Between 1974-1986, California suffered a series of horrific crimes. At first law enforcement believed a number of people were behind them, giving them names like “The East Side Rapist” and “The Original Night Stalker.” Eventually, it became clear that one man was responsible but his identity was a mystery. Until now.
The FBI had a fingerprint, but since the killer wasn’t in the national DNA database, it was useless. It sat in evidence while the man who murdered 12 people and raped 45 women lived free. His case might have faded into obscurity, but a true-crime writer kept interest alive. Michelle McNamara published the True Crime Diary website and became fascinated by the case. She re-dubbed the murderer “The Golden State Killer” and conducted years of research.
In 2016, she died unexpectedly, leaving her book on the subject unfinished. Her husband (comedian Patton Oswalt), an investigative journalist, and a lead case researcher completed it. Upon its release in February 2018, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark became a bestseller. Just two months later, police announced they had arrested a suspect: Joseph James DeAngelo.
Finding the killer
How did detectives track down the Golden State Killer? They used a free genetic database created by Mormons. Using GEDmatch, cold-case investigator Paul Holes uploaded the old DNA sample obtained at the crime scenes. GEDmatch, which is designed to find a person’s ancestors and relatives, identified the Golden State Killer’s great-great-great grandparents. Holes and his team explored 25 family trees and thousands of people, leading them down to a smaller pool of DNA matches. With info like age and gender, they eliminated suspects until they found the 72-year old DeAngelo. He lived in Sacramento and had once been a cop, but was fired for robbing a store. He had also purchased guns during a period of activity from the Golden State Killer.
How did Holes prove DeAngelo was the killer? Cops staked out the man’s place and nabbed an discarded item with his DNA on it. They tested it against the old DNA sample. It matched. On April 24th, DeAngelo was arrested at his home without incident. It looks like justice will finally be served.
What does this mean for privacy?
The idea that you could find a person based on their relative’s DNA is a bit concerning for privacy experts. The information on GEDmatch is free, and already DNA from 100 crime scenes has been uploaded as investigators follow in Paul Holes’ footsteps. Even if it is helpful, should cops be allowed to take advantage of the DNA people give to find out more about their family trees? If it catches killers, most people would say yes, but that’s the ideal result. What if investigators get the wrong person?
Websites that hold DNA information have come under fire before. 23andMe is most likely selling genetic information for medical research, and while they say it’s “for the greater good,” it still makes people nervous. Also, many people say, shouldn’t users get some kind of compensation if their personal information is being sold? There was a reward for catching the Golden State Killer. Should the relatives that talked to police and whose DNA lead to DeAngelo’s capture receive the money? Laws and regulations haven’t caught up with the world we live in now, and in order to balance the greater good and people’s right to privacy, they need to change fast.
For more on 23andMe, check out this article on what the project actually is and why it worries a lot of people.