order giving police the right to collect your DNA if police can explain to that judge why you're a suspect.

 

Emily Harris: Idaho police had zeroed in on Michael after trying something they'd never done before: putting crime scene DNA collected from Angie's murder through a genealogical database. Michael says his dad gave a DNA sample to that database more than a decade ago. The nonprofit organization that owned the database had visited the Mormon church Michael's dad went to, asking people to take part.

 

Michael Usry: The Mormon faith puts a lot of stock into genealogy because of religious purposes.

 

Emily Harris: Mormons believe in identifying dead ancestors who were not members of the church, and baptizing them so the whole family can be together in the afterlife.

 

Emily Harris: Years after Michaels' father gave his sample, that genealogical database was sold to Ancestry.com. Idaho police searched it using a DNA analysis that's less exact than what's used today. They found a close match. Then they got a warrant to make Ancestry give them the name. It was Michael's dad. They researched the family, and honed in on Michael because of his movie and his friends in Idaho.

 

Michael Usry: Basically, my father participated in a DNA sample collection, and 15 years later I am being pulled in as a suspect in a murder.

 

Natalie Ram: What struck me about the Usry case was that this was using a non-law enforcement database, and that struck me as quite noteworthy.

 

Emily Harris: Natalie Ram teaches law at the University of Maryland, and she learned about Michael's story in 2015. This was the first known time police had searched a genealogy database instead of the usual criminal databases created for police.

 

Emily Harris: Those law enforcement databases may have problems, Natalie say, but at least they have supervision. State labs have to follow specific procedures. Database searches might be limited to certain crimes. And the criminal database, CODIS, holds on DNA profiles of people who've been arrested or convicted. So, by law, they've already lost some privacy rights.

 

Natalie Ram: By contrast, the consumer genetic databases are comprised primarily of people who have decided they're interested in learning more about their DNA, what it can tell them about their ancestral origins, what it might tell them about their future genetic medical risks, et cetera.

 

Emily Harris: Pretty personal stuff. So personal, says Natalie, that consumer DNA databases need oversight, laws about when and how police can use them. In her view, it goes back to the basics of the Constitution.

 

Natalie Ram: We have a balance in values between privacy and crime-solving, between liberty and crime-solving. After all, law enforcement could solve lots more crimes if they were able to enter anyone's home at any time just because they wanted to. We don't allow that.

 

Emily Harris: When privacy activists first heard Michael Usry's story in 2015, the criticism was quick and severe. Tough enough that Ancestry.com cut off public access to the database where police had found his father. Natalie says that was the right move, but people working in genetic genealogy say that's wrong; consumer DNA databases should be easily available to police.

 

Emily Harris: I decided to visit Parabon, the company that's built a business off genetic genealogy.

 

Emily Harris: Oh, it's nice in here. It's so hot already.

 

Steve Armentrou: Welcome to D.C., right?

 

Emily Harris: Right.

 

Emily Harris: CEO Steve Armentrout shows me around headquarters. It's just desks and computers in a bland office building in the D.C. suburbs. They outsource all their lab work. My eye catches some small iridescent pieces of plastic on display.

 

Emily Harris: Wait, what are these?

 

Steve Armentrou: So those are micro ray scanner chips.

 

Emily Harris: What's actually on them?

 

Steve Armentrou: DNA gets washed over these chips. They have probes—

 

Emily Harris: DNA sticks to the probes and a computer analyzes it.

 

Emily Harris: So it's like the piece of the DNA that you're reading?

 

Steve Armentrou: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Emily Harris: Okay. So whose DNA is that?

 

Steve Armentrou: I don't know. These are expensive chips that our partner lab gave us.

 

Emily Harris: Somebody's DNA turned into art for display.

 

Emily Harris: When we sit down in his office to talk, Steve argues that police using genetic genealogy to find a suspect is just like looking for clues on Facebook. "What if a cop," he says, "finds a photo of a suspect with his arm around a victim? And he didn't post it, his aunt did."

