Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick is a brilliant scientist who today is best-known for pioneering the world of genetic genealogy. Almost overnight, she went from nuclear physicist working on advanced NASA spacecraft, to solving some of the nation’s most complex and famous cold cases- identifying John and Jane Does. In 2005, Dr. Fitzpatrick self-published her book, Forensic Genealogy, ultimately revolutionizing human identification the era of DNA. By merging DNA and genealogy, it was a discovery, a method that bridged the gap between DNA’s glaring weakness and greatest strength.
If names like “Belle in the Well”, “Orange Socks”, “Buckskin Girl” and “Lyle Stevik” ring a bell, there is a good chance you were first introduced to them many years ago through TV shows like Unsolved Mysteries, Dateline, 48 Hours, etc. For decades, these shows catapulted countless John and Jane Does into the national spotlight. Little did most know, it was law enforcement’s last and only hope, a proverbial ‘Hail Mary’ so-to-speak. Get their face, details and a date on national TV during prime-time and hope that someone out there was watching, holding the one crucial piece to solving the puzzle. Soon enough, these cases seemed to take on a life of their own.
That all changed when Dr. Fitzpatrick and her partner Margaret Press founded DNA Doe Project, a non-profit recently in the spotlight for solving the very same John and Jane Doe cases that not only baffled communities and law enforcement agencies, but stumped sleuthers & true crime aficionados for decades. It appeared almost certain as each year passed- these nameless souls would forever remain a mystery. The only distinguishing characteristic separating one from the other was a catchy name, the road, town, creek, county or clothing they were found by or in, forever to be remembered by. That all changed thanks to Dr. Fitzpatrick’s discovery, and the volunteers at DNA Doe Project. After decades in limbo, the above mentioned cases are just several of the many cases they have resolved. Since then Dr. Fitzpatrick and her team have received countless letters of recommendation, recognition and thanks from agencies across the nation. Among them our oldest, the United States Marshals Service for the first case solved since the agency’s inception using forensic genealogy; the bizarre case of Robert Ivan Nichols, alias Joseph Newton Chandler III.
Last week, I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Fitzpatrick. To her, this wasn’t about answering questions. This an opportunity for her to educate others about DNA Doe Project and the invaluable service that they offer. She’s serious, yet witty and takes a no nonsense approach in explaining herself and her work. Just as families and law enforcement needs her help, DNA Doe Project needs your help. We talk about her lifelong journey, from humble beginnings raised in a large extended family against the backdrop of historical New Orleans, her work with NASA and through the present day. Dr. Fitzpatrick not only gives American Crime Journal a brief lesson in what forensic genealogy is, how it works and its history, but a remarkable journey- an unlikely path that forever changed how we approach cold cases. Soon enough families will get closure and killers will be brought to justice. How soon that happens really depends… you may have the answer.
Damion Moore: These are exciting times, Dr. Fitzpatrick. First, let me say it is an honor to speak with you and how thankful everyone is for you and the volunteers at DNA Doe Project. Cases three, four decades old and some longer, even after the greatest scientific breakthrough of all time when it came to human identification- DNA. There was still this void. Honestly, I just accepted that many of these cases wouldn’t get solved. Especially as the years, then decades passed. Then in just a few years, dozens of cold cases both unidentified offenders and unidentified people, are solved one right after the other.
Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick: It is. It sure it. Really changes how you look at it, now with certain degree of certainty. It’s just a matter of time. DNA is great and when you know the source of DNA that has been recovered, excellent. When you don’t, then it’s a waiting game. Before, every year that passed hope dwindled for families of the missing and people taken away from them due to violence. Law enforcement, the public really, had to hope that offenders would offend again and not only that, but get caught when they did, make a mistake or show up on someone’s radar the next time they offended. Well, they already made the mistake. Same with our John and Jane Does, before we’re at the mercy of a family who comes forward and says, ‘I think that John or Jane Doe belongs to us’. Then you can find out if they were related or not. If not though, you still don’t have an answer. Now we can be proactive, if we don’t an answer today, there is tomorrow and the chances are in our favor.
You not only coined the term Forensic Genealogy, but are the founder in concept, techniques and the application of it?
That is correct. In 2005, I published Forensic Genealogy. That was when forensic genealogy was first used to describe the application of specific techniques in solving genealogical mysteries. Now in concept, well conceptually itself it isn’t really new, I mean it has always been there, just unorganized and not focused. I think there is some confusion in that regard as this really became more popular in just the last couple years.
I heard of it just a few years back. Really, it was April 2018, when Joseph DeAngelo was identified as the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker (EARONS) or now more famously known as the Golden State Killer (GSK) that really put forensic genealogy on the map.
