Slowly but Surely: Taking Genetic Genealogy to the Next Level

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 Slowly but Surely: Taking Genetic Genealogy to the Next Level

Colleen Fitzpatrick is the pioneer of forensic genetic genealogy (FGG), so it would only make sense for her to usher it into the next era—a step, she says, that moves FGG from the “OMG era” to the “investigative intelligence era.”

Three specific things have recently happened to Fitzpatrick that she thinks will ultimately help in the battle to advance FGG: 1) she was named the director of forensic genetic genealogy at the country’s only non-profit forensics lab, Intermountain Forensics, 2) she was promoted to Member by the American Academy of Forensic Science, and 3) she was invited to join the Vidocq Society, the historic members-only crime solving club.

Intermountain Forensics

DNA is the holy grail for forensic investigations. Of course, it can’t solve every crime; but that doesn’t stop Danny Hellwig and his team at Intermountain Forensics from trying to do just that.

Hellwig points to a few specific reasons a crime may not be solvable using DNA; the most obvious being there may not be any DNA to analyze. In other cases, there may not be enough DNA. Hellwig and his team can often solve these problems by using M-Vac’s wet-vacuum DNA collection tool or QIAGEN’s TissueLyser. Some cases may involve mixtures, which Hellwig and his team tackle through next-generation sequencing and probabilistic genotyping software.

Even if Intermountain’s advanced technologies address the first three reasons, the fourth reason a case can go cold is the one that really irks Hellwig—there is a CODIS-uploadable profile but it does not achieve a hit because the offender is not in CODIS. FGG, Hellwig says, is undoubtedly the way to take care of that.

“We didn’t originally intend to do the investigative side of genetic genealogy at the lab,” Hellwig told Forensic. “But I have had a great relationship with [Fitzpatrick], working together in the past to develop processes for FGG. The conversation naturally gravitated toward working together and when we both showed interest, it turned into an unexpected but fortuitous partnership.”

For Fitzpatrick’s part, she values the mission of the non-profit Intermountain Forensics lab.

“Forensic genetic genealogy can be expensive and confusing to law enforcement agencies,” Fitzpatrick told Forensic. “Intermountain wants to organize the process, bring the price down, educate agencies and offer services at an affordable price. I will have a part in that. I will help develop the technology, help streamline it, and hopefully make FGG compatible with crime lab technology in the long run.”

Hellwig and Fitzpatrick share the same ultimate vision: the day when a new case comes into an agency and they say ‘we have enough DNA for CODIS and FGG, let’s do both right away.’ It’s about merging the CODIS pipeline and the FGG pipeline to create a combined, simplified version that leads to a unified decision-making process.

forensic genetic genealogy

 

AAFS

After 10 years, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) has promoted Fitzpatrick to Member. She is presently the only forensic genetic genealogist with membership in AAFS, which is the largest forensic science organization in the world. Founded in 1948, AAFS has more than 6,500 members who represent all 50 states and 71 countries. The organization is heavily structured and influenced by its 11 sections, which include toxicology, jurisprudence, odontology, pathology, and more.

Forensic genetic genealogy is not recognized by the AAFS as an official forensic discipline at this time—something Fitzpatrick hopes to change.

“Now that I am a member, it’s not going to take 10 years to get the next forensic genealogist promoted,” she said. “This is important to us as a community because it will allow forensic genealogists to work with other forensic practitioners as official members of the community, not only to solve cases but also to formulate standards and policies. We see that happening anyway and we need to be part of the decision-making process. We don’t want the rest of the forensic community to develop policies that affect us without our input.”

The next step for Fitzpatrick would be to be promoted by AAFS to Fellow.

Vidocq

Although vastly different, the Vidocq Society is a members-only group in which Fitzpatrick is one of the few forensic genealogists. Named for Eugène François Vidocq, the father of modern criminology, the society was formed in 1990 by William Fleisher, Richard Walter and Frank Bender. The exclusive 82-member core group comprises a variety of forensic professionals, including profilers, homicide investigators, scientists, psychologists, prosecutors and coroners, who put their experience to use for cold cases.

Meeting on the third Thursday of every month in Philadelphia, the Society invites a law enforcement agency to present their case. Then, they brainstorm.

“Being a part of that as a forensic genealogist is really exciting,” Fitzpatrick said.

Even before she was invited to join, Fitzpatrick had an unexpected connection to the Vidocq Society. In 2015, she helped solve the Phoenix Canal Murders, the first cold case homicide solved using FGG. It was only later she discovered that the Vidocq Society had reviewed the case.

Ultimately, Fitzpatrick’s involvement with the Vidocq Society boils down to the message she seems to live and breathe—FGG is a revolutionary, integral part of modern forensic science, one that deserves a unified framework that will stand for the greater good.  

Day job

Even though she is the new director of genetic genealogy at Intermountain Forensics, Fitzpatrick will continue to work with law enforcement on violent crime and Doe cases through her company, Identifinders International.

The company also has an interest in how FGG can assist in international humanitarian efforts. Fitzpatrick envisions a GEDmatch-type ad-hoc database that can assist in identifying individuals found in mass graves or victims of mass disasters.

Imagine, for instance, there is another tsunami in Indonesia, and thousands of people are missing. Family members may have no idea if their loved ones are alive. Setting up a GEDmatch-type, humanitarian service would allow surviving family members to contribute their DNA for possible victim identification.

“There are a lot of challenges and it won’t happen overnight. It’s complicated,” Fitzpatrick said. “But if you could bring the necessary technology to the scene, or at least get DNA from the scene to the right lab, you could start identifying victims using FGG.”

Starting quietly in 2015 with its use of Y-STRs to solve the Phoenix Canal Murders, forensic genetic genealogy finally caught the world’s attention with the identification of the Golden State Killer. Since then, it has been used to solve several hundred cold cases that were believed to be beyond the reach of modern technology, with the potential of solving thousands more.