How Local Law Enforcement Are Using DNA Websites To Catch Criminals

Feb 11, 2020

A suspected serial rapist is in custody thanks to Cincinnati police running his DNA through a genealogy website. The DNA matched a family member, leading police to arrest the suspect some two decades after the crimes.

Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco says more crimes could be solved using this method.

"We're actually working on a couple more things that I think will yield some information," she says. "You've heard about cases from California ... and, yeah absolutely, I think that more information gets put into these genealogy websites where people are actually voluntarily putting their DNA information in - it may not be the suspect, it may not be a victim but it may be somebody related and that gives us enough to go on."

While the two biggest sites, Ancestry and 23 and Me, don't make their databases public, some users choose to make their DNA profiles available to public research sites.

In 2018, the man believed to be the Golden State Killer was identified thanks to a genealogy website.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters on Tuesday announced William Brian Blankenship is in custody in Northern Kentucky, fighting extradition to Ohio where he's been indicted on four counts of rape, two counts each of kidnapping and gross sexual imposition, and three counts of burglary. The charges stem from offenses dating to 1999 and 2001 in Mt. Washington and Anderson Township.

Deters and Sammarco says the DNA evidence is conclusive and they believe they have the right man. Deters says Florida has a team of prosecutors and investigators that is actively using public genealogy databases to close cold cases.

"When I talked to (Ohio Attorney General) David Yost, I asked him to explore that option for Ohio," Deters says. "I mean, what an effective tool this is."

There are privacy concerns. DNA testing companies like Ancestry and 23 and Me argue their customers have a right to genetic privacy.

Some law enforcement agencies circumventing posted site rules and uploading suspect DNA to find matches prompted the popular family-tracing site GEDmatch to change its rules. While the site users previously had to opt out of sharing their data publicly, the default now is to opt out and users have to intentionally opt in if they wish to share their DNA data.

Other law enforcement agencies have tried directly requesting DNA data from sites, and in at least one case presented a search warrant to Ancestry, which challenged the warrant and refused to release the information. Transparency reports posted on Ancestry and 23 and Me list law enforcement requests the companies have received.

For now, Dr. Sammarco is calling the use of public DNA records a game changer she's sticking with.

"Right now it's public information. If the rules change and the laws change and we can't use it or the websites change how they keep that information or make it available, then it will make it more difficult for us to get, but right now what it's doing for us is giving us additional information to go on."