The frenetic pace of major cold-case solves through forensic genealogy over the last year came to a quick stop two weeks ago. GEDmatch, the major public genealogical database smarting after some criticism over one of the cases in which it was used, announced it was changing its terms of service. Those changes automatically opted all of its members out of law enforcement searches.
But GEDmatch has brought tens of thousands back through voluntary “opt ins” over less than two weeks—and the database is planning on making a major push to get hundreds of thousands more back into the family trees open to cops.
About 30,000 have come back through voluntary opt-ins as of this morning, reports Curtis Rogers, the GEDmatch co-founder, this morning in an interview with Forensic Magazine.
Though it is a far cry from the 1-million-plus profiles on the rolls for law enforcement to search earlier this month, Rogers said GEDmatch has a plan of outreach to urge users to opt back in.
“We’re getting that database built up,” said Rogers. “It’s getting there … I’m looking forward to a year from now when maybe this whole controversy is ended, because I believe it will be. Maybe two years or so. In the meantime, everything looks positive, as far as I’m concerned.”
In the first 48 hours, some 10,000 people had opted back in to the database.
One of the major forensic genealogical players, the DNA Doe Project, have said they have been getting “hits” of relatives in the database.
The next step is to get a mass email to the users to bolster the numbers, Rogers said. The challenge is making sure the step is something that won’t be labeled “spam,” and will reach as many people as possible.
Since the major terms of service changes, many genealogists have said that FamilyTreeDNA would be a suitable replacement for GEDmatch—for now. They believe FamilyTreeDNA, a private genealogical database company that announced it would work cooperatively with law enforcement searches earlier this year, would be the next best database to use for searches.
Indeed, there will be no shortage of topics at one of the major genealogy meetings on the calendar: this weekend’s Southern California Genealogy Jamboree, in Burbank.
The three major forensic genealogy players have different degrees of reliance on GEDmatch.
Barbara Rae-Venter entered the public eye with the arrest of the reputed Golden State Killer in April 2018. But Rae-Venter’s work before that had blazed the criminalistics trail in finding a long-lost serial killer dubbed the “Chameleon”—Terry Peder Rasmussen—who left an indeterminate trail of bodies stretching from an infamous New Hampshire quadruple homicide, to at least one murder in California. Rae-Venter was recently named one of Time Magazine’s “Most 100 Influential People.” She said FamilyTreeDNA’s roughly 1 million profiles would enable her current work to continue.
Colleen Fitzpatrick and Margaret Press helm the DNA Doe Project, while Fitzpatrick also runs her own company, IdentiFinders. DNA Doe has focused on the unidentified deceased—and has used some advanced “imputation” techniques, and thousands of hours of painstaking detective work, to identify degraded samples of DNA and match them back to people who have been missing for decades. IdentiFinders has also had a hand early on in the criminal investigation side of things, when Fitzpatrick helped steer detectives on cases nationwide, especially in Y-chromosome searches like the one that led to the capture of the culprit in the so-called Phoenix Canal Murders. Both have said they have continued to have “hits” within GEDmatch – and they are able to use FamilyTreeDNA, as well.
But perhaps the most prolific of the genealogical outfits, numbers-wise, is the Virginia-based Parabon NanoLabs. For years, the Virginia-based company was focused on DNA phenotyping, involving the prediction of certain physical characteristics based on key SNP genetic markers. Hundreds of clients contracted with them for the service. But shortly after the blockbuster arrest in the Golden State Killer case was announced, Parabon announced its own “genetic genealogy” service—based on much of the SNP data it had already collected from the phenotyping contracts. They hired CeCe Moore, a genealogist who was known for her TV role on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots”—and they have assisted in investigative leads leading to dozens of arrests.
While Rae-Venter and Fitzpatrick said they have had success with FamilyTreeDNA’s database, Parabon had relied mostly on GEDmatch – and the company has said they are still searching for ways to make their data work. (Parabon could not be reached for comment on this story.)
“There has been some discussion about the best way for FTDNA to consume our data files, but there is no reason to expect them to be incompatible, as they contain 98 percent of the same SNPS that Ancestry.com uses, and Ancestry’s files are compatible with FTDNA,” said Steve Armentrout, the founder and CEO and Parabon, in recent conversations with Forensic Magazine. “Some of our customers have submitted our raw data and had FTDNA reformat it, while others have submitted our reformatted data, and both approaches have successfully yielded match results that are consistent with GEDmatch.”
Most of the feedback GEDmatch has fielded has been supportive, even if critics of the “opt-out” move continue to be nonplussed. The “Tier-1” paid memberships of the GEDmatch are “way up,” according to Rogers.
But there’s one community which has been largely silent, said Rogers.
“We’ve not heard very much from law enforcement at all,” he said.