24 July 2019

DNA and its man (2)

A brief history of DNA identification


The book of scientific journalist Elena Kleshchenko "DNA and its Man: A Brief History of DNA identification" (Alpina non-fiction publishing house) is addressed to everyone who is interested in the practical application of the achievements of genetics in criminology, genealogy and history.

The author recalls high-profile investigations and scientific and historical disputes in order to show by their example how the analysis of genetic material helps to catch the most sophisticated criminals and conduct complex historical investigations. The Organizing Committee of the Enlightener Prize has included Elena Kleshchenko's book in the "long list" of 25 books, among which finalists and prize winners will be selected. N+1 offers to read the excerpt, which tells the story of the capture of the "killer from the Golden State".

A serial killer and all his relatives

In the spring of 2018, all popular science media wrote about it. California's nightmare has been arrested – at least 13 murdered men and women, at least 50 rapes in the 70s and 80s of the twentieth century. At first they thought that several criminals were acting, then they managed to establish a connection between them... I'm tired of these rapists, so I'll be brief. He watched the future victims, chose the right moment, sometimes called the day before, apparently to clarify the daily routine, looked in the windows. Then he broke into the house, tied up and raped a woman, if there was a man in the house, he usually killed him right away. The victims were not marginals, like the Sleeping Reaper (also mentioned in the book serial killer – approx. N+ 1), but prosperous citizens. Sometimes the criminal spent a long time in the house, ate in the kitchen, rummaged through personal belongings, returned to the victim again and again. If he left a woman alive, he could then call her with threats. There were also jeering calls to the police before the attacks. A white man, at the beginning of his "career" young and quite attractive, at least not a freak (many sketches were compiled!), well-built, second blood type, light eyes and hair, for something very offended by women in general, aware of the methods that are usually investigated, about what the police can and cannot do, perhaps the policeman himself or previously served in the police – that's all that was known.

In 2001, for eight murders, it was possible to confirm with the help of DNA analysis that it was the same person; two more murders were attributed to him on other evidence. In June 2016, the FBI and state law enforcement agencies held a press conference at which they announced that a reward of $50,000 had been set for assistance in his arrest. Since it was now clear that the same criminal was operating in various counties of California, and not several different ones, journalist Michelle McNamara, who specialized in criminal investigations, called him "the killer from the Golden State", and this nickname superseded all previous ones. She started writing the book "I'm Going into Darkness" about these murders, and hoped that her work would help find a maniac. Unfortunately, 46-year-old McNamara died suddenly in her sleep in 2016, just two years before the triumph of justice.

On April 24, 2018, 72-year-old Joseph James Deangelo, a Navy veteran and former policeman, was arrested. He lived in Citrus Heights (Sacramento County, California) with his daughter and granddaughter. Yes, this man was married, he has three daughters, separated from his wife in 1991. A photo of a bald old man accompanied by police officers flew around the news feeds. The neighbors didn't say anything special about this family, except about Joseph's habit of dirty swearing. Who knows what was going on in the walls of the house.

The interesting thing here is how exactly he was exposed. The DNA profile obtained during the examination of a sample from one of the crime scenes was posted on the GEDmatch website. Anyone can upload their genomic data to this site for free (of course, you will have to pay for their receipt, but there are quite a lot of companies that provide such services now) in order to find relatives. You can use an assumed name. This is exactly what the investigators did (specifically, a man named Paul Holes, who had recently retired): a new user of the site under a pseudonym uploaded the genomic data of the rapist and requested information about relatives. The owners of the site were not notified about this investigative event. True, the site requires confirmation that the uploaded sequence belongs to you or the person who agreed to its placement, but it is extremely easy to confirm this, just click on the appropriate checkbox and they will believe you. By American standards, such police actions are questionable from the point of view of legality, and, for example, law enforcement agencies cannot use the databases of the well-known company 23andMe, which works directly with clients, without a court decision. But GEDmatch left such an opportunity, and what is not prohibited, it seems to be allowed.

This resource has hundreds of thousands of users, and it is not surprising that relatives of the "killer from the Golden State" were found in sufficient numbers – more than a dozen. A group of researchers led by Barbara Ray-Venter (by the way, Craig Venter's ex-wife) built a family tree to sort out their relationship.

Barbara Ray-Venter allowed to tell about her participation in this case only in August 2018. She was worried about her safety: Deangelo was not the only undiscovered maniac, and the news happily tells how samples of biomaterials stored for decades finally started talking, and what role genetic genealogy played in this… But after three months, she decided that she had ceased to be an attractive target: their example inspired others, several similar cases were solved in a similar way at once, and you can't kill all the experts.

Dr. Ray-Venter emphasizes that she did not participate in any way in the debate about the legality of police manipulations with an open database, but the more she read about this killer, the more she became convinced that he should sit and that she was ready to contribute to this by all means. Paul Holes tweeted: "Without Barbara, we would probably still be building the family tree. She gave us the structure and her expert input was invaluable."

