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Customers Use DNA Databases to Discover Relatives – The FBI Uses Them to Discover Suspects

Posted by Joseph Tully | Feb 18, 2019


Whether it's 23andMe, or another online DNA database, people are flocking to these sites. They want to learn more about their ethnic heritage and discover distant – or in the case of adopted individuals, close – family ties.

However, those interested in their personal, familial history aren't the only ones accessing these DNA databases. The FBI is looking for DNA matches for suspects, and the agency is finding them.

Third Cousins and Up

Anyone familiar with these DNA databases has likely found third cousins they never knew about, and the FBI is now able to find DNA matches for third cousins for at least half of all Americans.

Since caucasian people are the group with the highest rate of providing DNA to databases, they are the most currently represented. Recently, Family Tree DNA, among the largest private genetic testing firms, revealed the FBI is allowed to search its database.

An uproar ensued over privacy concerns, but the company's president defended their cooperation with the FBI. Other companies, including and 23andMe, stated they would only share database information with law enforcement if served with a warrant.

Cold Cases Cracked

The use of DNA has permitted the FBI and local police departments to crack cold cases. In 2018 alone, at least 19 old murder and rape cases were solved in the U.S. by using DNA.

One was the 1988 Indiana murder of 8-year-old April Tinsley, who was raped and strangled. The suspect's DNA was found on her underwear, but it took 30 years to find him. A lab working in conjunction with a genetic genealogist contacted the Fort Wayne Police Department and offered to help investigate the case.

Within two months, they identified John Miller, 59, as the person matching the suspect's DNA, after using the GEDMatch site. Although the police had a number of suspects in the killing over the years, Miller wasn't one of them. When police arrived at his house to arrest him, they asked Miller if he knew why they were there. He replied, “April Tinsley.”

Criminals Don't Upload DNA

If you've committed a rape or murder, it's unlikely you're eager to send your DNA to one of these sites. However, it's quite likely that you have relatives who have done so. That's how DNA matching works in the search for suspects.

Once the suspect's DNA is loaded into GEDMatch, results appear. Since the suspect probably didn't provide DNA, the results come from relatives. Sometimes, the relatives are close, as was the case with Miller, whose brother's match appeared.

More often, the relationships are more distant, but if the relationship is second cousin or closer, the detective work begins. Relatives are contacted and interviewed, and with luck, a possible suspect is identified. Law enforcement then needs to acquire a sample of the suspect's DNA to make a match. In the Miller case, detectives went through his trash and came upon used condoms, providing the DNA match.

Terms of Service

It's a good bet that most people sending in their saliva to a company for DNA testing aren't doing so to ensure their DNA is available for criminal searches. The terms of service for many of the major DNA companies contain language stating that they do not permit access by law enforcement.

Most people either don't read the terms of service or skim through it, but they are protected, for now. Of course, there are those who may want to help law enforcement catch any criminals to whom they are related. Those individuals have the option of contacting GEDMatch and having their DNA sample uploaded into the company's database.

About the Author

Joseph Tully

Founding Partner, Criminal Law Specialist Our founding attorney, Joseph Tully, is sought out for his expert legal advice throughout California. With over 20 years of experience as a criminal lawyer, in 1000+ felony and other cases, Tully served as felony trial counsel as a public defender before...