Cracked case in California a sign of hope

Relatives and friends of the victims in unsolved murders, including some in this region, no doubt are wondering whether new hope might exist for closing some of the cases.

That new anticipation stems from the arrest on April 24 of an alleged serial killer and rapist in California who had defied capture for about 40 years.

Police allege that Joseph James DeAngelo, a 72-year-old former police officer, is the person who variously had been dubbed the Golden State Killer, East Area Rapist, Original Night Stalker and the Diamond Knot Killer.

He is believed responsible for as many as 13 murders and 45 rapes between 1976 and 1986 during the 1970s and ’80s, and it’s believed he also might be responsible for more than 100 other crimes. The attacks seemed to stop in 1986, and DeAngelo escaped police “radar” until about a week before his arrest.

It’s the way that police finally were able to catch up with DeAngelo that has instilled new hope and cautious optimism in people all across the country who still are grieving the loss of a family member or friend at a still-unknown killer’s hands. However, the process police used in identifying DeAngelo is not without controversy, and courts ultimately might have to decide whether and how that process might be used in the future.

In the California cold case, police used the Florida-based online genealogy website GEDmatch to find a DNA match that led them to DeAngelo.

According to an Associated Press report, investigators compared the DNA collected from a Golden State Killer crime scene to online genetic profiles and found a match — a relative of DeAngelo who, for whatever reason, had sent his or her DNA profile to the online database.

Sites like GEDmatch are used by people for reasons including finding family members, because blood relatives share closely related genetic traits, or to otherwise discover their heritage.

According to an April 30 Wall Street Journal article, the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office said police followed up by looking at online family trees to narrow down their search.

GEDmatch co-founder Curtis Rogers said that the police investigation in question took place without the website’s knowledge.

He indicated such use of the site raised privacy concerns — concerns that since have been echoed by civil liberties groups. However, he said GEDmatch always has informed users that its database might be used for other purposes.

The lead investigator has contended that authorities did not need a court order to access the genetic blueprints stored at GEDmatch.

An article in the April 28 Mirror said major commercial DNA companies do not give law enforcement access to their genetic data without a court order.

Steve Mercer, chief attorney for the forensic division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, was quoted by The Associated Press as saying, “people who submit DNA for ancestors testing are unwittingly becoming genetic informants on their innocent family,” adding that they “have fewer privacy protections than convicted offenders whose DNA is contained in regulated databanks.”

It’s anyone’s guess what DNA samples from unsolved area murders might be in storage waiting for a break in the cases, but California authorities have opened a window that should be watched intently.

Perhaps there are people here who long have avoided capture for heinous crimes who are feeling uneasy today based upon California’s important development.