St. George • Simple mail-in DNA tests have changed how people learn about their ancestry and even connected distant relatives to one another.

But the power of genetic genealogy doesn’t stop there. Police have turned these quickly growing databases into a new investigative tool, leading to confessions, a guilty verdict — and even one exoneration.

In just the past year, police have used genetic genealogy to identify suspects in more than 60 crimes, mostly cases that have grown cold after years of traditional police work turned up few leads.

None is more notorious than the Golden State Killer case, in which the suspect still faces 13 murder charges. That headline-grabbing arrest opened the floodgates to a new type of policing.

But it also has raised questions about privacy and concerns about using a distant family member’s DNA to track down criminals.

Shaping the landscape of this rapidly evolving investigative method — for better or worse — are two Utah cases.

St. George detectives were not the first to secure an arrest, but they were the first to use this technology to solve an active case after a man broke into a stranger’s home and sexually assaulted an elderly woman in April 2018.

That case was a turning point for the genealogist who assisted the detective. Before that, she’d been involved only in cold cases. The technology, she thought, could be used regularly to help police identify violent suspects before they had a chance to strike again.

But then, months later, police use of genetic genealogy began to unravel.

At the center of that controversy was another Utah police department. Centerville police used a genealogy database to solve an aggravated assault case, causing an uproar that led to new restrictions on this type of information. It also has continued to fuel questions about the ethics of police using this sort of DNA technology to solve less-serious crimes.

A sexual assault in southern Utah

It was the type of crime that didn’t happen in a place like St. George.

A stranger sneaked into an elderly woman’s home through an unlocked sliding glass door April 17, 2018, held down the 79-year-old on her bed and sexually assaulted her.

Carla Brooks never saw his face and didn’t know who he was. By the time St. George Detective Josh Wilson arrived, there were few clues to whom the perpetrator might be.

But there was one big lead — police were able to pull a DNA sample from semen found on Brooks’ bedsheets. Wilson thought the case would be an easy one to solve. All he had to do was send the DNA to the state crime lab, where analysts agreed to quickly test the sample and check law enforcement databases for a suspect.

There was no match.

“It was a real punch in the face,” Wilson said. “That was the lowest point of the case. What do we do now?”

As the DNA was analyzed, Wilson and the other detectives did what you expect police to do when a crime takes place. They talked to neighbors, combed through the area, followed up on leads of suspicious people who had been near Brooks’ home. But they got nowhere.

“Everything we could possibly think of, even if it sounded completely ridiculous, we tried it,” St. George Lt. Rich Triplett said. “We wanted to make sure we did everything for this case.”

And as they searched for their suspect, Wilson couldn’t help but notice a case that was making headlines across the country. Just a week after Brooks’ assault, California police announced they had caught the man they believed to be the Golden State Killer, responsible for the deaths of more than a dozen people and the rapes of more than 50 in the 1970s and ‘80s. They found their suspect using a public genetic genealogy website, GEDmatch, to track him down through his family tree.

Wilson began to wonder — if it could be used to solve a cold case, why couldn’t he use it to find the man who assaulted Brooks?

But the southern Utah investigator had no idea how the process actually worked, and his calls to the California detective went unanswered. He discreetly called a few DNA companies like Ancestry.com to see if they could help, but they only dealt with saliva, and the police only had a semen sample.

After a lot of internet searching, an author who wrote about DNA was able to connect Wilson with CeCe Moore, a California-based genealogist who worked with a company called Parabon Labs to help police solve crimes. The lab can turn crime scene DNA into the equivalent information needed to upload it on genetic genealogy databases.

Moore was able to take the case, but St. George police had a bit of sticker shock when they realized it would cost $4,000 to turn their suspect’s DNA into something that would work on GEDmatch.

“It was a huge sum of money for us,” Triplett said. “For an item we had never heard of and obviously hadn’t budgeted for, it was a substantial amount of money. But the case was a top priority.”

They paid it and Moore got to work, uploading the crime scene DNA into GEDmatch and then searching for distant family members, seeing how close she could match a suspect to someone else. It was a complicated process that required Moore to trace the family back generations, then forward again toward the suspect.

It was the first time Moore had worked on an active case, and she knew how much was riding on this.

“If I didn’t find him, he would attack someone again,” Moore said. “I was afraid to go to sleep. I was just determined to find him and give Carla some peace. It was the most pressure I’ve felt.”

Within weeks, she was able to tell St. George police that the attacker was one of four brothers.

“It was mind-blowing,” Triplett said. “It seemed like voodoo; it seemed like magic what she was able to do. We were so invested in this case and to finally get down to the end and here’s your four suspects — it was amazing.”

The youngest brother lived in St. George. Wilson began doing surveillance on the family and eventually brought the teenager into the police department under the guise of getting a statement about a recent attempted bombing at his high school.

It became clear to Wilson that this teenager wasn’t their suspect — but the teen had mentioned that his eldest brother had recently been living in St. George and had moved to Arizona a few months earlier.

Wilson turned his focus to that brother, Spencer Monnett, and found out he had a traffic warrant for his arrest. He reached out to Monnett in July 2018 and was surprised when the 31-year-old told him he was traveling back to St. George and would come to the department to take care of the warrant.

The date for their meeting was set, but, as the day dragged on, Wilson became nervous. Monnett called to say he’d be late. Then he had a flat tire. Then his car wouldn’t start.