Right. Now, I think there is some confusion, at least in public perception. By that point in time, in 2018, forensic genealogy had taken on a more formal definition… at least in a legal context when it comes to law enforcement. I think people saw it, were introduced to it[forensic genealogy] as a crime fighting tool, and that’s not what it is. Yes absolutely, it is great for that. Where we are today, yes we can solve crimes with forensic genealogy, but like DNA, its importance and necessity is much more than solving crimes or identifying someone. That is just one component of it. The possibilites are endless.
Absolutely. With that in mind and I’m sure it can be very complicated… simply put as possible, what is Forensic Genealogy?
It’s not really complicated in understanding its importance, role and what it is. Forensic genealogy is the study of identity and kinship in legal contexts. Again, that includes working with law enforcement and finding family references for DNA identification. There are many examples of this. Working with the Department of Defense in locating next-of-kin for those Missing or Killed-In-Action.. There are cases of tracing the remains not just as far back as Vietnam or World War II, but beyond that. You could work for probate attorneys looking for lost heirs, the rightful owners of high priced art and even some historical artifact, personal property. Investment firms, insurance companies and even publishers. So it’s so much more than just a new tool for law enforcement. This is history. Our history with the past meeting the present and meets the future. Even historical events can now be vetted, investigated properly and that changes everything.
How does “forensic genealogy” differ from traditional genealogy?
It’s not that different actually. Both utilize the same tools and resources and really, it’s the same overall goal. The primary difference between the two is that forensic genealogists must meet genealogical proof standards, so those results and their findings can be used in a legal context. Legally, the burdens of proof and our standards require supporting evidence establishing relationships, kinship, using DNA, documents, photographs and knowledge of details no matter how insignificant they seem, knowledge of history and events, time periods, customs and cultures. Not just today, but in the past.
Today you’re well known for your work in forensic genealogy, but your education and career path was originally something else entirely.
Yes it was. My education, my background was in physics, I have a PhD in nuclear physics. I worked in physics for over 25 years. I had a company that had a contract with NASA for one of their Jupiter projects. Then that was shutdown, so it gave me time to get my book, Forensic Genealogy completed and finally published in 2005. My partner and I thought it was something we could do in the interim, until we got back into the hard sciences. Well, it turned out to be a new career because the book was so popular. Then I started doing conferences and writing columns on the subject.
You were contracted to work on a project where NASA was going to send a spacecraft to Jupiter?
Okay, so I was on a team, my company was contracted by Northrop Grumman to do the conceptual design for the JIMO (Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter) spacecraft. Back around 2004, NASA was doing a down select, other companies that were bidding were Boeing and I believe Lockheed Martin. I was invited to a group, contracted by Northrop Grumman because of my background in nuclear physics. I was working with the group designing specific sensors. This spacecraft was actually going to be powered by a small nuclear power plant. After that I worked on designing the flight instrumentation. This was a revolutionary spacecraft, nothing in the space programs had been powered by a nuclear reactor, so I was needed through the initial proposal, conceptual design and then for the final design. We actually won the proposal. Shortly afterwards the project was cancelled, because Bush decided we were going back to the moon.
So was genealogy something you did as a hobby or on the side? Was it something you took an active interest in outside of physics?
No. It’s kind of interesting actually, and I never heard this answer from anyone else. I was born in New Orleans and grew up in a very large family. Now, I’m talking my whole extended family. I knew all four of my grandparents, their brothers and sisters and even their aunts and uncles. Growing up I not only knew of my mother and father’s lineage or had just traced my father’s lineage back a few generations, but knew my great-great aunts and uncles and their kids and grandchildren. So when we factor that all in, I grew up around living history. From a very young age I understood how I was related to each family member and knew my relationship to them and others. Now that I’m older… I get it, that was amazing, but more importantly it was the everyday life and it was so normal to everybody, for us. Looking back… the people I knew and was connected to, you know, growing up the stories I was told, so much of it first hand- it was just so rich. Everyday life was everyday life, but it was rich everyday life from a real historical backdrop.
So in that regard I never got interested in genealogy, I was born into it.
I never woke up one morning like so many others who ask the questions, who am I, what are my roots? Then just go to library and try to figure out my family tree. Believe me, I have had those mornings, but that was only after years and years and years of waking up with the same knowledge that I didn’t have to go to the library for.
Certainly not an answer I’ve heard before.
That’s the value that I finally see now. I’ve never truly came across someone with the same background as mine other than someone in my own family.
Just to help get a better understanding, for clarification, what would you say are some examples of how being born into genealogy- your background, growing up in your family, how it gave you the core foundation in your approach with genealogy?
