The miracle clue
Authorities used DNA to identify a Sacramento arson victim and the Golden State Killer suspect, but is there a downside?
Almost 20 years later, the burned body in the torched dumpster finally has a name: Perrean Gray.
Gray was in her 20s when she went missing from San Francisco in 2001. Local authorities didn’t know that on June 29 of that year, when a dumpster fire on the 7900 block of 18th Avenue in Sacramento’s Colonial Village neighborhood led to a grisly discovery. After extinguishing the flames, firefighters found a charred corpse and alerted police. The body spent the next 18 years as a “Jane Doe.”
Meanwhile, Gray’s loved ones held out hope. According to a community-driven Wikia page tracking Gray’s disappearance, reports of a hospitalization record in 2003, a false sighting in Oakland four years later and the family’s belief that she might be living in Las Vegas fed that hope.
Back in Sacramento, what seemed like a separate mystery waited on technology to catch up to human determination. Two years ago, investigators sent degraded DNA evidence to be phenotyped at Virginia’s Parabon Nanolabs, which led to a better physical model of what the victim might have looked like before the fire, KTXL’s Fox 40 reported.
On Nov. 26, Sacramento police said they were finally able to confirm the charred remains belonged to Gray through advanced DNA technology and a private genealogy laboratory. Police spokesman Officer Karl Chan said he couldn’t provide additional details about the identification process or how many other unidentified homicide victims his department is working to name, but the department said in a release that its homicide detectives “believe that the death of Perrean Gray is related to her disappearance” and sought the public’s help in connecting the dots.
The county coroner’s office was still trying to notify one of Gray’s next of kin on Dec. 5, but had concluded that her official cause of death was from “acute thermal injury”—or death by fire.
“This is a cold case that hopefully with a new lead we are going to be able to finally have closure, and a resolution for the victim’s family,” Chan added by email.
Gray’s identification occurred in what some consider a golden age for DNA-aided crime fighting.
But the technology has quickly eclipsed the public’s expectations, renewing questions about human error and privacy safeguards. With the Trump administration making plans to catalog the DNA of every immigrant caught crossing the border—including asylum seekers—the time to consider the unintended consequences of unlimited genetic surveillance is running out.
The GSK precedent
It’s difficult to quibble with the results. Thanks to a mix of genetic breadcrumbs, dogged detective work and people’s fascination with their ancestral roots, accused serial predators Joseph James DeAngelo and Roy Charles Waller—better known as the alleged Golden State Killer and NorCal Rapist, respectively—were both arrested last year, more than a decade after the last crimes attributed to them.
In both ice-cold cases, investigators used the suspects’ DNA leavings from long-ago crime scenes to fish for hits on GEDmatch, an open-source genealogy website. Detectives landed partial hits, leading them to the suspects’ distant relatives and, eventually, the suspects’ doors.
The increasingly common use of open-source genealogy sites to find notorious boogeymen has opened a vein of ethical questions that the courts have been slow to revisit since 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that collecting DNA samples from violent crime suspects was as standard as collecting fingerprints or mugshots.
But much has changed in six years.
Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of humanities and social sciences at Tufts University in Massachusetts and chairman of the Council for Responsible Genetics, analyzed the privacy policies of approximately 30 ancestry companies for his book Genetic Justice—and found they “varied quite a bit.”
“Most companies sell the information to other institutions,” he said.
The buyers of this genetic material include universities and pharmaceutical companies that want a large sampling to conduct research and product testing.
“The [purchasing] company is not interested in your ancestry,” Krimsky noted. “They’re interested in everything else about you.”
Krimsky said that when a consumer agrees to let an ancestry company use their DNA to find distant relatives, that opens the door for other entities to use it in ways the consumer may not have intended. Krimsky also said that the ancestry markers used by websites such as GEDmatch, 23andMe and others are different than the forensic markers authorities need to locate suspects. So if investigators have gotten their genetic clues from a public database, can they be sure they’ve gotten what they need?
“Finding suspects is an important part of police work, but there are limits,” Krimsky cautioned.
He said there have been instances where people have been falsely accused of crimes because of human error in creating DNA profiles. “It can happen even if you’ve never been convicted of committing a crime,” Krimsky said.
The trustworthiness of DNA evidence could become a central defense strategy in either the Golden State Killer or NorCal Rapist trials.
DeAngelo, 74, is accused of sexually assaulting and murdering 13 people across 11 counties during nearly a decade spanning the 1970s and 1980s. Authorities believe DeAngelo got his start in the early ’70s, when the former police officer is alleged to have led a double life as a sadistic home invader and torture-killer dubbed the East Area Rapist, among other names.
After the Golden State Killer’s DNA profile from a Ventura County rape was uploaded to GEDmatch, investigators hit on several possible relatives whom a team used to build a large family tree. Once investigators zeroed in on DeAngelo, they surreptitiously collected more DNA samples from his car and a discarded tissue to compare against the crime scene samples.
Detectives essentially replicated their process in the NorCal Rapist case. Waller had been a safety specialist with UC Berkeley for more than two decades until his September 2018 arrest. The 59-year-old faces 45 felony counts related to rape and kidnapping, with a preliminary hearing scheduled for Dec. 16, online court records show.
DeAngelo won’t appear be in court again until Jan. 22, part of what is expected to be a years-long death penalty case.
Since their arrests, Waller and DeAngelo have been held in separate eighth-floor cells at the downtown Sacramento jail. While their apprehensions may represent the best outcomes of DNA sleuthing, Krimsky said it’s worth considering what else may tumble out of Pandora’s box.
“Searching around for suspects is a good thing,” Krimsky said. But, he added, “We have to figure out what the precedent of this means.”
A legal patchwork
Outside of free-market ancestry companies with divergent fine print, there is also a legal patchwork at play.
California is one of 30 states that currently authorize the collection of DNA samples from people who have been arrested or charged of certain crimes, but not convicted, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. While California restricts that collection to people arrested for felony crimes, eight states authorize DNA collection for certain misdemeanor arrests.
As for suspects who have been exonerated, released without charges or convicted of lesser crimes that don’t permit DNA collection, their genetic profiles can be destroyed, but it isn’t always simple. Sixteen states require formal requests, while two—Oklahoma and South Carolina—don’t have a process for expunging one’s DNA record.
Krimsky noted that several states don’t allow authorities to consider familial DNA profiles, which happen when the standards of a genetic match are relaxed to allow more hits.
“The movement is to get as much DNA on databases so police can keep checking them,” he said. “Whether or not there’s going to be a stopping point, I don’t know.”