Wilson worried his suspect had figured out that this was about more than a traffic warrant, but Monnett finally showed up at the police parking lot at 3 a.m. the next day. Wilson rushed to the department, ready to hand Monnett two pieces of paper: the traffic arrest warrant and a new warrant for his DNA.

As they started questioning him, Monnett admitted to sexually assaulting Brooks, and he wrote a full confession and an apology letter.

“My jaw is on the ground,” Wilson recalled. “I cannot believe this.”

Wilson arrested Monnett and took him to jail. By 6 a.m., Wilson was at Brooks’ home just a few blocks away from the police station. He still becomes emotional as he describes sitting on her couch, tears in his eyes as she looked at him. He could barely speak, but managed to get out a few words.

“Carla, we got him.”

Another Utah case brings controversy

A few months later, Moore would use genetic genealogy to solve another Utah case — this time more than 300 miles north in Centerville.

Someone had broken into a locked church in November 2018 and attacked an elderly woman who had been playing the organ, choking her until she passed out.

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

Detective Mark Taggart then recalled a recent training that included a discussion about GEDmatch. “I decided to see if that was possible in this case,” Taggart testified at a recent court hearing.

But the Centerville officer had a problem. GEDmatch — a site where millions of users upload their DNA results from other companies like 23andMe to find family matches — had clear terms of service that allowed police to use the site only if they were investigating a homicide or a sexual assault.

That didn’t apply in Taggart’s case. The organist did not die, and though she was injured, she had not been raped.

So Taggart emailed GEDmatch’s founder, Curtis Rogers. And Rogers, a retired Florida businessman, ultimately decided to let Centerville police use the database. He could defend the decision, he reasoned, by explaining that the suspect probably intended to kill the organist.

With permission from GEDmatch, Parabon Labs went to work and Moore again found a match, this time to a great-uncle.

Police later discovered that the man had distant family members who lived just a few blocks from the Centerville church, including a 17-year-old boy who became their suspect.

Taggart was able to get a DNA sample from the teen, and the state crime lab confirmed it was a match to the blood found on the sill.

But GEDmatch found itself under fire after BuzzFeed News reported that the company had allowed Centerville police to violate its own rules. The database is public, but some worried that users who uploaded their information had no idea their data would one day be used by the government for criminal investigations.

Judy Russell, who blogs as the Legal Genealogist, wrote that users should have the choice about how their DNA is used — and that choice was taken from them when GEDmatch made the exception.

“GEDmatch has broken its own word, its own contract with its users, set out in its own terms of service,” she wrote.

In reaction to the criticism, GEDmatch took action by changing its terms of service so users must now explicitly “opt in” to allow their DNA profiles to be included in law enforcement searches. And the police must be investigating a “violent crime.”

Most other DNA websites, including those with Utah offices like Ancestry.com and MyHeritage, have adopted stricter privacy policies that prohibit police from using their DNA data unless they have a warrant or subpoena.

Another controversy surfaced earlier this year after it became public that the Houston-based company FamilyTreeDNA had agreed to similar privacy policies but quietly had given the FBI the green light to use its database. The company apologized but then leaned into the controversy by releasing an ad featuring Utahn Ed Smart, the father of Elizabeth Smart, pleading with the public to opt in to law enforcement matching.

“When a loved one is the victim of a violent crime, families want answers,” Smart says in the ad. “If you are one of the millions of people who have taken a DNA test, your help can be the missing link.”

The future for genetic genealogy in policing

In both Utah cases, the suspects pleaded guilty. Monnett to object rape and burglary of a dwelling in St. George. He was sent to prison on a five-year-to-life term. The Centerville teen admitted in juvenile court to harming the organist and was sent to a youth lockup.

And the victims in both cases forgave their attackers at their sentencings.

“My hope is that you will receive the help you need,” said the organist, Margaret Orlando. “You have been in my prayers even before I knew who you were.”

Brooks told Monnett that his actions caused her to be scared in her own home — something she had never feared before. But she said she hopes he receives the help he needs and can have a successful life.

“I want to say for you, and for me, that I forgive you,” she said in tears. “To err is human, to forgive is divine. And remaining hurt or angry will do no good for anyone.”

The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify victims of sexual assault, but police publicly released Brooks’ name at her request.

Though their cases ended in convictions, officials in both Centerville and St. George are hesitant about using genetic genealogy regularly.

Centerville Lt. Zan Robinson cited budget concerns — the $5,000 it took to solve their case was paid through donations, but that might not always be available.

“I don’t think we can afford to use it very often,” he said. “That’s expensive for a small agency like Centerville.”

And other departments, like St. George, have expressed concern that because GEDmatch has adopted an opt-in process, there will not be as much success because the potential pool of DNA matches has grown much smaller.

Moore, the genealogist, echoed this concern, saying the GEDmatch database had gone from millions of DNA profiles to somewhere closer to 100,000 who have opted in.

She said it’s been a blow to the growing momentum that genetic genealogy had in the law enforcement community. But the work will continue.

“This isn’t over,” she said. “I’m still barreling forward. It will just take a little longer on most cases. But it’s not done.”

Because of the success in the Brooks case, St. George police had planned to submit DNA from a cold case to Parabon Labs. But as they were trying to find the $8,000 to pay for the type of testing needed, the Centerville controversy came to light and GEDmatch changed its policies.

Triplett has the funding now, but he’s nervous to write that check.

“That was a kick in the teeth,” he said. “It’s hard to justify to our city an $8,000 bill when there’s a real possibility they’re going to come back with nothing.”