 

Steve Armentrou: He didn't give his aunt permission to do that, but she's made an association. Those associations are all around us. DNA is another one. And police use all of those associations all the time when they're doing an investigation. That's sort of the heart of what they do. So I don't see that this is a lot different than photographs on Facebook.

 

Emily Harris: The right to privacy can depend on what choices you make, on Facebook or with your DNA. Steve points out that when you send in a spit sample or you share your DNA profile on a commercial website to look for relatives, you're agreeing to the terms of service.

 

Steve Armentrou: As long as people are voluntarily allowing their DNA to be searched, I just don't see where the privacy concerns arise.

 

Emily Harris: I asked Natalie about that argument. She says that voluntarily sharing your DNA profile is different. "It's true," she says, "the person sending in their own sample may be fine with police sifting through their genetic connections."

 

Natalie Ram: But it's fundamentally untrue with respect to their genetic relatives, who may have never used one of these consumer genetic services, would never want to, and are being implicitly made findable through this database through no voluntary conduct of their own.

 

Emily Harris: People like Michael Usry. After police swabbed his cheek in the interrogation room, they took him home.

 

Michael Usry: They dropped me back on my sidewalk and that was it. I didn't hear anything from them, and on the 33rd day they sent me an email that said, "Hey, Mr. Usry. Your DNA did not match the sample from the crime scene, something you already knew. Sorry for the inconvenience. Your DNA will not be used for any other testing purposes. Thank you, have a nice day."

 

Emily Harris: But he knows his DNA was kept and looked at again.

 

Michael Usry: And I know that because a year-and-a-half ago, the Idaho Falls Police Department sent my sample to this company called Parabon Labs.

 

Emily Harris: Idaho police were still looking for Angie's killer. Last summer, they turned to Parabon and genetic genealogy. CeCe Moore, Parabon's chief genetic genealogist, used the genealogy websites GEDmatch to find the man whose DNA was at the murder scene. That man confessed. He's now in prison.

 

Emily Harris: Michael Usry is not, but the experience has made him wish he could keep his DNA private.

 

Michael Usry: This information could be used for a lot of different purposes. Wouldn't it be terrible if our DNA information was used to persecute and prosecute people that didn't agree with them politically? We all think that things like that couldn't happen, and yet ... We will see.

 

Emily Harris: It's impossible to know where DNA technology will take us. Hollywood had some ideas.

 

Speaker 26: They are going to find me.

 

Speaker 27: But in a place where any cell from any part of your body can betray you, how do you hide? Welcome to Gattaca.

 

Emily Harris: But in real life, here are some signs of where we already are. The Trump administration has just announced they're working on plans to take DNA samples from detained migrants and enter them into CODIS, vastly expanding the database, and using it to enforce immigration law. They say this complies with a 2005 law. Until now, the Department of Justice had a carve out for border police.

 

Emily Harris: And last month, North Dakota prosecutors filed felony conspiracy charges against a man who protested the Dakota Access Pipeline three years ago. They found his DNA on a cigarette butt at the scene, and tracked him down because of a past arrest.

 

Emily Harris: Then there's China, where the government is rounding up a Muslim minority called ‘the Uyghurs’.

 

Speaker 28: Senator, that's a remarkable number. A million Chinese Muslims in camps because the Chinese government cracks down on them because of their religion. Why ... A, is that true, and B, why don't we hear more about it?

 

Speaker 29: It's absolutely true. They're collecting the DNA of these individuals, by the way, as well ... forcefully ... and they're using potentially American technology to do it.

 

Emily Harris: Concerns about police use of DNA have even been raised in the Supreme Court. Six years ago, the court considered whether it was okay for police to take DNA samples from people who are arrested but not convicted. The now late Justice Antonin Scalia argued against that.

 

Antonin Scalia: This will solve some extra crimes, to be sure. But so would taking your DNA whenever you fly on an airplane. Surely the TSA must know the identity of the flying public. For that matter, so would taking your children's DNA when they start public school.

 

Emily Harris: Scalia lost the argument. The court ruled that police can collect DNA if you're arrested.

