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New forensic advances could help solve Gilgo Beach murder, experts say

Suffolk County Police Chief Stuart Cameron speaks to

Suffolk County Police Chief Stuart Cameron speaks to reporters on Jan. 4 in Hauppauge. Photo Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

More than eight years ago, the remains of the 10 suspected Gilgo Beach murder victims were discovered in the weedy areas off Ocean Parkway. Initial detective work and DNA analysis led to the identification of six women in what law enforcement officials have said could be the work of two or more serial killers.

Four sets of remains — including those of a toddler and an adult male — are still unidentified, as is the identity of the killer, or killers. Suffolk police, the leading agency leading the probe, said recently the investigation remains active, with the FBI assisting.

Lorraine Ela, whose 22-year-old daughter Megan Waterman’s remains were found at Gilgo in December 2010, said she has had no updates from the police in recent years and is not optimistic there will be developments soon.

Today, a growing number of law enforcement experts believe that recent advances in forensic science could help identify unnamed Gilgo victims and possibly lead to a focus on a killer or killers. Within Suffolk County law enforcement unresolved issues of state regulation have kept the new techniques from being used, several officials said.

At issue are the emerging methods of stable isotope analysis, DNA phenotyping and genetic genealogy. All three methods have garnered their share of recent headlines for the roles they have played in identifying crime victims and also leading to the arrests of some suspects. In the case of isotope analysis, investigators are able to trace the movements of a person before death by analysis of carbon and hydrogen levels in a sample of hair, teeth and bone. 

Ela, too, is supportive of new technology that could help catch her daughter’s killer. “In my opinion it would definitely be worth pursuing because these other victims needed to be identified,” said Ela about the unidentified Gilgo remains.

The most highly publicized case involving these methods was the arrest in California of Joseph James DeAngelo, the suspected Golden State Killer, who was identified through genetic genealogy techniques. The NYPD has been exploiting some of these new methods in at least two open homicide cases, department officials said.

The methods are gaining the attention among New York lawmakers and the forensic science community. State Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore) has been active in pushing for new forensic technology — notably familial DNA searching, which got a big boost after the murder of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano — and thinks New York State should be proactive in the area.

“It is being used successfully in other states. … New York deserves nothing less,” said Boyle in a telephone interview.

Asked in recent months about the new methods and their potential in the Gilgo case, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart referred a reporter to Chief Stuart Cameron.

In an interview, Cameron acknowledged the usefulness of new techniques as an investigative tool where, as in Gilgo, a crime victim is unidentified. Cameron, while steering clear of specifics in the Gilgo probe, strongly indicated that the new investigative tools could be of use in the investigation.

 “Clearly identifying who the victim is could give you a clue to solving a case,” Cameron said.

The discovery of human remains along Ocean Parkway took place during the search for Shannan Gilbert, 24, a Jersey City woman who was reported missing in May 2010.

On Dec. 11, 2010, a Suffolk police officer and K-9 partner searching for Gilbert instead discovered the body of Melissa Barthelemy, 24, of the Bronx, in a thicket of bramble in Gilgo Beach. In the ensuing months, more victims were found, including remains of a toddler and an adult male.

Shannan Gilbert’s remains were also found in December of 2011, not far from where she was reported missing.

The discovery of the bodies along Ocean Parkway resulted in a massive investigation that included law enforcement resources from the Suffolk and Nassau police departments, the State Police and the FBI. The probe itself has spanned three different Suffolk police leadership changes. Cameron said he has been told by other county officials that the stable isotope method, which traces movements of a person before death by analysis of carbon and hydrogen levels in a sample of hair, teeth and bone, isn’t approved by New York State forensic officials. Cameron also said he was told phenotyping, which is a statistical analysis of a person’s DNA to derive a potential “snapshot” of what they might look like, is not yet accredited by New York State.

The Suffolk County crime lab initially raised the same issues of state approval which Cameron noted. But lab officials then issued a shorter, revised statement: “The Suffolk County Crime lab does not currently use these practices and will continue to monitor this technology for future use.” A Suffolk County spokeswoman wouldn’t elaborate.