Sure. When people learn of their ancestry, they want to visit and see these places to get a feel of their family roots. You get some of that, but it goes back to growing up there, knowing the texture. Knowing the language, the way people speak and talk to one another. You know the comfort and the discomfort with each other and then with outsiders. The black and the white and how we relate. Everything, you know? Not just what types of food are popular in the area, not what you eat in the restaurant, but what your mom cooks at home… you know why she cooks it. Methods of transportation, you know all the old theaters. You know the old neighborhoods and why your dad’s experiences as a child growing were different than yours. You know why that is. There is a lot of texture that I carry forward everyday, that I’m going to reserve as my own. I understand that and that is what I look for in the process of identification and authentication.
Even my siblings will tell you, now of course they’re different people, so their experiences were different- but see, they all still live down there. Just like a fish in water they might not realize what they have. Going on to other places like I have, seeing different things, now I see the contrast more. It’s like living in a neighborhood for 50 years. You not only see the changes, people coming and going, home improvements, additions, demographics, but you know why that is. How the economy, crime, gentrification, you can see all of this in being there, it’s living history, witnessing and experiencing it. You are part of it.
Forensic genealogy is in its infancy. When it comes to science and academia… well first let me say, often leading academics, scientists and governing bodies, institutions and such, seem slow to engineer programs that develop specializations and focused disciplines. With a proven track record in such a short time, do you think they see the necessity of forensic genealogy and the demand for it? Will there be a program to meet the need and growing demand here in the future?
Well it really needs to be the genealogists and then the governing bodies that corral it and make it more formal. To set a standard, rules. A curriculum. There is a need and the demand is only going to grow. Now there will be some educational classes soon, I’m sure. Now at DNA Doe Project, we have a training class that we sponsor. Now the science aspect, when it comes to scientists, unfortunately not many scientists, geneticists in this case, they’re not really interested in the subject of genealogy, in their world they have larger problems to tackle and really, there is a great need for what they’re doing already. I’ve not met many scientists in genetics, geneticists interested in the subject of genealogy itself.
That leads me to a specific question. Right now in the US, there are over 40,000 unidentified decedents and according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), there are about 100,000 actual missing persons at any given time. Those numbers are staggering. With that in mind, there is only so much DNA Doe Project can realistically do. Law enforcement not only has backlogs of these cases going back often decades, but they keep piling on everyday. Since agencies can’t handle these in house, this really leaves families at their mercy to submit these cases to DNA Doe Project. In the near future would it be possible for a family, their attorney or an advocate- to obtain a DNA sample from these agencies or a medical examiner’s office? For instance, they hire their own experts- pathologists or anthropologists to obtain samples and then get these samples to you for help in their identification?
You know, I think the answer is going to be no… at least for the foreseeable future. Law enforcement is not going to allow a family access to someone’s remains to obtain a sample from, unless they[the family] has some compelling evidence that those remains are their loved one, and by then you get the courts involved. So no, I don’t think so. The way it sits, these law enforcement cases and medical examiners are not open to allowing the public to obtain samples for identification.
DNA Doe Project is a new endeavor, the latest chapter forensic genealogy. In the beginning, forensic genealogy wasn’t law enforcement related.
Right. As I said earlier, it didn’t begin as a tool exclusively for law enforcement. It is a subject entirely on its own and law enforcement’s use of it as a tool, I didn’t see it just for that. What happened in 2005, the book Forensic Genealogy became very popular, so I had that, and then started writing columns and doing conferences on the subject. At the time, I was asked by an international investment company [Hebron Investments] to look for landowners whose property was getting foreclosed on, or had back taxes or whatever. What had happened, people would buy land for various reasons, for vacations, to hunt or eventually build their dream home or whatever, but then they die, forget about it or just didn’t care. Well the company needed me to locate these people or their relatives. I did it for two years and had a great time. I was extremely successful with it.
I would think that law enforcement would be the first in line to utilize your skill. From the start you found success, locating people immediately, where before it was a lost cause.
Everybody did[thought law enforcement would utilize genetic genealogy], you think it was the first thing they would do. Then you look at it from their point-of-view. Who is she? Does she have a proven track record? Don’t the FBI have experts? If it’s possible, why haven’t we heard of it? They didn’t know what we were going to do or what would happen. Law enforcement, it takes them a long time to warm up to the idea outside of law enforcement. Most of the time they wouldn’t even return my phone calls, and now, my phone won’t stop ringing! Law enforcement can be very slow to adopt something new, especially from civilians. Rightfully so. They have to be very careful in who they let in there, who they trust with evidence and information. It takes time to get them warmed up to the idea, because if something goes wrong it can cause a lot of problems. Twenty and thirty years ago, agencies wouldn’t even communicate with each other on cases. They can be very protective of their work, their cases.
