In March 2021, Colorado officials announced that they had solved two more cold cases through the use of Investigative Genetic Genealogy. The victims were Barbara “Bobbi” Jo Oberholtzer, 29, and Annette Kay Schnee, 22, both of whom were last seen hitchhiking separately in Jan. 6, 1982, near the town of Breckenridge.
The killer was tracked down through a collaboration between law enforcement, Metro Denver Crime Stoppers and United Data Connect, a company founded by a former Denver district attorney that works in the burgeoning industry of genetic genealogy.
Authorities began working in 2020 to link usable DNA left at one of the crime scenes to a potential suspect. A DNA profile of the killer was established in 1998, but searches in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) found no matches.
Little could be done with the profile until the advent of genetic genealogy, which became a mainstream law enforcement tool in 2018.
What is Genetic Genealogy: It is the use of DNA testing to determine relationships between individuals, find genetic matches, and discover close relatives and ancestry.
What is Investigative Genetic Genealogy: Law enforcement uses online consumer databases (like GEDmatch, with consumer approval) to identify suspects through family connections. Investigators can upload crime-scene DNA to these sites and then build out large family trees to look for potential suspects.
As the potential pool of suspects is narrowed down, investigators use other public records to bolster their work and determine which of the possible offenders were in the area within the time frame of the crime.
The field of investigative genetic genealogy has grown exponentially over the past few years and now is being used by criminologists in a majority if states to solve cold cases.
Advent of Genetic Genealogy to Solve Crimes: In April 2018, California authorities announced they used genetic genealogy to arrest a man they called the Golden State Killer, a serial murderer who’d escaped capture for decades. For the first time, police had submitted DNA from a crime scene into a consumer DNA database, where information about distant relatives helped them identify a suspect. The announcement kindled a revolution in forensics that has since helped solve more than many rapes and homicides throughout the United States.
Not Without Controversy: Genetic database companies have faced criticism for allowing police to search profiles without users’ permission. In response, and recognizing what a valuable tool this has been to help families who have lost loved ones, companies such as GedMatch have made sure their members understand explicitly how investigators use their site. Individual users can now Opt In if they wish to make their profile accessible to law enforcement.