 

Emily Harris: Michael Usry was never arrested. He was only a suspect in the murder of Angie Dodge. But he was so freaked out by his experience with the police he decided to learn as much as he could about genetic genealogy, and about the Idaho killing. Along the way, he got drawn into details about Angie ... her death and her life.

 

Emily Harris: She was the youngest of four children, a year out of high school when she was killed. An online tribute her family posted remembers how, as a teenager, Angie would drive with one hand on the wheel and one foot out the window.

 

Emily Harris: Michael's now friends with Angie's mom, Carol.

 

Michael Usry: Carol always referred to Angie as her angel, her little angel.

 

Emily Harris: The man who killed Angie, Brian Dripps, lived across the street from her in a small bungalow with a wide front porch. And police questioned him, along with other neighbors, after the murder, but they couldn't connect him to the crime until they tried genetic genealogy two decades later. This makes Michael feel torn.

 

Michael Usry: Do I want murderers and rapists to be caught and prosecuted? Yes, of course I do.

 

Emily Harris: But he's also told Angie's mom about his fears.

 

Michael Usry: And I said, "Carol, you know, I have to say I'm kind of opposed to this technology. It just scares me to think about the world that we are going towards with this."

 

Al Letson: In both Michael Usry's case and in the murders of Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook, police normally only get access to these DNA databases if private companies are willing to share them with law enforcement. So what happens when those private companies change their minds? That's next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: Today, we're looking at genetic genealogy, a new crime-fighting tool that police are using to solve cases that had gone cold for decades. The first wast he Golden State Killer. Since that arrest 18 months ago, police use this technique to find suspects in dozens of violent crimes around the country. Some of those suspects had died already. A handful pled guilty and went straight to prison. But in the case of Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook that we heard about at the beginning of the show, the accused killer pled not guilty, and William Talbott became the first criminal suspect identified by genetic genealogy to face trial. Reveal's Emily Harris watched it unfold in a courtroom in Everett, Washington a few months ago. And just a heads up, this story has some graphic details.

 

Speaker 31: All rise [inaudible] court is now in session.

 

Emily Harris: William Talbott's murder trial opens on a mild June morning, a Friday. Friends and family of the victims and reporters fill the public viewing area of the no-frills courtroom.

 

Speaker 31: All rise from the jury.

 

Emily Harris: Jurors take seats in two rows along one wall. From there they can easily see the judge, the prosecutor, and the alleged murderer. Talbott has been in custody for more than a year. "He hardly moves," says prosecutor Justin Harleman, lays out the case against him, centered on his DNA.

 

Speaker 32: The evidence in this case will show you that there is only one reasonably possible perpetrator, and that person is William Talbott II.

 

Emily Harris: Talbott's defense lawyers never contest that his DNA matched the semen samples recovered from clothing in Jay's van and Tanya's body, but public defender Rachel Forde tells the jurors that that doesn't prove anything. Except that he and Tanya had sex.

 

Rachel Forde: They never stop to consider that perhaps the person who left the DNA was not a murderer. If we were talking about DNA obtained from a murder weapon, or even DNA obtained from the blanket that was wrapped around Jay's body, there might be a better, stronger inference that that DNA was related to the killer.

 

Emily Harris: The defense never offers jurors a full alternate story. They don't have to. Prosecutors have to prove their case. But as I listen in court, I wonder, "Okay, what really happened?" So later, in an interview in Rachel's office, I ask.

 

Rachel Forde: I mean, who knows? 30 years ago, if someone lived a lifestyle where they frequently had one-night stands with people that they never met again, how would you ever be able to come up with a story about how you met someone that was completely insignificant in the trajectory of your life?

 

Emily Harris: Is that what happened? Was that his lifestyle then?

 

Rachel Forde: We don't really know. I mean, again, this is all part of the picture that was impossible to recreate. We leave our DNA everywhere every day.

 

Emily Harris: The trial lasts three weeks. The jury deliberates three days.

 

Speaker 34: We, the jury, find the defendant, William Earl Talbott II, guilty of the crime of first-degree murder as charged in count one.