But yes. Most of the cases were overseas. Mostly people that lived here in the United States, but they bought a house or land in a foreign country. Well, they would die and their family members didn’t know they had property. So, they [Hebron Investments] hired me to find these people, you know locate their heirs. Then the investment company could make a deal with the rightful owners rather than waiting years for foreclosure, then probate courts and eventually auctions. Laws and probate is different in other countries, but also these people couldn’t afford what was owed in back taxes or whatever, or they didn’t want to maintain a house or property overseas. So they would make a deal with the company, sell it or agree to let them maintain it and rent their house out or whatever. In just two years, I had over 75 cases and I found almost all of them. So up until that time, I had a gift that I didn’t realize I had.
Obviously at some point law enforcement realized that forensic genealogy could be used to locate unknown offenders and identify missing decedents…
Yes. Well, law enforcement didn’t realize it, I actually approached them again and again. Today, I’m one of the only genealogists, I only know of one other, her name is Barbara Rae-Venter, that get could into law enforcement databases starting back in 2011. So when I started, I suggested it to a couple of agencies that I thought we could help solve some cases. Keep in mind, at that time we were going to these agencies and they didn’t know what we were going to do or come up with. Now they really had nothing to lose when cases are decades old. So we solved old cases and from there, from that point on we were up and running.
I’m sure it can be a very complicated process, very tedious, but I know folks really want to get an understanding of how this works. What is the overall process, you’re asked by an agency to identify a John or Jane Doe and then accept it and begin working it at DNA Doe Project?
What happens is, an agency calls us and says they have a John or Jane Doe case. We say, ‘okay now tell us about the DNA you have’. They check with their labs and if they don’t have any or maybe it is now degraded, then we arrange with a lab to obtain a sample that we can use. The lab we use does this through a technique called a bone extraction. From the bone, we can get a good sample of DNA. Once we obtain the DNA, we then arrange for a lab to analyze it so we get the DNA sequencing. Now once the DNA is analyzed, we get the DNA sequencing, we then have to get the bioinformatics, which translates the DNA sequencing into a digital file. This is processing, translating analyzed DNA sequencing, through bioinformatics- making it suitable for genealogy. Now once we have the bioinformatics, the data is ready and we can upload it into the genealogy database, GEDmatch, where we can begin our genealogical research.
How long does it take getting the DNA sample to the lab, then getting DNA sequencing and bioinformatics, on average from start to finish to where you can begin your genealogical research?
Assuming law enforcement had a good sample already? One to two months. That’s from the time we get a call from law enforcement and arrange for the DNA to be analyzed. It just depends on if the detectives have everything ready, know what they want and gets everything shipped off right away. If that’s the case, then really the slow point is the lab. Now the lab has everything in a queue, everything is in a batch and some of those gets priority, like maybe a pending trial or something important. So, best case scenario it could take just a few days to get it analyzed for DNA sequencing or it could take a month or maybe longer. The bioinformatics, getting that ready to be uploaded into GEDmatch? That only takes about ten days. The lab though, you jump on the boat right as it’s leaving and there is nothing that has priority, again it could be just a few days. Other times it could take a month or longer.
It really just depends on how long it takes them to fill up and then complete the batch.
Once you get a DNA profile back from the lab and it’s translated from the sequencing to the bioinformatics, you then load it into GEDmatch, correct?
Correct. It is at this point we load it into the database, GEDmatch. Then we can begin our research.
When you get the sample loaded into GEDmatch, I assume this is when you get “hits” or matches- a list of possible relatives?
Well yes. Once we get a profile loaded into GEDmatch- that’s when the real work begins. Yes, technically there have been cases where it has been real close, you know, a brother where you can’t miss it, so that would be a “hit”. So, say you’re a John Doe and we put your DNA in GEDmatch, we look around and get a list of matches, possible relatives and get a close match, let’s say your brother comes up. Well, there is only one way you can be connected. Then our job is almost done right? So we notify the agency and they take care of appropriate notifications to the family.
Past that and often what often is the case, the further back you go- you then have to determine how a John or Jane Doe is connected to the relative or relatives that show up. Now if you come up to be a first cousin, there’s two ways you can be connected to that person, either through your mom or dad. So that’s a little bit trickier, but not too much. Any genealogist, if you tell me who your first cousins are, I’m going to find out who you are real easy. Getting a sibling or first cousin, most people could name off their first cousins with ease, that doesn’t require much skill. Just asking questions and then following up, verifying it with records. Where it starts getting complicated, so say you’re a second cousin, well there are four ways you could be connected, through one of your grandparents, either maternal or paternal. That’s where it becomes a much larger process, a bigger project to figure it out. See not only could you be connected one of four ways, but the statistics become fuzzier. So not only does a second cousin automatically mean you could be connected one of four ways, but you could have inherited a little bit more or a little bit less than average DNA, so you could be a second cousin once removed, a first cousin twice removed. There is a little bit a wiggle room in the relationships. So with just that right there, our work is more complex the further back we go. With that in mind, we also could come up with fifth cousins, which then it’s probably not worth looking at too hard at least. We are always going to at least try a few things. That was ir is in the system and if something comes up later, we’re already at the genealogy portion.
