From 1974 to 1986, an evil man dubbed the Golden State Killer committed at least 13 murders, raped more than 50 women and carried out over 100 burglaries.
He is believed to be responsible for at least three crime sprees throughout California, each of which spawned a different nickname in the press, before it became evident that they were committed by the same person.
In the Sacramento area, he was known as the East Area Rapist and was linked to additional attacks in Contra Costa County, Stockton, and Modesto.
He was later known for his southern California crimes as the Original Night Stalker.
He is suspected to have begun as a burglar before moving to the Sacramento area, based on evidence.
Over the years, he taunted and threatened his victims and police in obscene phone calls.
In 2001, DNA testing indicated that the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker were the same person.
In fact, the case was a major factor in the establishment of California’s DNA database, which collects DNA from all accused and convicted felons in California.
However, criminal DNA databases produced no matches, but Paul Holes, an investigator and DNA expert, believed he could create a road map to the killer through his genetics.
Holes used DNA recovered from a crime scene to find the killer’s great-great-great grandparents, who lived in the early 1800’s.
Investigators used GEDmatch, a genealogy website that hosts a free database of users’ DNA.
The popularity of ancestral DNA websites is a major tool for criminal investigations.
Branch by branch, Holes and a team created about 25 family trees containing thousands of relatives down to the present day.
Initial DNA searches identified distant relatives of the killer, but not a suspect.
Holes said a team of five investigators spent four months building out family trees, name by name.
They searched census records, newspaper obituaries, grave site locators and police and commercial databases to find each relative and, ultimately, the killer.
One of those branches led to a 72-year-old retiree who was quietly living in the Sacramento suburb of Citrus Heights.
Holes was interested after learning the man was a disgraced cop who had bought guns during two bursts of activity by the Golden State Killer.
Acting on Holes’s hunch, police officers picked up an item discarded by the 72-year old suspect that contained his DNA and tested the genetic material against the killer’s.
The hard work and hunch of a skilled investigator produced a match.
In April 2018, California investigators arrested Joseph James DeAngelo, the man known as the “Golden State Killer.”
Clearly, this is a case of how DNA submitted to an online database can help solve crimes.
With that being said, should someone who is simply a law-abiding citizen submit their DNA to websites to meet long lost relatives? Or to learn about potential health risks?
While I’m a big believer is learning about our genealogy, there are risks associated with some of these online DNA websites.
Cyber hacking. Obviously, this is not a risk that the genetic-testing websites alone face, but it is an industry that has a unique set of information on its consumers.
If all your personal information, along with your DNA fell into the wrong hands, who knows what hackers could do with that information?
In fact, not too long ago, there was a hack of more than 92 million accounts from the DNA testing service MyHeritage.
My point is, cyber-attacks target all sorts of websites, but DNA testing is a whole different piece of information for hackers to steal.
Companies profit on your DNA. Surprisingly, unless you read every bit of fine print, most people don’t realize that these companies typically sell their DNA profile.
For example, drug companies and similar industries purchase DNA profiles of certain age groups to examine health risks.
Now, customer names are not supposed to be linked to the DNA profile, but the fact remains your information is being sold.
For instance, nearly 80% of users of the popular service 23andMe agree to have their data sold to third-parties.
While the data could potentially be used in the medical field, you really have no idea who is seeing your DNA profile.
Laws don’t protect genetic privacy. The genetic information market is still somewhat new, meaning there aren’t many laws in place to protect your privacy.
What if an employer or insurance provider gained access to your DNA profile?
Could they use this information to claim you had a pre-existing condition?
Genetic information laws are still unchartered territory and consumers are basically trusting these companies at face value that they are protecting their DNA information.
If you decide to submit your DNA for testing you should compare privacy policies before you pick a company, choose your account options carefully and be aware of the risks you are taking in case your information falls into the wrong hands.