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New technique allows ISP forensic scientists to match DNA in unsolved cases

cold case
KIFI/KIDK

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (KIFI/KIDK) - Idaho State Police Forensic Services (ISPFS) recently received a grant for $150,000 from the Bureau of Justice Assistance that will go towards conducting forensic molecular genetic genealogy.

ISPFS uses this new technique to search databases for potential perpetrators of crime. ISPFS aims to use this technique to assist local law enforcement agencies by naming suspects in their cases. The grant will cover the cost of these investigations and local agencies will bear no financial weight for the assistance ISPFS is providing.

“We’re doing a lot of work to make sure that our local and county law enforcement agencies have the support that they need from a forensic perspective,” Matthew Gamette, Laboratory System Director for ISPFS said.

Gamette says a team of several investigators and DNA scientists go through a national DNA database to identify cases where evidence from the crime scene or gathered from the victim is present with no match to a possible suspect.

Now, all of the cases that pulled no matching DNA in the national criminal database can be expanded to genealogical databases such as 23andMe and other commercial DNA companies. There are many DNA databases through numerous companies available that ISPFS will use in solving these cases. One resource ISPFS uses is GedMatch with 1.3 million DNA data transfers being stored through that database alone.

“It’s not necessarily a new technology but a new technique that we’re using to identify suspects on these cases,” Gamette said.

Gamette says ISPFS is currently looking through 50 cold cases in Idaho and working with investigators to ensure there are DNA samples with no match in these cases. 

“They will all be cold cases, they will be all over the state of Idaho,” Gamette said. “They will be cases where mostly there’s not a match in the database. But we also have other investigators that are approaching us and saying, ‘Hey, I think my case might be a good one for this technique, can I be included?’...There are cases that are recent but there are also cases that have been unsolved for many years. Sometimes there’s a victim in the case and it’s the family waiting for justice and sometimes it’s the survivor in the case that’s waiting to be able to move on somehow from a very heinous event. Regardless, we want to make Idaho safer. We want to bring closure for victims of crime. We want to bring successful prosecutions to the right perpetrators in these cases. We want to make sure that innocents are exonerated. We want to overall make Idaho a safer place to live, that people who are perpetrators of crime are being held accountable for those crimes and those people are being pulled off the streets so that we can live in safe communities.”

Once a potential case is identified, detectives and county prosecutors work alongside a team of state and national investigators, a molecular genealogist who finds DNA matches through samples gathered from the database, as well as the DNA company involved in the DNA data collection, and forensic lab specialists.

“We’re working cases back to the 1970s where we’re doing more investigation to determine if these are good cases to use for this grant,” Gamette said.

Gamette says ISPFS are prioritizing the cases they believe can be solved quickly and will work through each case until the grant runs out. He says ISPFS will commit to finding more resources to continue this program if it proves successful.

Cases like these may include a sexual assault where DNA evidence was gathered from the victim. Those cases will now undergo expanded search parameters to include family members of potential suspects. 

“A lot of times that happens because not everybody’s in the national DNA database,” Gamette said. “I would say that you, and me, and the majority of the public in Idaho are not in the national DNA database because you have to commit a felony in Idaho to get into that database.”

Companies like 23andMe use DNA to help customers find family members. Users may not have been aware their DNA was being used for criminal investigations, but Gamette says within the last year, policy changes ensure consent is gained before law enforcement can use genealogical data for crime solving efforts and users must opt-in for these searches. Gamette says most genealogical DNA searches in Idaho have only happened since these new policy changes were put into place.

“While I thought that people might have a problem with that and might not check that box to let law enforcement use it, the exact opposite has happened where people are checking the box,” Gamette said. “More people are interested in, ‘Hey, if I can help to solve crime, if I can help to keep society safe, by all means, use my DNA.’”

Through checking a box to allow law enforcement the right to use their DNA in the search for potential suspects not found within criminal databases, molecular genealogists can then use consenting individuals’ genealogical profiles to search that person’s family lines in the hopes of finding missing DNA profiles.

“Most of the time, the suspects haven’t put their own DNA into these genealogical databases, but through science and through genetics, we can make linkages to potential relatives to some of these suspects and then we can identify in the family tree, John and Jane had a child that was Jimmy and we can then get his DNA by linking him to the parents,” Gamette said.

After a case is selected, ISPFS uses all available information within the genealogical database at the time. Gamette says new information and DNA is being uploaded to these databases on a daily basis and ISPFS personnel will continue checking for DNA matches if the search initially proves unsuccessful. 

“So far, we’ve been very successful at the cases that we’ve run in Idaho of finding a probate suspect the first time that we go to search,” Gamette said. “There’s a lot of information in these databases already.”

Brian Dripps was identified in the 23-year-old cold case murder of Angie Dodge through genetic forensic techniques. 

“This technique was used effectively to bring the right perpetrator to a trial situation, to exonerate an individual that wasn’t likely involved in that case and also bring closure to a family,” Gamette said. “And that’s what we hope to do with these cases too.”

The Golden State Killer is another perpetrator brought to justice through these types of database investigations.

Recently, this technique was used in identifying the perpetrator of the 2017 Teton County case involving a woman who was raped after attending a festival at a park in Victor. Police were unable to identify a suspect until one of the man’s relatives submitted a DNA sample through a genealogical database. ISPFS found that person was related to the suspect through matching DNA and the man later confessed to committing the crime.

“That is a really good example of one that has been successful and we plan to use that same model to work these other cases,” Gamette said. “There are several cases already in the queue where we’re working on these old cases, new cases, where this technique is going to be advantageous for us...these cases are around the state. It’s not just in the Treasure Valley that we’re doing this, we’re looking at cases from East Idaho, North Idaho, and already working with the detectives on these cases to get them through this process and to try and bring these cases to a successful conclusion...there are cases already identified from all over the state of Idaho where this technology has been used and is going to be used on this grant.”

Policies and procedures from federal and local government dictate DNA searches must be done so respectfully.  The DNA databases help pinpoint the suspect but cannot solely incriminate an individual based on that DNA match alone. Detectives must collect a discarded item from the suspect identified through genealogical databases and DNA from that sample will be compared to evidence from the crime scene. Once DNA from the discarded item matches DNA from the crime scene, investigators must then obtain a warrant to gather the suspect’s DNA and that sample must also match before an arrest is made.

“We’re making sure that the science is solid before we do anything on the case,” Gamette said. “If there is DNA left at a crime scene and if we are able to obtain DNA from a crime scene, there is a high likelihood that we will find the perpetrator of the crime, either through running that DNA through the national DNA database and comparing them to already convicted felons or arrestees in some other state where that’s allowable or by running this technique of using genealogy. If there is DNA left, I think we’re going to find a pretty good suspect on a case or be able to give investigators a really good lead on a case.”

You can learn more about the grant and forensic efforts here.

Idaho / Idaho Falls / Local News / News / Top Stories / Videos
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Chelsea Briar

Chelsea is a reporter and producer for Local News 8 and KIDK Eyewitness News 3.

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