Now at this juncture, this is really when your expertise as a forensic genealogist comes in. Once you find possible relatives, this doesn’t just tell you one match is a second cousin on the mother’s side, another is a first cousin twice removed on the father’s side, and then you just have drill down relatives. What are you working with once you get the DNA profile of Jane Doe in GEDmatch?
Exactly? Okay, so most people are familiar with DNA, the language used, is something like- law enforcement gets a DNA sample from let’s say a crime scene, they take that DNA enter it into the database like CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) and they get a hit. Sounds simple enough right? Really what they’re doing in this instance is taking a DNA profile from a particular crime scene and entering it into CODIS to see if there is a match to that specific profile. The DNA profiles in CODIS, well either they have a name or the profile is linked to a specific crime. These are specific matches though, either they are in there or not. Maybe it is down the road later they get a match.
What we do at DNA Doe Project is different, entirely. DNA is just the starting point, and we only get possible living relatives, DNA that is similar and we have to fill in that gap to hopefully get a positive identification. We’re not using DNA to get a conclusion, but it’s our starting point. In GEDmatch, when we enter the profile, it’s not going to give us a list of people and their relationship with John or Jane Doe and an address, not like CSI. What GEDmatch will do, is tell you how much of the DNA for Jane Doe matches other living people. It’s going to tell us a few things, but it’s not black and white. It won’t say this profile is the second cousin on the mother’s side of Jane Doe’s profile. This one is a third cousin twice remove on the father’s side.
In genetic genealogy how relationships are determined, they are analyzed through what geneticists call centiMorgans (cM or cMs), which technically are lengths of DNA segments in different chromosome positions. We inherit DNA on each chromosome from our parents. So to keep it simple, we will have so much DNA that we share through varying segments with our relatives. Now DNA segments you share with a match in GEDmatch, that is going to be through a common ancestor or maybe multiple common ancestors. The closer a relative is, the more DNA you will inherit, or the more common ancestors you have, the more DNA you inherit.
So based on the number of centiMorgans, you get an idea of the relationship between the two?
Yes and no, to be specific. Obviously if you’re related close enough, we will know right away if you’re a sibling, parent or child. What centiMorgans will tell you in GEDmatch is not exactly how you are related, it can’t actually tell you that- but it does give you some clues on where to begin. Keep in mind also, the way DNA is shared, the way it is passed down is not universal. You get 50% of your DNA from each parent, what centiMorgans you inherit from each parent varies. So it’s entirely possible for you and a sibling, to get different segments of centiMorgans from your parents. Now what GEDmatch will do, is tell you a few things. If you go on the website, you’ll understand this probably a little more clearly. GEDmatch will give you the largest segment of centiMorgans you share with a match. The larger the number of your largest segment with a match, the closer you will be related. Closer, as in number of generations or time. Next it will tell you the total number of centiMorgans that you share with a match. This number is really important, because that will tell you how close you are related genetically. Based on that total number of cMs you get a good idea of how you’re related to that person.
[To help understand how a relationship is determined using cMs, We’ve included the following chart from www.The GeneticGenealogist.com. The chart is not affiliated with Dr. Fitzpatrick or DNA Doe Project]
Obviously the closest possible relationships would be siblings, parent or child which you said earlier you figure out pretty much right away. Getting past the DNA portion and into genealogy, with relatives either close or distant, how do you fill in the space, the generation gaps and relationships of the John or Jane Doe to the relatives in GEDmatch?
Well it can get a bit more complicated considering you have half-siblings, adoptions, extramarital relationships or cases where maybe the mother assumed the husband was the father before they got married, there are a lot of different variables which is why you cannot just assume certain things. To get an answer, to fill in the gap; you have to take each name, each one of those individuals and begin making family trees for each one of those matches. We start building family trees for each individual, then start connecting them to each other. So say just as an example, we have ten matches to this DNA profile, this John/Jane Doe, we would have to build ten individual families trees for each known person, every one of those matches. They are going to start connecting. Now in an ideal case, five of those ten are going to connect with each other, then the other five are going to connect with each other. Reason is, they represent both sides of a person’s family. Five is for the mother and the other five is for the father. So with that we keep working, our hope, the goal is to figure out how these two groups connect. You’ll hopefully then find a man and a woman who is married and had children, so we have actual records establishing that. One of those would then be our unknown person, our Jane or John Doe. Of course, it’s not always that easy and records are not always accurate.
