How DNA and a genealogy website solved a decades-old mystery

Shannon McAdoo, a former accountant in Erie, Pa., Spends her evenings researching ancestors on genealogy websites.

WASHINGTON DC (AP) – Shannon McAdoo, a former accountant in Erie, Pa., Spends her evenings researching ancestors on genealogy websites.

“You can find the most amazing things in your story,” she said. “I’m going down all those rabbit holes.”

This year, in an effort to broaden his research, McAdoo dabbed his cheek with a long cotton swab and submitted his DNA to a genealogy website specializing in creating family genetic matches.

McAdoo, 53, had no idea she would apparently help solve a family mystery: what happened to his cousin, Margaret Fetterolf, a usual runaway who disappeared from her home in Alexandria, Va., In 1975 at the age of 16 years.

For decades, Fetterolf’s family hoped she would show up for Thanksgiving dinner one day.

Meanwhile, Cold Case detectives struggled to identify a body found in 1976, 50 miles away, near a Baltimore County cemetery. The victim was only known as Woodlawn Jane Doe, after the community outside of Baltimore where she was discovered – strangled, sexually assaulted and wrapped in a white sheet with her hands tied.

This summer, detectives identified Woodlawn Jane Doe as Fetterolf using a controversial new law enforcement technique: linking DNA from unidentified bodies and potential serious crime suspects to relatives who upload their DNA to genealogy sites that allow the police to access their genetic information. The technique, as a scientific article puts it metaphorically, reduces the size of the investigative haystack, allowing investigators to “identify the needle.”

For law enforcement, investigative genetic genealogy has led to a boon of unsolved case closures, including the identification of the Golden State Killer in 2018. But privacy and legal ethics experts fear that the technique could turn family members into unwitting “genetic informants”.

“Identifying and prosecuting serious violent crime perpetrators, like the Golden State Killer, is a victory for public safety,” Natalie Ram, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, wrote last year in a report. American Bar Association publication. “Nonetheless,” she added, “the loss of privacy may not be a justifiable cost to civil society, let alone justified in every criminal investigation case to which it might be applied.”

Although a Pew study last year found that 48% of Americans support the practice of DNA testing companies sharing information with the police, some states are moving to restrict the use of genetic genealogy to solve cases. crimes.

This week, a law in Maryland went into effect limiting the use of genealogy websites by law enforcement to serious violent crimes. By law, sites can only be used under the supervision of a judge and after all other investigative methods have been exhausted.

Fetterolf’s case would certainly have qualified.

Edward Fetterolf, Margaret Fetterolf’s younger brother, said she started running away when she was 12. She was rebellious and constantly struggling. When she was placed in foster homes, she also ran away from them.

“Then she would beg to come home and my parents would let her come home and then she would run away again,” Edward Fetterolf said in an interview. “So it was just a revolving door.”

At the end of the summer of 1975, she ran away again. But this time it was different. A week had passed and she had not returned. Then a month. The family hoped she would show up someday on someone’s birthday or on a family vacation. These hopes, spread over months and years, have faded over time. They suspected the worst.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the Fetterolfs, there was the mystery of the Woodlawn Jane Doe. Although the case was featured on police broadcasts and public campaigns to help identify the body, no one in Fetterolf’s immediate family, still residing in Alexandria, had heard of the case.

Baltimore County detectives, working in conjunction with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, had never given up on trying to identify the body. The detectives had even conducted a sophisticated pollen analysis of Fetterolf’s clothes which had taken them to Boston to search for clues.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t identify any substantial leads,” Baltimore County Police Corporal said. Dona L. Carter said.

Then the detectives turned to investigative genetic genealogy. In partnership with Bode Technology, a Lorton, Va. Company that uses DNA to identify crime suspects and unidentified victims, detectives sent scientists objects containing the DNA of Woodlawn Jane Doe who had been stored for decades.

This is where the needle haystack metaphor makes history.

Of the dozens of DNA genealogy sites operating in the United States, only two – FamilyTree DNA and GEDmatch – allow law enforcement to use their databases. Both companies require participants to authorize potential police use during the registration process.

FamilyTree DNA and GEDmatch also allow users to upload their DNA samples from other services, such as and 23andMe. This is what McAdoo did after having her DNA analyzed initially by 23andMe, although she said authorities told her not to disclose the name of the company she transferred her data to.

Bode Technology officials did not say exactly how much or what family matches were used in the case. However, they detailed the process: Once they identified users of the site whose DNA appeared to be linked to that of the victim, a genealogist employed by the company used public records to refine the relationships. In Fetterolf’s case, the company was able to build the family tree down to his parents and their three children.

The company and investigators discovered that there was no public information about Margaret Fetterolf beyond high school and became reasonably certain that she was Woodlawn Jane Doe. Detectives then went to question his relatives and took DNA samples, confirming the body was his.

Edward Fetterolf said authorities told him that three cousins ​​or relatives apparently uploaded their DNA to companies used by Bode. He hadn’t spoken to McAdoo for several years until this summer, when he called him to tell him the news and say thank you.

“It was totally out of the blue,” McAdoo said. “I really couldn’t believe it.”

Carter, the Baltimore County Police Detective, said media reports last month about the identification of Woodlawn Jane Doe generated several calls from people who knew Fetterolf in the 1970s. They hope anyone remembers from her during this period will contact them.

“No detail is too small,” Carter said.

Including the traces of DNA that remained to finally connect Woodlawn Jane Doe to her family.

“I know people are concerned about the whole issue of DNA genetic informants,” McAdoo said. “I understand. But I just think it’s important to encourage people to… upload their DNA because we don’t know how many other people are waiting for a response.

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