The identification of another Gilgo Beach victim's remains Thursday was hailed as a breakthrough use in New York State of the emerging forensic technique, genetic genealogy.
Once the province of those seeking to find relatives, genetic genealogy marries DNA technology with the painstaking work of skilled genealogists to find family members of either unidentified victims — as in the case of Valerie Mack, the latest Gilgo victim — or possible crime suspects.
The genealogists upload unknown DNA profiles to public DNA websites like GEDmatch to find potential relatives of the mystery person. Family trees are then constructed to determine networks of family relationships leading to the unidentified person.
“This is believed to be the first time a law enforcement agency in New York State has used genetic genealogy to identify an individual as part of a police investigation,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart told reporters Thursday.
In one well-known case, genetic genealogy tracing led to the 2018 arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo in California on murder charges in the Golden State killer case. His case is pending.
While many states have resorted to genetic genealogy to solve crimes, New York State regulations don't allow police departments to use private labs for genetic genealogy. After a July 2019 story in Newsday about the regulatory problem, Suffolk County queried the state Department of Health and was told that if local cops work with federal agencies like the FBI, the state restriction wouldn't apply.
Hart said that a DNA sample from Mack was uploaded by the FBI to public genetic websites. Leads were then traced by an FBI genealogist working out of the agency's Melville office who came up with a list of relatives, Hart said. Those names were given to Suffolk County detectives who traced Mack’s relatives, including a son now his late 20s, and confirmed the dead woman’s identification, the police commissioner said.
The process took several months, Hart said. Expert genealogists said such searches can be done in a few hours or take as long as 18 months.
Although the Gilgo case is the first publicized use of genetic genealogy to identify a body in the state, law enforcement sources said the NYPD has used it in a couple of pending homicide probes.
Hart said remains of two other Gilgo victims, a toddler estimated to be approximately 2 years old at the time of death and an Asian man, were being subjected to analysis but their DNA was “degraded” and presented a “challenge.”
“This is a big boost and it is about time,” said former NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce, referring to Mack’s identification. Boyce said he supports New York State changing its rules to allow wider use of genetic genealogy.
State Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Suffolk), who has been an advocate of the genealogy technique, said it's critical in criminal investigations.
“Law enforcement in New York State must have the ability to use state-of-the-art forensic tools like genetic genealogy to solve murder and rape cases,” Boyle said, adding that cops shouldn’t have to rely on the FBI.