After building these family trees for individuals, obviously there are multiple trees per person you have to map out. So do you save them for future use, for instance like a global database where it is already mapped out for potential future cases?
In a way, yes and no. There are really two important parts here. Now, that is a good question. I can see why that might appear to be practical, but it really wouldn’t be beneficial. See, each case is separate. So yes, for each individual, we keep private trees on an individual’s ancestry for our records. They are unsearchable, they are private. Nobody can see them, but us at DNA Doe Project. They don’t get updated or are mapped to other families. That is just so we have a record of our work and our only goal is to use them for identification in this particular case. As with any science especially in a legal context, when it comes to DNA and forensic genealogy, we must meet the highest standards. This is in a legal context and must meet certain definitions, requirements and certain burdens of proof.
Now in concept for practical purposes? No, not really either. In all my research, I’ve never come across a single instance where one John or Jane Doe was related to another John or Jane Doe. I’ve never had to say, ‘oh wait, that Jane Doe from a few weeks ago is related to this guy, so let’s use that other family tree’. Now as time goes on, the more cases and families that are mapped out, there might be instances we come across some of the same families and if so, we have those other individual family trees available to us. Regardless, we would still very much have to map out each individual and their connections to each other.
Building these family trees for each individual going back just a generation or two could be hundreds, even thousands of people. Since you have to find, connect and then establish kinship, how much time would you estimate does this take each case?
We just solved a case in West Virginia, and this Jane Doe really had an extensive family on her mother’s side. We had 42,000 people in the family tree, that’s just on her mother’s side. With that number of connections, considering we have to map out each individual and their connections? Each case takes hundreds, often thousands of hours.
Through your work and the volunteers at DNA Doe Project, how many cases do you currently have and how many have you solved?
Our I.D. numbers are up in the 80’s now. Some of them have been solved. Some of them are very difficult cases and others are still in the DNA phase. Of the eighty or so cases we’ve taken on, we’ve solved fifteen of them so far. Keep in mind though, not all of them have gone to genealogy, some of them are still in the pipeline in one of the various DNA testing phases. We’ve solved just about half the cases that have gone onto the genealogy phase.
Are there certain cases you reject, or do you accept all of them?
No, we don’t reject cases. There are some that are extremely difficult, sometimes we know that upfront just based on the current DNA we have or we get into genealogy that we need more information, maybe more donors we just don’t have the matches. Every case we are asked to assist with, we accept. Even if right now it looks like the odds are not in our favor, we take them, but let the agency know that it’s going to be tough. Sometimes we have to wait for more DNA profiles to be uploaded into GEDmatch, at least we have it in the genealogy phase so when they pop up, we can resume our work. We just don’t know until we get it upload and try. There are times we get lucky, even with very limited information, matches on file. Besides there is other information we can get in the meantime that can help out. You know, what else are they [law enforcement agencies] going to do? They may not know anything about the John or Jane Doe. We can at least get their ethnic background, get geographical information, isotope tests and look, we can partner with Parabon Nanolabs for their services like DNA Phenotyping, you know there is so much more and it is really endless, but we have to start and try something.
So if a family wanted to use your service, they think certain remains or a unidentified decedent could be their loved one, something we see in many cases where these Does are suspected of being certain people, they really have to start pressure that local or state agency to get in touch with you to start the process?
Yes, absolutely. We have got those calls, but in this work we cannot start with the genealogy, you have to start with the DNA. The DNA is where it all starts and that begins with motivating law enforcement to get these samples out either to us, or a lab for the proper sequencing and they can get it to someone else. We don’t have a monopoly on the knowledge, there are other genealogists that could do this and offer to do it. You can’t just start genealogy and get some relative’s DNA who thinks they are related. Without the person, the remains, we have nothing to work with.
Recently you were brought on as a consultant with Karlie Guse’s disappearance, obviously the case is an active investigation and we cannot get into certain details, not at this time. When did you first hear about her disappearance?
It was a few months ago, I had seen it in the news cycle and talked with those familiar with the case. As you know, retired Det. Paul Dostie, he’s worked tirelessly, volunteered on the case and we’ve worked together on other cases as well. I’ve known Paul for years. Our resources and relationships, we have access to some of the best technology in the world. If I can assist law enforcement in any way, I will. The family deserves answers.
Is there anything in particular that sticks out to you with Karlie’s case?
