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How Your DNA Test Could Send a Relative to Jail

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That morning at the Idaho Falls Police Department was a slow one, which is to say an average one given the size of the town, punctuated with residents wandering in to ask about a missed jury summons or surrender old medication. And then, in the space of about half an hour, dozens of people turned up. There were tweens and great-grandmothers, toddlers and adults just to the far side of middle age, a number of the women bearing a resemblance to one another and also — it was clear if you had studied the posters tacked up in the hallway — to “Angie Dodge, homicide victim, 6/13/1996.”

The consent debate incorrectly assumed that at stake was a straightforward concept of privacy — one person, making an individual choice about his or her exposure.

“There’s not a person in this city who doesn’t know the story of this case,” the police chief, Bryce Johnson, told me. “It has defined the police department. It’s part of the DNA of it.” Eventually, the crowd headed down the street to watch Johnson take the lectern in the City Council’s chambers, where he told the room that, the previous afternoon, near the Oregon border, officers had walked up to a 53-year-old man named Brian Leigh Dripps Sr., asked him to come in to the local police station for a chat and coaxed forth a confession. Then Moore stepped up to explain the long research process, detailing how Dripps — the missing seventh direct male descendant of the right couple — had evaded her; when she finally found him, she realized he had been Dodge’s neighbor in 1996.

This was my first time seeing Moore, and she seemed to conjure, with her long double-helix curls and black pantsuit and sleek rectangular glasses, a glamorous yet relatable detective in a TV procedural. She spoke in crisp paragraphs, with a preternatural ability to hit all her marks. (Moore has racked up dozens of IMDb credits for playing herself.) After the conference ended, she navigated effortlessly among disparate parties, including the police, judicial-reform activists, journalists and Angie Dodge’s mother, Carol, with whom she had been in touch throughout her investigation. In one episode of “The Genetic Detective,” Moore drives around Idaho Falls with Carol and works her way through Dripps’s superimposed family tree like Tom Cruise in “Minority Report.” With every victorious arrest announced, with every prime-time mention, investigative genetic genealogy was finding new audiences, wider acceptance and more opt-ins. The victim profiles were also becoming more varied, no longer just white, middle-class and female. Moore evangelized not by argument but by loving the work and looking hypercompetent while doing it.

“What happened?” Karole Honas, the plain-spoken doyenne of the local ABC affiliate, asked the police during the Q. and A. She meant that Dripps had no other serious legal trouble. “He just went wacko bananas?” Later, outside the police department, amid Mylar fund-raising pinwheels and the last falling crab-apple petals, Moore told me that, yes, in her best guess Honas was right: In the days before the murder, Dripps’s first child was born and his wife had been trying to leave him, and it seemed as if something had simply gone wrong in his head. Many of her cases resemble this, with offenders who commit one horrific offense and then largely stay in line, though that analysis rests on many assumptions. Only a minority of violent crimes leave behind pertinent DNA evidence, a problem that may be compounded by broad awareness of forensic science and how it can and cannot be evaded. Police noticed that one suspect identified through genetic genealogy had a three-month-old newspaper on a table, open to an article about Talbott’s arrest.

On a day like that one in Idaho Falls, Moore seemed like a magician who could pull off any trick. In her final flourish, she had also cleared the name of Chris Tapp, who had served two decades for Angie’s murder despite having no DNA link to the crime. At the news conference, Tapp was profuse with hugs, handshakes and tears, and in another two months, he would be formally exonerated by a judge. “It’s the only unqualified joy I’ve experienced in law-enforcement work,” Moore told me. “Everything else has been so — heavy.”

Two days later, GEDmatch became all but useless to Moore.

Following the Golden State Killer arrest, in 2018, the site had posted a warning to users that police were uploading profiles, and hastily instituted a policy restricting such use to homicides, sexual assaults and unidentified bodies. But a few weeks before the Idaho Falls announcement, it emerged that one of the site’s founder-operators had, in a somewhat naïve, grandfatherly way, made an exception for a detective in Utah investigating a recent attempted murder. Moore was the one tasked with identifying the suspect (and did). Around the same time, it also emerged that FamilyTreeDNA, a consumer site with more than two million users, had been discreetly allowing the F.B.I. to upload suspect profiles to its database for genetic-genealogy searches.

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