Authorities say consumer DNA databases provided their big break, but the site they used had no idea its services were being utilized to track the suspect.
Law enforcement officials were finally able to track down the man they believe to be the Golden State Killer after linking DNA evidence collected from the murder scenes to genetic information stored on a consumer genealogical website, authorities said Thursday.
From 1978 to 1986, the Golden State Killer murdered a dozen people and raped dozens more in attacks that stretched hundreds of miles from Sacramento to Southern California. But authorities knew little about the killer, beyond a string of DNA recorded in several of the cases.
After struggling for decades to identify who the DNA came from, investigators got their big break when they tapped genealogical databases commonly used by consumers to search for relatives and ancestors, authorities told the Los Angeles Times.
Information available on the sites dramatically narrowed the scope of their search, law enforcement officials told the newspaper. After investigating several families listed in the databases, investigators were able to focus on a pool of about 100 men who fit the age profile of the killer, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A law enforcement official initially declined to identify the site used or provide details about exactly how the match was made. Popular DNA sites Ancestry.com, 23andme and MyHeritage all denied involvement in the investigation.
Lead investigator Paul Holes told the San Jose Mercury News that GEDmatch, a Florida-based "open-source" genealogy website that allows users to share their genetic profiles for free, was one of his team's biggest tools. The site's co-founder says he had no idea his site's services were being used to pursue the killer and insisted it doesn't hand out data.
"We understand that the GEDmatch database was used to help identify the Golden State Killer," GEDmatch operator Curtis Rogers said in a statement Friday. "Although we were not approached by law enforcement or anyone else about this case or about the DNA, it has always been GEDmatch's policy to inform users that the database could be used for other uses."
The investigation eventually led authorities on Tuesday to arrest Joseph James DeAngelo, a 72-year-old former police officer living in Citrus Heights, a suburb of Sacramento. Authorities say the Golden State Killer slipped in through backdoors and windows at night, raping at least 46 women in Northern California before turning to murder and moving down the coast.
Originally published April 26 at 4:30 p.m. PT.
Update on April 27 at 12:30 p.m. PT: Adds information about the site used by law enforcement officials.
Security: Stay up-to-date on the latest in breaches, hacks, fixes and all those cybersecurity issues that keep you up at night.
Blockchain Decoded: CNET looks at the tech powering bitcoin -- and soon, too, a myriad services that will change your life.