Suffolk investigators trying to unravel the mystery of the Gilgo Beach killings have been unable to identify two victims or potential suspects connected to the case using the emerging technique known as genetic genealogy.
A law enforcement source familiar with the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the genetic material of the two victims — that of an Asian man and a toddler — had undergone some degradation, likely because of their exposure to the elements through the years, making it difficult for detectives to find new leads.
"It was not as straightforward a process to get the samples in the lab," Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said. "So we are trying other avenues, but we have not been successful yet."
The commissioner would not say what additional methods her office is pursuing to obtain viable DNA to identify the victims.
The news comes four months after Hart had announced the first major breakthrough in the case in years: The identification through genetic genealogy of the remains of sex worker Valerie Mack. The 24-year-old woman was last seen alive in 2000, and her body parts were found in Manorville and off Ocean Parkway years later.
Hart, whose office teamed up with the FBI to use the genealogical method, said at the time her office would be using similar techniques to give names to the Asian male and the toddler.
"We will use every investigative tool to investigate these murders," Hart said at the time about the Gilgo case and 10 homicides believed by officials to be the work of one or more killers.
Another unidentified set of remains, that of a woman known only as "Peaches" and the mother of the toddler, is under Nassau County jurisdiction.
Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun, the main spokesman for Nassau police, issued a prepared statement. "The NCPD Homicide Squad is working cohesively with the FBI and Suffolk PD on this case," LeBrun wrote.
The Gilgo investigation began on Dec. 11, 2010, when Suffolk police searching for missing New Jersey sex worker Shannan Gilbert instead found the body of Melissa Barthelemy, 24, in a thicket of bramble in Gilgo Beach.
Barthelemy’s body was the first of 10 found in the area, and all had been reported missing between 2007 and September 2010.
Suffolk last year was able to get around a previous state restriction on using genetic genealogy by teaming up with the FBI, which — as a federal agency — is not bound by state forensic rules. That restriction is now going away after state Department of Health officials disclosed two weeks ago that it has issued permits to two private laboratories to assist law enforcement agency in New York through genetic genealogy.
Genetic genealogy uses DNA profiles of unknown crime suspects or victims and compares them to profiles put in public genealogical databases.
Professional or law enforcement genealogists then try to develop family trees from the samples and zero in on a potential suspect or victim.
That genealogical searching can be finished in as quickly as two hours or can take as long as 18 or 19 months, said Colleen Fitzpatrick, a genealogist in California who is active in the field.
Fitzpatrick, who runs the firm Identifinders International, said the new problems Suffolk seems to be running into with the Gilgo case are not unexpected.
"It is not a miracle cure for the common cold case," Fitzpatrick said of genetic genealogy.
Fitzpatrick said the DNA samples from the Asian man and the toddler may be too degraded to use for a genealogical comparison.
In the case of Mack, who worked as an escort in Philadelphia and grew up in Port Republic, New Jersey, her remains provided enough genetic material for an FBI expert to link her to a maternal aunt, officials said. Investigators then were also able to locate a son Mack had and solidified the identification, police officials said.
Another problem facing investigators in the use of genetic genealogy, and which may be an issue in the Gilgo case, is that people of Asian ancestry don’t submit their DNA profiles in large number to public databases in efforts to search for relatives, Fitzpatrick said. That narrows the potential pool of genealogical avenues for police to search, she said.
Fitzpatrick explained that there are steps law enforcement can take in an attempt to work with degraded DNA.
One method, which officials said is being used to identify the Korean War dead, is known as next generation sequencing, or NGS. The technique requires specialized equipment not readily available to local police but allows experts to make electronic copies of a DNA sample and dig deep into the genome, Fitzpatrick said.
Despite the recent setback on the two unnamed victims, Hart said her team is working hard to find answers.
"We are not giving up on those two," Hart said.
How it works
Once the province of people seeking to find relatives, genetic genealogy is now a key tool for law enforcement trying to find the identifies of crime suspects and unknown victims.
- DNA profiles from an unknown crime suspect or victim are compared to genetic profiles in publicly accessible DNA websites like GEDmatch, which allow people to upload their DNA to find relatives.
- If a potential relationship is found, the results are statistically analyzed to determine the degree of closeness, going out to as far as a fourth cousin and beyond.
- Genealogists then construct family trees, a basic genealogical tool, and family connections may be determined from a network of relationships, said Colleen Fitzpatrick, a genealogist who runs Identifinders International in California.
- Law enforcement officials use the family trees to seek out relatives of the unknown person and interviews can be conducted. If a potential crime suspect is identified, police can use conventional law enforcement techniques such as face-to-face interviews, and collection of DNA from the suspect may confirm a match.