How DNA home testing kits are helping crack Minnesota’s unsolved crimes

A swab of the cheek and a home DNA kit can help you build your family tree – but that same method can also unlock decades-old secrets to crack cold cases, identify victims and even catch killers.

In recent years, genetic genealogy has been increasingly used to revisit cold cases, but new questions have been raised about how the technology might be used in active cases.

According to data provided by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), genetic genealogy has been tried in at least 23 cases. So far, the method has helped solve at least five unidentified person cases and at least four homicide cases.

Identifying the Unidentified

In 1976, a woman known only as "Lilydale Jane Doe" was pulled from the Mississippi River near St. Paul. She had likely been dead for weeks. The case went cold after 45 years with no answers and no idea who she was or where she came from. Her identity remained a mystery until genetic genealogist Tracie Boyle got involved from where she lives in New Jersey.

"We did know that her body was found floating in the Mississippi River when she was very young. I think she was like 22 at the time of her death, so it was tragic that she was so young," Boyle said.

Boyle is one of nearly 100 volunteers nationwide with the non-profit DNA Doe Project, which uses public DNA databases to identify family matches through a method known as genetic genealogy to help identify unidentified remains.

"It’s not much different than anybody doing their genealogy," Boyle said. "It’s reverse engineering a family tree."

Using that method, Boyle helped identify "Lilydale Jane Doe." 

Her real name was in fact Roberta Seyfert. She was born in 1954 in Tucson, Arizona. However, many questions persist with the cause of her death still a mystery, according to the medical examiner records.

How it Works

Genetic genealogy may seem complicated, but the idea is straightforward. If you want to identify your victim or perhaps even a suspect and all you have in the DNA, you can upload that genetic information to certain public DNA databanks like GED Match.

From there, you can search for family matches, working your way from extended family to closer ones like parents in hopes of identifying your target.

Minnesota Law Enforcement Use

Law enforcement agencies are increasingly turning to genetic genealogy to revisit unsolved cases.

"It’s been utilized so far just in cases that we would consider 'cold cases' – cases where we have a full DNA profile," said BCA Superintendent Drew Evans.

The BCA currently relies on third-party groups since the type of DNA testing done at the state crime lab is not the same type used for genetic genealogy.

"It's a lead generation tool. It really is used in those cases where we are trying to solve the unsolvable, the cases that we have exhausted other methodologies, other techniques, and it's providing us a lead to determine whether or not we can identify the perpetrator through this technology," Evans said.

One example is how genetic genealogy played a key role in solving the 1993 murder of Jeanne Childs, who was stabbed to death inside her Minneapolis apartment.

The trail went cold until 25 years later when DNA collected at the crime scene was run through new public genealogy databases, which pointed to Jerry Westrom.

By the time Westrom was brought in for questioning, investigators had already tailed him at a hockey game in Wisconsin, where he trashed a used napkin. The napkin became a key piece of DNA evidence that ultimately led to Westrom’s conviction for the murder of Childs.

Using the Technology in Active Cases

Perhaps one of the most consequential cases using genetic genealogy centers on the murder of four University of Idaho students last year.

It’s been widely reported that authorities used public DNA databases and genetic genealogy to zero in on their prime suspect Bryan Kohberger.

"I think what’s interesting about that particular case is that genetic genealogy is not mentioned anywhere in the court records or affidavits at this point," said Jamie Spaulding, who teaches criminal justice and forensic science at Hamline University.

Spaulding said he’s closely watching how genetic genealogy will play out in the courtroom.

"Moving forward, does that change how it's practiced or does that set some standards for this? Because at the moment, it's done in a variety of different ways across the country. There are no standards of practice," Spaulding said.

In Minnesota, the BCA is not aware of any active cases where genetic genealogy has been used.

Currently, there are no laws that regulate how genetic genealogy is used in criminal cases, and at this point, it’s unclear how the technology might be used in active cases in Minnesota in the near future.

"I think we should carefully think about where this could add value, especially in the most horrific crimes that we see that create significant community concern or cases where we can bring answers to families ongoing," said BCA Superintendent Evans.

Is it Ethical?

Hamline University’s Jamie Spaulding said there are some ethical questions to consider in how genetic genealogy is used.

"So you’re actively investigating people that you know could not have committed [a crime]. I think that’s an ethical concern and debate that we’re having in the community," said Spaulding. "And I think another that a lot of media talks about is the right to privacy."

Some DNA testing companies like Ancestry and 23andMe are taking privacy into their own policy considerations, and do not make your genetic information readily available for law enforcement, according to their websites.

Some public databanks like GED Match, which do work with law enforcement investigations, require you to upload your own genetic data to the database. Some of those public data banks require you to "opt-in" before allowing law enforcement access to your genetic information.

The technology also has its challenges, from its efficiency, the manpower required to conduct investigations, and its legal limitations.

"There’s a strong track record both in Minnesota and across the country that the technology works, but it’s a lead, and it’s a lead in criminal investigations because it doesn’t identify the individual that was the perpetrator of the crime in the same way that it does with traditional DNA that was use in our laboratories day in and day out," said BCA Superintendent Evans. "It’s really important to develop strong policy behind this type of technology."

"Now’s the time to start thinking about how we can best utilize this technology," Evans said.