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

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Shannon McAdoo, a former accountant in Erie, Pennsylvania, spends her evenings searching for ancestors on genealogical websites.

WASHINGTON DC (AP) – Shannon McAdoo, a former accountant in Erie, Pennsylvania, spends her evenings searching for ancestors on genealogical websites.

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

To expand her search, this year McAdoo wiped her cheek with a long cotton swab and sent her DNA to a genealogy website that specializes in doing genetic family matches.

Little did McAdoo, 53, seem to be helping solve a family puzzle: What happened to her cousin Margaret Fetterolf, a habitual runaway who went missing from her Alexandria, Virginia home in 1975 at the age of 16.

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

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

That summer, detectives identified the Woodlawn Jane Doe as Fetterolf using a controversial new law enforcement technique: linking the DNA of unidentified corpses and potential suspects in serious crimes with relatives uploading their DNA to genealogy sites that allow police to access access their genetic information. The technique, as a scientific paper metaphorically put it, reduces the size of the haystack being examined and enables investigators to “identify the needle”.

For law enforcement agencies, investigative genetic genealogy has resulted in a godsend of closings of unsolved cases, including the identification of the Golden State Killer in 2018. But privacy and legal ethics experts fear the technology will turn family members into ignorant “genetic informants”.

“Identifying and prosecuting perpetrators of serious violent crimes like the Golden State Killer is a public safety victory,” wrote Natalie Ram, professor of law at the University of Maryland, in an American Bar Association publication last year. “Still,” she added, “the loss of privacy might not be an acceptable cost to civil society, much less justified in any case by criminal investigation to which it could be applied.”

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

Maryland went into law this week restricting law enforcement from using genealogy websites to serious violent crimes. According to the law, the pages may only be used under judicial supervision and after all other investigative methods have been exhausted.

Fetterolf’s case would certainly have been suitable.

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

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

In the late summer of 1975 she ran away again. But this time it was different. A week passed and she had not returned. Then a month. The family hoped that one day she would show up on a birthday or family vacation. Those hopes, stretching for months and then years, faded over time. They suspected the worst.

Meanwhile, without the Fetterolfs knowing anything, there was the secret of Woodlawn Jane Doe. Although the case had been featured on crime shows and public campaigns to identify the body, no one in the immediate Fetterolf family, who still lived in Alexandria, had heard of the case.

The Baltimore County detectives who worked with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children had never given up on identifying the body. Detectives had even carried out an elaborate pollen analysis of Fetterolf’s clothes, which took them to Boston to look for clues.

“Unfortunately we could not find any noteworthy evidence,” said Cpl. said Dona L. Carter.

Then the detectives turned to investigative genetic genealogy. Working with Bode Technology, a Lorton, Virginia company that uses DNA to identify criminal suspects and unidentified victims, detectives sent scientists items containing Woodlawn Jane Doe’s DNA that had been held for decades.

This is where the needle and haystack metaphor comes in.

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

FamilyTree DNA and GEDmatch also allow users to transfer their DNA samples from other services such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe. That’s what McAdoo did after her DNA was initially analyzed by 23andMe, despite saying that she was directed by authorities not to reveal the name of the company she was submitting her data to.

Bode Technology officials refused to specify exactly how many or what family matches were used in the case. However, they detailed the process: after identifying the website users whose DNA appeared to be related to that of the victim, a genealogist at the company used public records to narrow the relationships down. In the case of Fetterolf, the company was able to expand the family tree to include her parents and three children.

The company and investigators found that there was no public information about Margaret Fetterolf beyond high school, and were pretty sure she was the Woodlawn Jane Doe. Detectives then went to question her relatives and took DNA samples to confirm that the body was hers.

Edward Fetterolf said he was told by authorities that three cousins ​​or relatives appeared to have uploaded their DNA to the companies Bode used. He hadn’t spoken to McAdoo in several years until he called this summer to give her the news and thank her.

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

Carter, the Baltimore County police detective, said media reports of the identification of the Woodlawn Jane Doe sparked multiple calls in the past month from people who knew Fetterolf in the 1970s. They hope that anyone who remembers them during this time will connect with them.

“No detail is too small,” said Carter.

Including any DNA stains left to finally connect the Woodlawn Jane Doe to her family.

“I know people are worried about the whole DNA gene whistle-blower thing,” McAdoo said. “I get it. But I think it’s just important to encourage people to… upload their DNA because we don’t know how many other people out there are waiting for an answer.”

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