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State OKs technique to help police identify unknown murder victims

A sign on Ocean Parkway in Suffolk County

A sign on Ocean Parkway in Suffolk County in 2011. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Police on Long Island will have access next week to an emerging forensic technique used to help identify unknown murder victims like those in the Gilgo Beach case.

Familial searching, already in use in at least 10 other states and some foreign countries to identify suspects in unsolved homicides, will become available on Wednesday in cases of unidentified human remains in New York State, officials said.

The method was tentatively approved last September by the state's Commission on Forensic Science, a body which oversees the police use of DNA technology and is administratively supported by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, but had to go through a rule-making process to become effective, state officials said.

What to know:

  • Police on Long Island next week can start using familial searching to identify unknown murder victims.
  • The emerging forensic technique can also be used to identify possible suspects through DNA analysis.
  • It works by matching unknown DNA from a crime to DNA profiles already in databases of convicted criminals, looking for family ties.
  • At least 10 other states use the method to solve cold cases.

Janine Kava, spokeswoman for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, said April 21 is when special regulations governing the use the technique are to be published in the State Register.

The revised technique aims to help police and prosecutors solve cases of unidentified remains and potentially solve violent crimes, as well as exonerate the wrongfully convicted, Kava said.

Law enforcement will benefit, supporters said.

"I have no doubt that it will help solve cold cases," said state Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore), an early supporter of the new forensic techniques who pushed for the new rules.

In a statement Wednesday, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart also welcomed the new investigative tool.

"The Suffolk County Police Department is committed to utilizing all available technologies and techniques to advance unsolved cases in an effort to bring closure to victims’ families and hold those responsible accountable for their actions," Hart said.

Familial searching for a suspect involves the partial matching of unknown DNA to profiles already in law enforcement databases of convicted criminals. Algorithms then determine how likely the matches indicate a family relationship. A second analysis may then indicate a closer familial relation to a known relative. Investigators then try to identify the unknown relative who is the suspect.

The new regulations will now allow — under what Kava called a streamlined process — the use of familial searching by police and prosecutors to determine family members of an unidentified crime victim.

Official said NYPD investigators also anticipate using the new method to identify "Monique," a young Black woman so named because of a tattoo, whose dismembered body was found scattered in 2015 in Calvert Vaux Park, Brooklyn.

With DNA profiles of about 1,200 unidentified people buried on Hart Island in New York, familial searching potentially may be useful in identifying some those who were crime victims for return to their families, said Mark Desire, assistant director for the department of forensic biology at the New York City Medical Examiners Office.

"This is an excellent tool for us in New York City to identify those unknowns," Desire said.

Gilgo Beach is the most notorious case on Long Island and involves three unidentified sets of remains found between 2010 to 2011, when 10 sets of of victims' remains were found in the area along the Ocean Parkway.

Suffolk police were able to identify six Gilgo victims through conventional techniques.

Last May, detectives and the FBI were able to identify sex worker, Valerie Mack, through the different forensic technique of genetic genealogy. Until then, Mack had been known as "Jane Doe No. 6."

Mack, 24, of Philadelphia and New Jersey, went missing in 2000 and her dismembered remains were found in 2004 near Manorville and in 2011 near Cedar Beach.

So far, the remains of the three unidentified Gilgo victims — an Asian man, a toddler and the child’s mother known as "Peaches" from a tattoo — have proved difficult for genetic genealogy, probably because of degraded DNA, officials have said.

While similar in some ways to familial searching, genetic genealogy involves comparison of the DNA of an unknown victim to genetic profiles in public databases like GEDmatch. It differs from familial searching which uses only law enforcement databases.

Familial searching gained traction in New York after the August 2016 murder of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano, 31, who was strangled in Spring Creek Park.

After detectives couldn’t find a suspect from unknown DNA on Vetrano’s body, her parents Catherine and Philip, took up the cause for familial searching, which was approved in 2017 and has led to one homicide arrest in Rochester. The method was not used to solve Vetrano's case.

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