Police in Utah used a genealogy site to find a violent suspect — and the uproar led to tighter rules on GEDmatch

The details of the Centerville crime were heinous: Someone had broken into a locked church and attacked an elderly woman who had been playing the organ alone, choking her until she no longer moved.

Police found the suspect’s blood on the sill beneath a broken window, but the DNA test resulted in no matches in traditional law enforcement databases.

So, a detective took a different approach, using a public genealogy website to crack the case.

The technology had been successful before — it’s how police identified the Golden State Killer and also led St. George detectives to a man who had raped an elderly woman in her home last year.

But the Centerville officer had a problem. The site, GEDmatch, had clear terms of service that only allowed police to use the database if they were investigating a homicide or sexual assault.

He emailed GEDmatch’s owner, Curtis Rogers, to ask that an exception be made.

Rogers told The Salt Lake Tribune this week that he considered the detective’s request, and thought about how the Centerville police were worried that the attacker may harm others.

“If this was a psychopath, this could be the beginning of other people getting killed,” said Rogers, a retired Florida businessman. “This woman was essentially left for dead. It’s as close as you can get to a murder as possible.”

Rogers gave the detective the go-ahead. He could defend the decision, he thought, reasoning that the suspect probably intended to kill the woman, so maybe it didn’t technically violate the terms of his website.

Turns out, many groups — particularly those concerned with privacy issues — disagreed with Rogers’ decision to bend the rules.

After BuzzFeed News reported that GEDmatch had allowed Centerville police to violate of its own rules, groups complained about privacy fears.

In reaction, the website took action.

GEDmatch earlier this week changed its terms of service so users must now explicitly “opt-in” to allow their DNA profiles to be included in law enforcement searches. And even then there are limits for police. They must be investigating a “violent crime."

GEDmatch allows people who have had their DNA analyzed elsewhere, like with 23andMe or AncestryDNA, to upload their information to dig deeper into their family histories.

These new restrictions could severely limit the success that police have had so far in using GEDmatch to solve difficult crimes.

Rogers told The Tribune that he recognized his decision to let Centerville police use his database for an assault case could be questionable.

But knowing that it led police to a suspect — a 17-year-old boy who police zeroed in on because his great-uncle had his DNA profile uploaded on GEDmatch — made him feel like his decision was the right one.

“I honestly believe I saved people’s lives.”

‘Attacked from behind’

It was late in the evening on Nov. 17, 2018 when a 71-year-old woman practicing the organ heard a pounding on the door of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ward.

She ignored the noise, a detective later wrote in a search warrant affidavit, and kept practicing.

“She was then attacked from behind and without warning,” Detective Mark Taggart wrote. “She did not notice that someone had snuck up behind her.”

The attacker put her in a chokehold, squeezing so tight that she lost consciousness. She would pass out, she later told investigators, then wake up to realize the attack was still happening.

The attacker left her there after she stopped moving. She never saw his face.

“It was a pretty vicious attack against someone who is defenseless and elderly,” said Centerville police Lt. Zan Robison.

After investigators ran into a dead-end with traditional DNA testing, Robison said they went to Parabon Labs — a company that is being increasingly used by police to solve violent crimes. The lab can turn DNA tests into the equivalent information needed to upload it, but the police were told this case violated GEDmatch’s privacy rules.

Once Rogers gave them special permission, the investigation moved forward. And the attacker’s DNA matched a distant family member. Police later discovered that the man had a nephew who lived just blocks away from the church, according to a search warrant affidavit. That nephew had a 17-year-old son who also lived there.

But that wasn’t enough to make an arrest — police needed another sample of the boy’s DNA to see if it matched the blood found at the crime scene.

A school resource officer watched the teen eat lunch, and police later fished out a juice box and plastic milk container that the boy had thrown in the trash. The items were then tested: the DNA on the milk container was the same as that found at the church.

Police arrested their suspect. Charging documents and other information filed in juvenile court were not available, as the youth’s attorney has asked that all records be sealed. A hearing is scheduled Friday.

The Tribune generally does not identity suspects who have been charged with crimes in juvenile court.

Robison said this is the first time his department used a genealogy database such as GEDmatch to solve a case. If Rogers had denied their request, he said, it would have made it much more difficult to identify a suspect.

A donation covered the $5,000 cost of Parabon turning the DNA into something that GEDmatch could upload.

A chance to opt-in

In the days after GEDmatch changed its privacy policy, many pro-law enforcement groups have urged genealogy users to go “opt-in” on the site so their data can still be searched by police agencies.

That includes the Utah Cold Case Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to investigating unsolved crimes in the Beehive State. The group said this week that opting in can provide an “invaluable tool” for law enforcement and could be the key to cracking cold cases or violent crimes.

Attorney Karra Porter, who co-founded the coalition, said most of the concern surrounding police using these databases focus on the potential for it to be a routine tool for even simple crimes, like shoplifting, not just violent crime.

Porter said she was probably one of GEDmatch’s earliest members, after she used the website to trace her mother’s family line. But the news that the website’s founders gave access to Utah police that was against its policies gives her pause.

“I am concerned about that,” she said. “I do believe they should follow the rules that are set. I have a problem with someone saying we’re doing something, and later asking for forgiveness.”

Rogers, GEDmatch’s founder, said his latest limitations on police use is not meant to be anti-law enforcement. He supports their work “100 percent,” but felt it was a change he had to make.

“I’m trying to make it done the right way,” he said, “to make it as open and honest as possible to make sure everyone on our site knows that it’s there. That’s the ethical thing to do.”

It was a surprise to Rogers that his site was used last year by California police to catch who they believe is the Golden State Killer, a man accused of killing more than a dozen people and raping more than 50 in the 1970s and ‘80s.

And while he says he never thought when he started the website nearly a decade ago that it could be used by police to solve cold cases, he supports the work they are doing.

He receives emails from people whose rapists were found thanks to police finding a match on his site, from parents who finally know who killed their daughter. It’s heartwarming, he said, to bring people that closure.

“That’s what it’s really all about,” he said. “Not about punishing the guy [who did it]. It’s the people who have suffered for decades without any closure and now they have that.”