Hacked website DNA led police to wrong man in serial killer case
LOS ANGELES Investigators hunting the so-called Golden State Killer used information from genetic websites last year that led to the wrong man, court records obtained by The Associated Press show.
An Oregon police officer working at the request of California investigators persuaded a judge to order a 73-year-old man in an Oregon City nursing home to provide a DNA sample. It is not clear if officers collected the sample and ran further tests, but he was not the man arrested this week outside Sacramento in one of the state’s most notorious string of serial rapes and killings.
The case of mistaken identity was discovered as authorities hailed a novel use of DNA technology that led this week to the arrest of former police officer Joseph DeAngelo at his house outside Sacramento on murder charges. He is suspected of being the sadistic attacker who killed 13 people and raped nearly 50 women during the 1970s and ‘80s.
Handcuffed to a wheelchair in orange jail scrubs, DeAngelo made his first court appearance yesterday. The 72-year-old looked dazed and spoke in a faint voice to acknowledge that he was being represented by a public defender. He did not enter a plea.
DeAngelo has been charged with eight counts of murder. Additional charges were expected, authorities said.
Investigators were able to make the arrest after matching crime scene DNA with genetic material stored in an online database by a distant relative of DeAngelo. They relied on a different website than they had in the Oregon search, and they did not seek a warrant for DeAngelo’s DNA. Instead, they waited for him to discard items and then swabbed the objects for DNA, which proved a conclusive match to the evidence that had been preserved more than 30 years.
Also yesterday, the co-founder of the genealogy website used by authorities said he had no idea its database was tapped in pursuit of the suspect who had eluded law enforcement for four decades.
Authorities never approached Florida-based GEDmatch about the investigation that led to DeAngelo. The site’s co-founder, Curtis Rogers, said law enforcement’s use of the site raised privacy concerns that were echoed by civil liberties groups.
The free genealogy website, which pools DNA profiles that people upload and share publicly to find relatives, said it had always told users that its database could be used for other purposes.
However, Rogers said the company did not ‘‘hand out data’’.
‘‘This was done without our knowledge, and it’s been overwhelming.’’
For the team of investigators, GEDmatch was one of the best tools, lead investigator Paul Holes said. Officials did not need a court AP order to access GEDmatch’s large database of genetic blueprints, he said.
Civil libertarians say the practice raises legal and privacy concerns for the millions of people who submit their DNA to such sites to discover their heritage.
A year earlier, Holes had identified a rare genetic marker in the assailant’s DNA. He entered the information among 189,000 profiles at the genealogy website YSearch.org, and the results led to a relative of the Oregon man.
A spokeswoman for FamilyTreeDNA.com, which operates YSearch.org, said the company wasn’t contacted by law enforcement.
Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said she was unaware of the Oregon misfire. AP
Joseph James DeAngelo appears in court yesterday. He entered no plea to eight charges of murder.