The FBI has been assisting SCPD in the Gilgo case. But an agency spokeswoman said the FBI wouldn’t comment on investigative methods being used, deferring instead to Suffolk County officials.

While the state Commission on Forensic Science must approve any public or police crime lab efforts to use its own equipment to do stable isotope testing, there is nothing prohibiting such a lab sending it to a private facility in another state which has the equipment. The state Department of Health, which requires that private labs have permits to do medical or DNA testing, said through a spokesman that stable isotope testing doesn’t require that private labs have permits to do such analysis.

A spokeswoman for the Commission on Forensic Science said the issue of stable isotope testing has never come before it because no crime lab or medical examiner has ever asked for permission to acquire the necessary equipment. Suffolk officials admitted in a statement they had not contacted the commission on the subject.

The cautious approach by Suffolk County officials to use the new science is in contrast to the aggressive posture of the NYPD. Working with the city Office of Chief Medical Examiner, the NYPD has at least two homicide cases in which stable isotope analysis has been done to provide leads.

Stable isotope analysis can help narrow a geographic search. It has proved useful in helping solve homicide cases in Ireland, England and in Utah. The U.S. military is also using isotope analysis to help identify remains recovered in the Korean War.

“It is not like DNA testing, it is kind of an investigative tool,” said Brad Adams, resident forensic anthropologist with the OCME. “For me it is an investigative lead.”

Professor Jim Ehleringer, a scientific adviser for IsoForensics LLC, a Utah company that does many isotope analysis in the United States, including for the NYPD, said the method is not very expensive for police, running from as low as $95 to $1,800 for a more complex analysis.

DNA phenotyping is another forensic technique, offered by Parabon NanoLabs of Virginia. It provides a special genetic profile that gives the likelihood of a person's ancestry, and eye and skin color, aspects useful for providing sketches of a crime victim. A company spokeswoman said the company has provided similar snapshots that have helped solve other cases to identify remains and generate leads. In the Gilgo case, a police artist with the SCPD prepared sketches of two unidentified victims, but the drawings did not utilize Parabon analysis, officials said.

The state DOH maintained that phenotyping, as well as genetic genealogy by a private lab, requires a state permit. The agency is studying whether genetic genealogy, which involves running DNA profiles through a private database for police work, should be regulated, the spokesman said.

Company officials and state DOH officials said Parabon has applied for a license for phenotyping. The process was the subject of a recent meeting held by the state Commission on Forensic Science as well as its DNA Subcommittee. The commission regulates government crime laboratories in the state. A spokeswoman reiterated that any in-house testing by a public lab for genetic genealogy and DNA phenotyping, as well as stable isotope analysis, requires commission approval and validation studies.

 Another useful wrinkle that could apply to Gilgo is that under New York statute any public crime lab can perform preliminary testing on any new forensic methods without having to go through the sometimes convoluted validation process.

“New York State needs to have a powwow between the Department of Health and Division of Criminal Justice Services to be sure that DOH is not standing in the way of good science getting done in the interest of public safety,” Dr. Kenneth Kidd, a member of state DNA Subcommittee, said last month during a meeting.

“There have been over 50 identifications or arrests since April 15 of last year using [genealogical] searching and another 50 are in the works,” noted Kidd, referring to cases around the country. “Some have plead guilty.”

Some state officials have indicated that New York State regulators could allow phenotyping and genetic genealogical searches for law enforcement in a matter of months, pointing to the way familial DNA searching was permitted after about nine months of discussion in 2017. If that happens, there wouldn’t be anything standing in the way of Suffolk County using the techniques in Gilgo or any other Long Island cold case with unidentified victims.

In January, Boyle introduced a bill in the State Senate to encourage the Commission on Forensic Science to explore use of genetic genealogy. The commission discussed the issue and that of DNA phenotyping at its June 7 meeting.

But  a high-ranking NYPD official who didn’t want to be name, said that even if state approval doesn’t come right away, it would be worth the risk of using such new forensic methods to identify the unnamed Gilgo victims. 

“Let us say they do it, and the court says you shouldn’t have done that, you are still ahead of the game [with identification]. As of today they have nothing,” the official said.

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