Curtis Rogers on DNA detection: ‘Do I want to solve murders?’

One evening in April 2018, Curtis Rogers sits in front of the TV in Delray Beach, Florida with his wife. An American newscaster reports breaking news† A serial killer – the ‘Golden State Killer’ – has been arrested. That was possible thanks to “the most innovative DNA technology that exists today,” said the public prosecutor on duty. Curtis Rogers recalls looking at his wife, frowning, “Did they do this through us?”

A day after the Golden State Killer’s arrest, dozens of journalists and television vans are parked outside Rogers’ office. Curtis’ website has indeed been used to expose one of the country’s most wanted serial killers.

“I didn’t know what I was hearing,” Rogers says. “No one had informed me. And suddenly I realized: my website can solve murders. But do I want to?”

GEDMatch is the name of the website that Rogers founded in 2010. On the site, a DNA profile can be compared with hundreds of thousands of other profiles. The site started as a hobby project by Rogers and colleague John Olson, and it focused on people who upload their DNA because they are looking for their family history. Through GED-Match they could easily create family trees and find out, for example, what missing parts of their family tree look like.

The benefits of this form of detection are so overwhelming

Gedmatch is interesting for investigative services, because a much larger part of the DNA is read than is usual in police investigations. In this way very distant relatives can be found. In DNA kinship research, which was used in the Netherlands in the Nicky Verstappen case, only relatively close relatives are discovered.

Double murder

The method is now also being used outside the US; in Sweden it solved a double murder. Three years ago, the cold caseteams of the Rotterdam and Amsterdam police indicated that they wanted to use private DNA databases to determine the identities of unknown dead, but that has not yet happened. It remains to be seen to what extent private databases can be used in Dutch criminal law. The profiles have been uploaded into databases of American companies, which means that there is little supervision from the Netherlands.


Also read: Using private DNA: promising or dangerous?


Curtis Rogers (83) is on holiday in the Netherlands for a few days and, in between visits to the museum, makes time for an interview. He likes to do that, says Rogers, “because I have the feeling that the added value of using genealogical databases in Europe is still not fully understood.”

For years, Rogers knew murder investigations only from TV. But since the police secretly used GEDMatch to force a breakthrough in a case, he has been in regular contact with the relatives of murdered people – and with detectives from around the world.

There are many genetic databases in the US and abroad. The fact that the police turned to GEDMatch to solve the Golden State Killer case is related to something simple: where other sites require a tube of spit from a customer before matching a profile to their data collection, GED-Match accepts all profiles in digital form, also of, for example, an unknown serial killer. The distant relatives GEDMatch finds are gold for detectives that way. By ‘laying down’ their family tree, the police can identify the perpetrator.

Curtis Rogers: “In Europe, the added value is still not understood.”
Photo ANP

Still, Rogers initially doubted whether genealogical databases should be used in murder cases or in identifying unknown deaths. “I was worried. Did I protect the privacy of visitors to my website sufficiently? Would someone file a civil suit against GEDMatch? But that didn’t happen.”

Instead, Rogers gets positive responses. In 2019, the first case that GEDMatch helped solve came to court. Rogers was a bundle of nerves, but there was no criticism. He did receive a “grateful” email from a relative of the victims. More mail followed. A killer’s daughter wrote to him that she wants her profile on GEDMatch because she wants to be “100 percent sure” that her DNA is available to police investigators.


Also read: Hobby databases as a new detection method


Resistance to this method of detection is often based on misunderstanding, Rogers says. For example, GED-Match does not share DNA profiles with the authorities, contrary to popular belief. Investigators who use the site are only shown which profiles match a suspect’s profile. “The police cannot go and browse through our database.”

Permission

Most importantly, users of the site have been required to give permission for forensic use of their profile since 2018. Hundreds of thousands of users have already done so. “People who really want to help the police,” Rogers says.

There are risks. In 2019, for example, a Florida judge issued a writ of execution that allowed an Orlando detective to enforce access to all profiles. A year later, the site had to go offline for a short time after a hack. Even then, profiles of people who had not given permission for forensic use were briefly visible to the police.

Rogers closely follows the political debate about DNA detection in Europe. Commercial DNA tests are banned in France. “Disturbed,” says Rogers. According to him, the Dutch government also abandons relatives of crimes. He sees legal discussions about privacy and control as trivial. “The benefits of this form of detection are so overwhelming. For the families, the people who are still there.” He does not understand why the Dutch state erects barriers when people voluntarily provide their DNA for detection.

Rogers, who turns 84 next month, has since sold GEDMatch to Verogen, a company specializing in DNA detection. It earned him millions in his old age and a sense of wonder. “The idea was once a simple, small website,” Rogers says. “I had no idea beforehand that it would get this big.”

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