 

Emily Harris: Talbott slumps down at the verdict, and whispers:

 

William Talbott: I didn't do it.

 

Emily Harris: "I didn't do it."

 

Emily Harris: In the end, this jury appeared to accept a positive identification of the DNA as a positive identification of the killer. Tanya and Jay's family and friends were thrilled with the verdict. It seemed to seal genetic genealogy's power at uncovering criminals. Talbott's defense team never tried to discredit it in court.

 

Emily Harris: I wanted to know where CeCe Moore, who worked on this case and many others, thinks genetic genealogy is heading now. A few weeks after the trial, my reporting partner Kate McMahon catches up with CeCe at a law enforcement conference in Portland, Oregon.

 

CeCe Moore: Good afternoon, everyone. How are you?

 

Kate McMahon: I'm in a brown and gold ballroom at a Red Lion hotel. CeCe is standing in front of the room with a PowerPoint deck projected on a screen behind her.

 

CeCe Moore: Well, it's always wonderful to be here in the Pacific Northwest—

 

Kate McMahon: The room is filled with cops and forensic scientists, and ... noteworthy ... a murder mystery writer, all seated classroom-style, wanting to learn trade secrets from CeCe.

 

CeCe Moore: So this is a turning point for crime solving in America, and I think we've seen that over the last 15 months very clearly.

 

Kate McMahon: I came to this conference thinking I would find a crowd of detectives eager to join the ranks of CeCe Moore, but that wasn't all I found. There was also uncertainty. It turns out that along with all its wins, genetic genealogy has hit some shaky ground. It started with a case of aggravated assault in Centerville, Utah late last year.

 

Speaker 36: A crime—

 

Speaker 37: It boggles the mind.

 

Speaker 36: That even police can't comprehend.

 

Speaker 37: Why would somebody attack an innocent 71-year-old female in a church playing the organ?

 

Kate McMahon: Police were anxious to find the attacker, so they reached out to the owners of GEDmatch. Remember, GEDmatch is the genealogy website where people can compare DNA profiles from different companies. But GEDmatch's terms of service said police could only search the database in cases of rape and murder. Utah police asked for an exception. GEDmatch agreed.

 

Kate McMahon: But the database owners didn't tell their customers they had changed the rules. That created a backlash within the genetic genealogy community. So GEDmatch changed their policy again, this time swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction. It completely cut off access to police unless customers specifically opted in. Overnight, law enforcement lost access to all one million or so genetic profiles on GEDmatch. Since then, people have started opting back in. CeCe explains the current status to her class.

 

CeCe Moore: So we only have about 100,000 profiles to compare against now, which is a huge blow, obviously. But it doesn't mean that cases are unworkable, it's just a lot harder.

 

Kate McMahon: After CeCe's talk, I want to know what police think about all this.

 

Kate McMahon: Are you also in law enforcement?

 

Jack Anderson: Yes.

 

Kate McMahon: Would you mind ...

 

Kate McMahon: Jack Anderson is a detective in Oregon. He tells me police need to be careful about how they use genetic genealogy so they don't lose it.

 

Jack Anderson: I think once we start using some ... maybe legal, but not necessarily savory techniques to get information in there, I think that's when we're going to start having problems.

 

Kate McMahon: What comes to mind as an example?

 

Jack Anderson: I'm not really a fan of the submitting the anonymous profiles for that individual site.

 

Kate McMahon: So, that would be like crime scene DNA is put up onto Ancestry, but it's not disclosed that it's law enforcement that posted it there.

 

Jack Anderson: Yes.

 

Kate McMahon: I see. That can be done?

 

Jack Anderson: I have no idea. But I guarantee you if it's possible, somebody is trying to do it.

 

Kate McMahon: In fact, something like this has been done. In the very first case using genetic genealogy to catch a killer ... the alleged Golden State Killer ... investigators created an alias to not reveal themselves as law enforcement. Then they uploaded crime scene DNA into a genealogy site and found a relative.

 

Jack Anderson: It's a mistake or two away from a overzealous agency before they decide that they're not open to law enforcement anyway.

