The brutal stabbing death of Jeanne Childs in her Minneapolis apartment 25 years ago seemed destined to remain a mystery.
But when investigators recently tapped one of the popular genealogy sites used by millions of people to track their ancestry, they finally hit on a lead to crack the cold case and charge an Isanti, Minn., businessman with murder.
It’s an innovative investigative tool increasingly used by law enforcement nationwide to solve heinous crimes, but one that critics say raises ethical issues around privacy and constitutional rights.
The growing popularity of genealogical websites such as AncestryDNA, which claims to have more than 10 million users, means it won’t be long before all Americans could be reachable through one of these consumer databases, even if they did not submit their own DNA samples, said Natalie Ram, an assistant law professor at the University of Baltimore who has studied and written about genetics for the past 15 years.
“It’s undoubtedly a good thing to solve serious violent crimes,” Ram said. “But the American system of criminal justice represents a balancing act between privacy of people in the United States and the power of the police to use whatever means they want to solve a crime.”
Ram believes that using familial genetic identification violates the genetic privacy of people who haven’t shared it on an open platform or had their DNA profiles entered into a national or state database because they were criminally convicted or arrested.
It’s a difficult position to take, Ram added, because she and other critics acknowledge the value in solving violent crimes.
“But it’s principled and a right position,” she said.
Some law enforcement agencies have rushed to the genealogy sites in the past year after California investigators used one to find the Golden State Killer, a rapist and murderer who had eluded authorities for decades.
Sharing user records
So far, most law enforcement agencies have used GEDmatch, a free public database, for their searches. And recently Family Tree DNA acknowledged to its users that it opened its database of more than 1 million records to the FBI. AncestryDNA, which has one of the largest databases, tells users it won’t share their information with law enforcement unless it receives a subpoena or warrant.
Genetic genealogists like CeCe Moore have long understood the power of the sites to help identify people.
“I’ve helped thousands of adoptees and people of unknown parentage find their birth families,” she said. “It’s no surprise to me that it’s equally as powerful for law enforcement. … We should now be able to identify serial killers or serial rapists much more quickly and stop them from victimizing other people.”
Moore estimates about 50 cases — primarily cold cases — have been solved in the past year using a genealogy site.
“The cat is out of the bag,” said Christi Guerrini, assistant professor at the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
It’s fast becoming a useful tool for law enforcement to generate new leads, but these sites need to clearly tell users that their information may be used by law enforcement, she said.
“Databases need to be transparent with their users,” Guerrini stressed.
Guerrini said it’s likely that many users will be comfortable exposing their information to law enforcement.
After posting an online poll, she and a colleague found 91 percent of the 1,500 people who responded supported police use of genealogy sites to solve violent crimes such as rape, murder, arson and kidnapping while 46 percent supported using them to solve lesser crimes, such as car thefts.
While the sites are capable of providing breakthroughs on some cases, it can be time-consuming for investigators to find the suspect.
If police are lucky, they’ll submit DNA from a crime scene and get a genetic match. Then, often with the help of a skilled genealogist, they will build a family tree and use old-fashioned detective work to narrow the list of potential suspects.
“I think people think you go get a tube of something and you stick it in a computer, someone’s name pops up and you throw them in jail,” said Minneapolis police Sgt. Chris Karakostas, who was eager to see if a genealogy site could help solve some of his cold cases.
The first case he chose late last year was the unsolved 1993 killing of 35-year-old Jeanne Childs.
Investigators had reached a dead end when the DNA that was gathered from the crime scene didn’t match any profile in the law enforcement database of those convicted or arrested of a crime or the DNA collected from possible suspects. With the help of the genealogy site, investigators zeroed in on two people — one of them Jerry Westrom, who was 27 at the time of the murder.
Last month, investigators trailed Westrom, now 52, to a hockey game, where he ordered a hot dog from a concession stand.
When he was done eating, he wiped his mouth with a napkin and tossed it into the trash. Investigators recovered the napkin and found that the DNA on it was consistent with DNA collected from the apartment where Childs was stabbed.
Police arrested Westrom on Feb. 11 at his Waite Park office and has since charged him with second-degree murder.
Critics urge caution
Karakostas said he plans to continue to try the genealogy sites for other cold cases where investigators have DNA evidence but haven’t identified a suspect.
Sometimes, the sites won’t produce a lead, he said, but if they do, “you still have to get the evidence to see if that person is involved.”
“We have just scratched the surface” with this, he said. “This gives a lot of families hope.”
Paul Applebaum, a Twin Cities defense attorney, sees the sites as an ingenious investigative tool but worries that they are intrusive and ripe for abuse.
“There are some people who say our lives are transparent anyway and they’re comfortable with it. They think there isn’t any private space, even down to your DNA,” he said. “Technology is outstripping our understanding of how it’s being used. I don’t think people have thought through the legal and ethical implications.”
Some of his concerns, however, could be alleviated if investigators were required to get a search warrant and a protective order outlining parameters for the search of a genealogy database, he said.
“It needs judicial supervision because the potential for abuse is there,” Applebaum said.
Hennepin County District Attorney Mike Freeman said he hasn’t seen any abuse so far but welcomes discussions about privacy concerns.
In Maryland, state House delegate Charles Sydnor III has introduced legislation to prohibit police use of genealogical sites. Maryland is the only state that prohibits familial DNA searches in its state offender database system.
“If we prohibit it on a database of criminals who have been convicted, then why not extend it to databases of people who haven’t been convicted and are just curious about their ancestry?” Sydnor said.
The bill likely won’t pass this year, he said, but it should start the debate over the ethics and constitutionality of using the sites for solving crimes.
“I don’t want to take tools away,” he said. “But I want to make sure law enforcement is doing things in a constitutional way.”