How genealogy databases can help police solve cold cases

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LANSING, Mich. (WILX) -- Most people think when they submit their DNA to a genealogy website they might find out a little more about their family's ancestry or even a relative or two.

But those websites are also being used as databases for police to help them crack cold cases. Police say the new technology can help give families closure.

Before, law enforcement was confined to their database CODIS, which only has offender DNA, family reference samples, unidentified remains samples, and crime scene DNA. But using websites like Ancestry.com or 23andMe opens up a whole new world for them.

"I've been working cold cases a long time and this is so exciting for us. It's another avenue for us to try to get these cases solved," Det. Sgt. Sarah Krebs with Michigan State Police's Missing Persons Unit said.

And one of those cold cases could be cracked right here in Michigan.

"We have attempted our first genealogy database case on a set of unidentified remains that were found in Detroit in 1987. The victim was never identified so we refer to that as a Jane Doe case," Krebs said. "We're hoping that that victim's DNA would be in the private genealogy databases, meaning that we'll hit on a relative of this unknown person and we'll be able to figure out somehow who she is. And hopefully, down the line, we're going to solve her homicide."

How can police find a victim or suspect's family with the websites? It takes a small amount of DNA, the database, and a lot of detective work.

"So you can get a lot of information from DNA obviously. Everyone's DNA is unique, so its a great identifier," Michigan State University professor Dr. David R. Foran said.

Dr. Foran says relatives don't even have to be direct. They can be aunts, uncles, even cousins way down the line.

"A person can share a little fragment of DNA on one bit of chromosome and that can have a unique pattern on dozens and dozens of locations that they can share with someone else that is a distant relatives. Pretty much all of us are going to have some relative that put their DNA into one of these databases," he said.

High-profile cases like the Golden State Killer were caught using the genealogy databases. Investigators say the possibilities are endless.

"I really feel that this is the way we are going to be solving a lot of our especially cold cases in the future. This is a new technology really. DNA has been around a long time but using the genealogy family tree and backtracking to find a suspect and somebody's identity is definitely a new way for law enforcement to use DNA," Det. Sgt. Krebs said.

The Jane Doe case is currently being profiled through DNA found in her bones. From there, state police say it will go to a researcher to help find out who she is.