How police used genealogy to find the Idaho murder suspect

MOSCOW, Idaho — There are many ways to process and find DNA matches, like when police are unable to pin down a suspect.

In the University of Idaho murder investigation, police used a process called genealogy, which was also used to find the Golden State killer and a serial rapist from Pullman in a cold case from 18 years ago.

Dr. Greg Hampikian is the director of the Idaho Innocence Project, an organization that uses DNA to overturn the convictions of people who have been wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit.

Dr. Hampikian is well-versed on the pivotal role DNA can play in criminal investigations, speaking directly to the process of genealogy.

“This is really the new way for cases that don’t have a suspect, and that’s a significant part of this case, for example,” Dr. Hampikian said. “They didn’t have a suspect to arrest by motive or other elements until they got this genealogical match.”

How it works is police collect a DNA sample from a crime scene, like a swab of blood, and submit it to the crime lab.

If they get no initial matches, they can submit the DNA to independent genealogy companies.

These genealogy companies have databases of DNA from people all over the world who voluntarily submitted samples to learn more about their family roots. Genealogists compare the DNA submitted by police with other DNA already in their databases to see if it matches with a family pedigree.

Because so many people have submitted samples over the years, there’s a higher probability of finding a match, but it can take time to zero in on the right person.

“So they got a hit to a family or pedigree, and that can go back hundreds of years, so you have to then do the paperwork to find out who’s in the family, what birth records are there, death certificates, who’s alive, who could’ve been in the area at the time,” Dr. Hampikian said. “From that point, they’ll try to get an actual sample from the suspect.”

So far, only two commercial genealogy companies allow police access. For the ones that do, like GEDmatch, customers must give their consent before submitting their sample.

Dr. Hampikian emphasized that just because their DNA is found at the scene doesn’t mean that person committed the crime.

“That’s why police investigation is key to this, they’ve got to have a very carefully done case. Just because you have DNA doesn’t tell you what happened, it tells you who may have contributed,” he said.

In Dr. Hampikian two decade career, genealogical evidence has only been used to assist in an investigative lead, like to help identify a suspect, though he says that could change soon this year.

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