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New York approves use of familial searching to help identify crime victims

A sign along the west side of Ocean

A sign along the west side of Ocean Parkway points to Gilgo Beach in May 2011. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

New York State regulators have approved the use of the emerging forensic technique of familial searching to help police identify crime victims.

The Commission on Forensic Science, which oversees state crime laboratories, approved last week the expansion of familial searching for use in cases, such as the Gilgo Beach killings, where crime victims remain unidentified for many years. The identities of three of 10 Gilgo victims are still unknown.

Until now, the use of familial searching was just limited to identifying suspects. Investigators will have to wait for about two months for the technique to get all the necessary approvals to be able to start using it.

In a related development, official also disclosed last week that two private forensic laboratories have been issued permits over the summer by the state Department of Health to do genetic genealogical testing, another method law enforcement agencies have been using to identify crime victims. Previously, local police in New York were only permitted to use the genealogy method by teaming up with the FBI.

Both developments are viewed by law enforcement officials on Long Island and New York City as significant techniques in identifying crime victims and possibly jump-starting investigations.

"This is a great thing for law enforcement, I think, throughout the state," Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said Monday. "I think families will get some closure for their loved ones and I think investigations will move forward."

Hart said that the genetic genealogy process will now be speeded up and will provide police with another avenue of investigation.

The NYPD also has a number of cases in which police officials said the techniques could be used. One case is the infamous one of "Monique," a crime victim so named because of a tattoo on her body, whose dismembered remains were found scattered in a Brooklyn park in 2016.

Last July, the Suffolk County Police Department revealed that it had gotten around the previous state restriction on using private laboratories for genetic genealogy by partnering with the FBI, which is not covered by state rules.

Valerie Mack, a 20 year-old sex worker from New Jersey and Philadelphia who disappeared in 2000, was identified as a Gilgo Beach victim. She had been known to police as "Jane Doe No. 6."

The approval of the two genetic genealogy labs, Parabon Technologies and Bode Cellmarks Forensics, will now allow local police in the future to go directly to the companies without the need for using the FBI.

Genetic genealogy is a procedure in which the DNA profile of an unknown crime victim is compared to profiles uploaded by consumers to public genealogy websites. Any close associations are then analyzed by professional genealogists to trace relatives of the unknown person and find the crime victim’s true identity. Such traces can occur in a matter of hours or take as long as 18 months, according to genealogists.

Familial searching also uses the DNA of an unknown crime suspect and subjects it to statistical analysis to determine if it is related to any profile in a law enforcement database.

If there is a close match, the sample is subjected to a further analysis to identify relatives of the unknown suspect.

Since familial searching was approved in New York in late 2017, it has generated leads in five cases, including one that led to the arrest two weeks ago in the Rochester killing of 14 year-old Wendy Jerome in 1984.

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