Her disappearance is unusual, it’s definitely an unusual case. Normally we are given a case with DNA or remains of an unidentified person. We can’t get DNA directly from a missing person. We can’t just run your DNA through the database, looking someone else because it’s made up of living people. There is not this big ocean of John and Jane Doe DNA waiting to be identified in GEDmatch. It’s an ocean of living people. We just can’t get DNA from a missing person. In Karlie’s case, it’s real interesting because she is a missing person and we can’t obtain DNA from her directly. Now of course we can get DNA from her baby teeth or old blood sample, but where is she? And that’s the point.
The number one question I got from others for you Dr. Fitzpatrick, is how can they help DNA Doe Project?
Donations are always needed when we are funding a case as these tests can be very expensive. We’ve been fortunate to get every case funded. We are a nonprofit, we are all volunteers. More importantly though, we need more DNA. Everyone can help by taking an ancestry test and when they get the results, download them, because they’re yours. After you download them, then you can upload them to GEDMatch, which is the public database we use. There is still one more step after you upload it. You have to opt in letting everyone know that you’re okay with it being used for law enforcement purposes, so it’s okay that you appear on a list. It would cut down on our workload per case and eventually we have a realistic shot at identifying the missing, bringing these families the closure they deserve.
What about those interested in the field of forensic genealogy? As we’ve covered earlier, obviously there is no degree or training program for the field yet, what about those that are seriously interested about working in forensic genealogy?
At DNA Doe Project, we accept those that only have a certain level of experience in genealogy. Now, there are quite a few other people out there that do this work. Some of them want to work on their own. We don’t have a monopoly on this, I’ve written books on the subject to get people interested in it for that very reason. The strength that we have [at DNA Doe Project] is the DNA. We know DNA. I have this big fancy degree in science, so I can talk intelligently and coherently with the academics. Not just that, but I’ve established the connections and relationships with them. I can get those meetings. My partner, Margaret Press, has a PhD in linguistics. We’re not too shabby, you know? We’re not stupid, not saying that everyone else is. The difference is, we’ve worked hard to build different relationships with the labs, agencies and other academics, I lived the scientific process. Not just guesswork and assume because something sounds good or looks good that it must be right or because it satisfies someone else’s agenda. Because of our backgrounds, we’re taken seriously and I’ve worked hard to understand genetics, and biology. Same with Barbara Rae-Venter, she has a PhD in biology and a law degree. So, while anyone can try and do it, understanding the DNA portion and the issues you have with DNA and what you can do with partial DNA, degraded DNA and how the process works is non-negotiable.
There are people out there that know how to do it and people can learn how to do it. They can go to the sheriff department or medical examiner, you know, we don’t care. We don’t care that they are trying to help. We do care that it’s done right. Especially right now in its early stages- one or two bad apples can get people not to take it seriously and seriously damage relationships with families and law enforcement. Moment you start hearing that somebody is the best in business or they tell you about all their success with this or that, their cases, you just ask for their results. Say ‘okay, what cases have you worked, and with what agencies’? They say ‘well it’s confidential’. Fraud. Agencies won’t risk it, unless you have a proven track record. Those people then complain that ‘law enforcement won’t work with us, they won’t tell us anything’. They won’t work with you because you don’t know what you’re doing. We a have a proven track record.
You really have to know DNA and what to do with it. You have to know about samples, DNA sequencing and the bioinformatics and what information you can get from partial or degraded DNA. You can go direction A or go direction B with that information. You have to know which labs, and have relationships with those labs to get what you need from the DNA. You have to know in certain instances that with the information you currently have, that it’s not worth sinking a lot unnecessary time and money into it. That is another issue altogether. Getting funding and making sure you’re getting the right tests for the right information and results you need. It’s not cheap and someone that really don’t understand it, could easily waste a perfectly good sample of testing not needed or unnecessary all because they don’t understand DNA.
It’s not just sitting down and doing genealogy, making a family tree with a computer program. There is so much you have know and do before you even get to the genealogy. Even once you get to the genealogy, you have to know what will meet scientific and legal definitions and requirements. You can’t just say, well I loaded it up on Ancestry and it ‘said so’. You have to obtain records, certificates and documents. Photographs. Understanding the history of the time period, the dress, foods, architecture. I’ve actually exposed fraud this way, including an international bestselling author. Frauds can get documents and some of the history line up and make sense.
While we’re on the subject, I just read about “wolf girl” as I was preparing for this interview. One of the authors was the wolf girl, right? Can you tell us a bit about that?
Sure. Through my other company, IdentiFinders International, we offered forensic genealogical services to the government and the private sector. Investigating fraud was one of those services. It was pretty far fetched story, but see it still got past a publisher, co-author, their lawyers and fact-checkers and editor. A perfect example how genealogists are needed in just about everything, not just for law enforcement. Especially when you’re putting a lot of money into something.
