Special Report: Family Ties

Genetic genealogy being used to solve crimes in Southern IN for the first time
Special Report: Family Ties
Special Report: Family Ties
Updated: Jan. 31, 2019 at 3:20 PM CST
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Special Report: Family Ties

TRI-STATE (WFIE) - A brand new crime-solving tool is helping crack cold cases.

It’s “Genetic genealogy," and it’s an exciting breakthrough for investigators.

It’s the thing you try when you’re out of other leads. It uses DNA from a crime scene to build a family tree and find a suspect.

It’s already worked to convict April Tinsley’s killer in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

The eight-year-old had been sexually assaulted, strangled, and her body was dumped in a ditch.

Investigators had heaps of evidence, but few solid leads.

Last summer came the breakthrough. Technological advances gave investigators a new way to use DNA.

“Genetic genealogy has been around for awhile in the adoptee community," said Dr. Ellen Greytak, Director of Bio-Genetic. "It was only very, very recently that it was applied to Law Enforcement.”

It works because of an open-source database called GedMatch. Genealogy enthusiasts have been using it for a few years to compare their own DNA and find relatives.

Now, law enforcement officers are partnering with companies like Parabon Nanolabs.

DNA from crime scenes is processed and uploaded to GedMatch.

The goal is to match the suspect’s DNA to biological relatives, build a family tree, and work down the branches to name that potential suspect. It’s a process that can take thousands of hours.

"We know where the crime happened and when, so we know one of those people had to be in that place at that time and at least of an appropriate age to commit such a crime,” said Dr. Greytak.

Sometimes, it’s the last hope of solving a case.

"There are a lot of cases that are at a standstill that we can’t do anything at this point, so to have that other tool to keep the investigation going is very exciting,” said ISP Forensics Investigator Nicole Hoffman.

Indiana State Police Forensic Lab Analyst Nicole Hoffman couldn’t tell us which unsolved cases their office had helped coordinate, but she did tell me the groundwork had been laid to begin Genetic Genealogy on two cases in southern Indiana. One of them was from Vanderburgh County.

"Most of the cases we’re looking at for these are violent crimes against individuals, so homicides, sexual assaults, things of that nature,” said Hoffman.

April Tinsley’s case was both. Genetic genealogy lead investigators to John D. Miller’s northern Indiana mobile home. Police recovered three used condoms from Miller’s trash for the match. Then came his confession. Miller was sentenced to 80 years in prison.

"To be able to do that and literally narrow it down by relatives, was - I dont’ think they’d have gotten it an other way,” said Hoffman.

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