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State: Suffolk can use cutting-edge science to investigate Gilgo killings

Lorraine Ela, the mother of Megan Waterman,

 Lorraine Ela, the mother of Megan Waterman, visits the site on Dec. 13, 2011 where her daughter's remains were found along the Ocean Parkway.(Photo by James Carbone) Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk County police investigating the suspected murders of 10 people at Gilgo Beach can ask the FBI to deploy cutting-edge genetic searching methods to solve crimes, state officials have determined.

Under a policy shift revealed last month during a meeting of a special state forensic commission, Suffolk investigators would essentially be able to use the FBI to bypass state restrictions on the use of genetic genealogy, a type of DNA analysis in which genetic profiles are run through genealogical databases to find potential relatives of a murder victim or a suspect.  The state Department of Health has not approved the method for use by any public or police crime lab in New York.

“It is very heartening news,” said State Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore), who has pushed for the use of emerging forensic science.  "Obviously, Gilgo would be the prime case to consider in a joint federal and local investigation, and if Suffolk law enforcement can do they should,” he said.

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said in a statement that her office has been in touch with the health department about genetic genealogy and its use by federal and state officials.

“The department continues to engage with our law enforcement partners and continues to pursue all available techniques in our efforts to solve crimes and advance investigations, including the Gilgo Beach investigation,” Hart said. “The Gilgo Beach homicide investigation remains active and details pertaining to the case will not be released at this time.”

Spokesmen for both the Suffolk County crime lab and the FBI declined to comment when asked if genetic genealogy would be considered to assist in dentifying four of the Gilgo Beach victims.

In July, Newsday revealed law enforcement experts believe that advances in forensic science such as genetic genealogy could help identify the four Gilgo victims and possibly lead to the identity of suspects.  Unresolved issues of state regulation had kept the methods from being used here, officials said. 

State Department of Health official Ann Walsh disclosed during a meeting of the State Commission on Forensic Science — in response to a letter of inquiry from Suffolk County about genetic genealogy — that local officials are free to use the technology when the FBI is also part of the investigation because local officials don't have jurisdiction over the federal agency.

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.

Although Walsh’s statement noted Suffolk only queried about genetic genealogy, federal involvement with the county apparently can also open the window for the FBI to try to exploit DNA phenotyping, a method which can zero in on a person’s ancestry, as well as eye and skin color. These methods, experts have said, are also useful in identifying suspects when viable DNA is found at a crime scene in other states and countries.

John Ray, the Long Island attorney representing the Gilbert family and those of some of the other victims, said he has "qualified optimism" about the development.

"It is reassuring that there is an ability to gain some new evidence," Ray said, adding that Suffolk officials have indicated in the past that the FBI has had limited involvement in the case.

Lorraine Ela, whose 22-year-old daughter Megan Waterman’s remains were found at Gilgo in December 2010, said use of the technology "would definitely be worth pursuing because these other victims needed to be identified."

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