 

Kate McMahon: One person who'd like to see genetic genealogy taken away from police is a Maryland legislator named Charles Sydnor.

 

Charles Sydnor: We need to pump our brakes and look at what's going on.

 

Kate McMahon: Charles believes it's wrong for innocent people to be scrutinized by police for no other reason than sharing DNA found at a crime scene.

 

Charles Sydnor: There's no suspicion that law enforcement should have about us, yet we are now caught in this DNA dragnet. It's almost as if we have turned the whole concept of innocent until proven guilty on its head.

 

Kate McMahon: In fact, he's so against it he wouldn't even want to let it help his own family.

 

Charles Sydnor: My cousin, he was shot and killed in Baltimore, and to this day I don't think the case has been resolved.

 

Kate McMahon: And you wouldn't want to find out by going through GEDmatch and letting the police come through other people's DNA?

 

Charles Sydnor: No. No. There's too much constitutional collateral damage.

 

Kate McMahon: Charles is mistrustful of CODIS, the national criminal DNA database, because it holds a disproportionate number of minorities' DNA, and he points to police overreach as why they should not have access to the much more powerful consumer DNA databases.

 

Charles Sydnor: When they're looking into my DNA, they're looking at my parents, they're looking at my children.

 

Kate McMahon: This past year, he tried to get a bill through the Maryland legislature to ban police searches in these databases, but the bill failed.

 

Kate McMahon: Without state or federal rules to regulate when police are allowed to access these databases, and when they're not, it's been pretty much a free-for-all, with individual companies having the biggest say. As we heard, GEDmatch decided to restrict access, but another company ... FamilyTreeDNA ... is marketing itself as the DNA service people should use to help catch killers.

 

Speaker 40: There is more DNA available at crime scenes than any other evidence. If you are one of the millions of people who have taken a DNA test, your help can provide the missing link.

 

Kate McMahon: Now, for the first time, the federal government is stepping in. The justice department has announced an interim policy on genetic genealogy, to be finalized next year. It says, for example, that genetic genealogy can't be a shortcut for cops; they need to try other investigative tools first. And it says DNA samples used in genetic genealogy must have a clear connection to the crime. It can't just be any DNA found at the crime scene.

 

Kate McMahon: Parabon calls the new policy ‘well-reasoned and well-researched; nothing that would slow or stop business’. Even professor Natalie Ram, who advised Charles Sydnor, likes parts of it.

 

Natalie Ram: If forensic genetic genealogy is here and here to stay, then this policy is a very first good cut at what a policy should look like.

 

Kate McMahon: But she doesn't like that private companies still get to define what crimes police can use this for, and she's against a new power this gives to local prosecutors. They can use genetic genealogy to investigate any attempt at violent crime, not just rape or murder.

 

Kate McMahon: The policy also doesn't address her central concern about the constitutional rights of people who don't put their own DNA in databases.

 

Natalie Ram: We're stumbling backwards into a national or a comprehensive DNA database. We ought to at least have a conversation about whether a comprehensive DNA database is really what the people want.

 

Kate McMahon: If people keep uploading their DNA as fast as they are now, scientists predict that in a few years, a majority of Americans will be traceable by genetic genealogy.

 

Kate McMahon: Back in Everett, Washington, Detective Jim Scharf is still excited about the promise of genetic genealogy. He solved the murders of Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook, and was planning to retire. But this powerful new way of catching criminals is keeping him on the force.

 

Det. Jim Scharf: When I was a little boy, all I wanted to do was help people and put bad guys in jail. Why would I retired when I've got this opportunity? I'm not finished.

 

Al Letson: As for the man Detective Scharf arrested for a double murder, William Talbott, he's appealing his conviction.

 

Al Letson: Our show today was co-produced by Kate McMahon, a journalist based in Portland, and Reveal's Emily Harris. Taki Telonidis edited this week's show. Thanks to Seattle public radio station KUOW for their help with trial tape. Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J-Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Najib Aminy and [Amy Mustafa 00:51:24]. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Camerado 00:51:32], Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

 

Al Letson: Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 41: From PRX.