For the past two years, genetic genealogist CeCe Moore has been at the white-hot center of forensic DNA, which has revolutionized cold case investigations. A decade ago, she pioneered a technique to fuse genetics with genealogy, revolutionizing that field as well.
Yet, the funny thing about this 51-year-old California native who once thought of becoming an actress: She hardly sounds like a revolutionary. She does, however, sound like someone who knows her way around TV. The longtime genealogist on PBS' "Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr." is about to expand her portfolio, as host of the ABC News series "The Genetic Detective" debuting Tuesday, May 26 (ABC/7 at 10 p.m.). The six-parter showcases some of the cases she has solved, including her first — the 2018 arrest and conviction of Seattle-area native William Earl Talbott II for the murder of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg in 1987.
Since 2018, Moore has worked remotely from her home in the San Diego area for the Reston, Va.-based DNA forensics firm, Parabon NanoLabs, which also has a starring role in this series.
Moore recently spoke with Newsday's Verne Gay.
How many cases have you closed since joining Parabon?
We have 109 successful identifications, and have averaged one per week over the last two years — that is, law enforcement has been able to confirm we have the right person. Many of those are waiting to go to trial, many are deceased suspects. We've had at least 10 convictions.
In the program you say, if the "math doesn't add up, I can't feel confident" about a potential suspect. How often doesn't it add up?
We run into dead ends all day long and then back up and go back up a different [family] branch. When you're building [family trees] you don't know which branches will be shared branches, so you are constantly building it backward and forwards. Nevertheless, there is always an answer. If something is not fitting, there's a reason for that.
A year ago, GEDmatch — the online database with some 1.25 million DNA profiles — allowed its users to "opt-out," and in effect gave genetic genealogists access to their profile only after they opted back in. How badly did that move hurt you?
It was devastating, obviously. All our law enforcement cases went from hundreds of matches to zero, and with no notice. But especially devastating for families and victims who were hopeful they'd get answers. That was the worst part of it … one of the lowest lows I had ever felt. [While] it definitely made our work harder we're still averaging one [identification] a week, even during the quarantine. [But] the more data we have, the more efficiently we can do this.
Are you doing the series to convince more people to "opt-in" (about 250,000 so far have)?
Yes. Education is important. When people are making these decisions, and decisions about their personal privacy, they need to be educated and make an informed decision. There's a lot of misinformation about what we do.
Forensic DNA has been around for years — why not get involved earlier than you did in 2018?
I had been approached many times [by law enforcement] but felt a responsibility to my [genealogy] community … It could have been seen as a betrayal to my community and people who trusted me. That's why I waited."
The technique you pioneered — hard science yoked to exhaustive genealogical research — helped lead to the capture of alleged "Golden State Killer" Joseph James DeAngelo in 2016. Did that change your mind?
I knew immediately it was a breakthrough for genetic genealogy and knew it would change everything. I'd always thought it was for the greater good but had to establish that it was also ethically responsible and that people didn't feel betrayed.
Why haven't you brought your skills to that most infamous of cold cases, the Gilgo Beach murders?
New York is the only state that doesn't allow us to do this but Parabon has been working on getting approval. The FBI had been working on that case and does have a genetic genealogy team. They're not under the same restrictions that we are as a private company.
What should viewers take away from this show?
Just how incredible the law enforcement is around the country. It sometimes gets a bad rap and in some cases that may be justified, but the detectives I've worked with are caring, dedicated people. When we've finally been able to identify a suspect, without exception they get emotional. These are big, tough seasoned detectives who are so invested in the case and so cared about the victim and family that some of them put off retiring just to get these solved. It was an incredible thing to witness.