Everyone calls her a specialist in genetic genealogy, and in fact this is true. But Barbara herself always emphasizes that she is a retired lawyer, and genetic genealogy is just a hobby. It so happened that in 2012 she found her cousin through the Family Tree DNA website. This relative of hers did not know who his real father was, and Barbara decided to try to help him. After all, before studying to become a lawyer, she received a PhD in biology. Craig Venter in his autobiography tells about a brave girl who came to him in London from New Zealand immediately after his return from Vietnam: how they hitchhiked in Europe, and then went to America, got married, began to build a new life and work on their dissertation. (At that time, Venter himself was a biochemist, not a molecular biologist, interest in genomes came later.) After becoming a lawyer, she was engaged in patent law, often cooperating with biotech companies. By the way, it was with her participation that Calgene received a patent for the first genetically modified product that entered the world market - the famous tomato variety Flavr Savr. Just in case: there were no extraneous genes in this tomato, on the contrary, the gene of the enzyme that causes unaesthetic softening of the fetus was turned off in it. Although, of course, there was still a lot of noise.

In 2015, Barbara took part in a criminal investigation for the first time. A woman named Lisa was abducted when she was a small child, until she was 30, she thought that the kidnapper was her father. This man was subsequently convicted of murder, and then DNA analysis showed that Lisa was not his daughter. The kidnapper refused to answer questions. However, Ray-Venter was able to find her relatives, including her grandfather and his sons – the alleged fathers. Unfortunately, those of them who managed to be contacted did not want to donate DNA, but still at least some certainty for Lisa… After this story, Holes asked her for help in the case of the "Golden State killer".

Building a family tree based on DNA profiles is not as easy as it might seem. The program will find potential relatives, but will not tell, relatively speaking, the son, father or brother of the person involved this person. And with a second cousin and a fourth cousin, without such a specialist as Barbara Ray-Venter, everything will get damn confused. To solve this crossword puzzle, it is necessary to build autosomal profiles of participants – then a chain of successive changes from generation to generation will be visible and it will become clear who is whose son, who is whose nephew. The case of the "killer from the Golden State" was further complicated by the fact that many of his ancestors were Italian immigrants: their relatives lived in Europe and, of course, did not use the services of the American genealogical site. But still managed to find a common great-great-great-grandfather and great-great-great-grandmother of the criminal and ordinary users of GEDmatch. The missing information about who is who (recall that pseudonyms are allowed on the site), Barbara's assistants from the FBI and the district attorney's office extracted from birth records, newspaper publications and social media profiles. The inventions of Mark Zuckerberg and others undoubtedly save police time – people voluntarily, without coercion, tell the whole story about themselves on the Internet, come and read!

As a result, it was possible to identify several suspects with suitable biographical data. DNA was secretly taken from one of them, he did not match the killer, but turned out to be his close relative, which greatly inspired the group. Before stealing DNA from other suspects (an action not exactly approved by the American public), they decided to narrow down the circle. Now it is possible to determine the external signs of a person by DNA, at least the simplest ones (we will talk about this later). So, it could be assumed with a certain degree of probability that the killer had blue eyes (and this coincided with the testimony of the victims) and that he had to go bald early. Therefore, the killer's dark-eyed and thick-haired relatives should have been moved to the end of the queue. Actually, according to these signs, only Joseph Deangelo was suitable. DNA samples of this man were found on the door handle of his car and in a trash can at home. And we got a complete match with the killer's samples.

Deangelo was well versed in the methods of investigation during his youth, but he did not foresee DNA analysis. At the time of his arrest, he was leaving the house on his own feet, but in the courtroom, when he was charged, he was already in a wheelchair and looked miserable – probably the only possible line of defense in his position.


"The law never punishes a CRIMINAL. Only a trembling creature is being punished – a pathetic, frightened, repentant one, not at all like that arrogant, cruel, ruthless scoundrel who committed violence many days ago..." (A. and B. Strugatsky. Burdened with evil.)

DNA analysis and database searches have helped solve other long-standing murders. One of the most heartbreaking examples is the arrest of a woman from a small town in South Dakota, who in February 1981, secretly from family and friends, gave birth to a child and left him on the street. The baby was found when he was already frozen. It was not possible to solve the case then, but now with the help of the same genealogical databases, including GEDmatch, they calculated the child's relatives and came out to Teresa Bentaas, 57, who confessed everything.

We add that the scientific community highly appreciated the work that led to the capture of the "killer from the Golden State". Leading scientific journals remembered about her when they summed up the results of 2018. Science included the arrest of Deangelo in the list of ten breakthroughs of the year, along with the discovery of a hybrid of a Neanderthal and a Denisovan man and the statement of Dr. He Jiankui about the birth of genetically modified girls. And Nature named Barbara Ray-Venter one of the ten "people of the year". The world has changed once again.

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