Genealogy websites providing new hope in cold cases, including Michigan missing persons case

(WSYM) - The popularity of genealogy websites seems to be helping law enforcement find answers to cases that are decades old.

Earlier this year, investigators found the suspected Golden State Killer who'd murdered more than a dozen people in a crime spree that started in the 1970's.

It was a DNA match from a genealogy website that ultimately led investigators to Joseph Deangelo.

Sarah Krebs is a sergeant with Michigan State Police. She's also the founder of Missing in Michigan, a non-profit aimed at helping families with missing loved ones, as well as supporting law enforcement in their efforts.

She says genealogy sites are changing the way law enforcement finds answers.

"It's so new and so up-and-coming, but it's so favorable. The cases I've seen solved by it - amazing," Krebs says.

Genealogy websites are rising in popularity with millions of people looking to learn more about their heritage and health.

In April, Krebs says, a 37-year-old Jane Doe case from Ohio was solved thanks to DNA and a public genealogy website.

"I think the more we use it and more law enforcement agencies start to bring in-house .. this will become something we do on a daily basis," she says.

So far Krebs says no Michigan case has been solved using such a genealogy website, but she believes that is on the horizon. 

She's hoping to test it out with a 31-year-old Jane Doe case, a young woman who Krebs says was tossed out like somebody's trash on Harper Avenue in Detroit back in 1987. 

"Harper Jane Doe"'s throat had been slit. Her case is one of more than 300 Jane Doe and John Doe cases in Michigan.

Krebs says a few years ago, investigators were only able to get partial DNA, which was degraded. 

She adds that what DNA they did have was exhausted in trying to ID her. 

The next step is to have mitochondrial DNA extracted from her skeletal remains. When that happens, she hopes it can be tested with a genealogy site to see if there's a lead. 

From there, genealogy research would have to be done. 

Krebs says Gedmatch.com, a free genealogy site, is what investigators in the Golden State Killer case used.

"It's such a large pool of DNA. It makes our database look like nothing. This is so exciting to us that we have an avenue that could possibly identify all of our cases," she says.

If that DNA can be extracted from the skeletal remains in the "Harper Jane Doe" case, Krebs says they will also use Gedmatch.com because it's free, has such a high number of profiles and it has worked for other police agencies.

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