She claimed she survived the Holocaust because… yes, she had been taken in by a pack of wolves as one of their own. Her name, she authored her “memoir” as Misha Defonseca [her real name is Monique de Wael] and the book was called Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, it came out over 20 years ago and it was met with quite a bit controversy because it was just silly. She ended up suing her publisher and was awarded a large sum of money. Well what happened, things didn’t add up with her story and soon enough, we began using forensic genealogy to expose her. So then she admitted it was fiction and had to repay the money.
[For more information about the Misha DeFronseca Holocaust Hoax, check out Misha DeFonseca Cries Wolf: HOLOCAUST FRAUD EXPOSED and Wikipedia article on the book, Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years]
It goes right back to what I was saying, that genealogy requires much more than just sitting down at your computer with a program and entering names. Records can be wrong. There is human error, mistakes and especially back in the day, official records required agencies to take a person’s word for it. Like adoption records, driver’s license or birth certificates. Which is my DNA is a required important.
It really is a science, an investigative process, trying to rigorously disprove relationships until you can’t eliminate them. You must continue to learn about history, cultures and investigative practices. It is very tedious and the details, little details make can big differences. Not just knowing history, but how records were created, why and how they were kept. What was required to make documents and records official, their importance and significance to a country or culture. These are all important factors that most people don’t think about. Some people were told they were Italian or Native American, so they look and accept anything and everything that supports that fact. Except it’s not a fact. It’s just what they were told and believe. This is why knowing cultures, customs, recipes, attitudes, language is all important and vital in establishing connections.
DNA and ancestry is really popular right now, you have a number of companies that many people probably have already used. Examples like 23andMe, Ancestry, Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage, so if they already got results from those companies, can they still be used with GEDMatch?
No, because those companies don’t work with law enforcement, well except Family Tree DNA. Understand that these companies, their very basic packages, the results are often not compatible with GEDmatch. If you use other companies, you have to request getting a genetic test and obtain the raw data from them, usually at the time of submission.
Right now, there’s a lot of controversy with DNA companies, not just law enforcement using DNA to identify offenders, but fears that companies would share consumer results. It’s tricky right now for some of these DNA companies, because of all the controversy. Because of irrational fears, companies don’t work with law enforcement, so those results are not available for them to obtain. There is just too much controversy with it right now. It’s something the public really don’t understand- well doesn’t understand exactly how it works.
Speaking on that subject, there are a lot of questions regarding privacy- concerning the Fourth Amendment which prohibits the government from unreasonable search and seizure. Some jurists arguing that this method of obtaining DNA and establishing identity, that it’s really unlawful. In your opinion, do you feel that this is a possibility and in a race against time to get offenders and unidentified decedents identified?
No. No, I don’t think so. Even if so and that becomes the case, it will still be at least a year or two before anything solidifies, and then later for state and then district courts, appeals courts to decide and then probably for lawmakers to pass laws, so it will be a good deal of time even if it went that way. I honestly don’t see a problem with it. The only problem really is the people complaining. People making it out to be something it’s not, like most things. There is a lack of understanding and really most people are complaining about certain possibilities than actual legalities. Many complaints will be from defense attorneys of offenders that were caught. So no, I don’t think so. They left their DNA at the scene of the crime or with the victim. So they are being identified with it before forensic genealogy. The people in the database, everyone in GEDmatch opted in, they put it in a public database. Really nonsense and people complaining.
Thank you for everything that you do Dr. Fitzpatrick. Your team at DNA Doe Project is doing a fantastic job and I don’t think you get enough recognition and appreciation for everything you’ve done & accomplished. Your work is revolutionary, the single greatest contribution and development to human identification since DNA. It is amazing and an invaluable service that certainly changed the world. Is there anything else you’d like to add or want people to know about what it is you do and DNA Doe Project?
Thank you for taking the time and getting out information about DNA Doe Project out there. You’d be surprised how many still don’t know that this available and how easy it is for them to help, especially with how popular getting DNA tests are right now. We need them to take the tests, upload it to GEDmatch and make sure they opt in so their sample can be used for law enforcement purposes.
Thank you for your time and all that you do Dr. Fitzpatrick!
Sure and thank you. Talk to you soon.
You can order both copies of Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick’s books on Amazon.
Forensic Genealogy, is a great introduction to the subject and gives greater insight into what we discussed today.
DNA & Genealogy, provides in depth, technical analysis into DNA and how information can be gathered & utilized in relationship with genealogy. Perfect for those already familiar with genealogy. An absolute must for those exploring the field. You won’t be disappointed.
Information & Further Reading:
1 thought on “Interview with Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick”
An excellent, in depth interview with my friend and colleague, Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick. It is very rare for a Journalist to get this much detail in an interview of such a complex subject.
Damion, you have a gift for asking the right questions so people can understand the complexity of Colleen’s work.