Much to the frustration of her proud son, the genetic genealogist who helped crack the unsolved case of the Golden State Killer decided early in the investigation that she did not want to be named.
“I was worried about my safety, which is why it’s taken me so long to come out of the closet,” said Barbara Rae-Venter.
Last week, the 70-year-old former attorney, who lives in California, decided she was ready, allowing Paul Holes, a retired investigator at the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office to name her in a tweet:
The response to the role she played in identifying Joseph DeAngelo, a former police officer, now charged with killing 13 women across California in the 1970s and 1980s, has moved her.
“Some of the stuff on Twitter, I was blushing just reading it,” she said.
Ms. Rae-Venter is the newest character to emerge in the Golden State Killer investigation, which has since inspired others skilled at solving family history puzzles to offer their services to law enforcement. While this has resulted in at least eight arrests over the past four months, not everyone in the genealogical community is so comfortable with the alliance.
How did she become an expert at genetic genealogy?
“I am a retired patent attorney,” said Ms. Rae-Venter, who lives on California’s central coast. “None of this is a planned event.”
Ms. Rae-Venter became an expert in genetic sleuthing techniques largely in an effort to assist a newfound cousin.
The two matched on the website Family Tree DNA in 2012, a few weeks after he learned that man that raised him was not his father.
“I thought it would really nice if I could help him but had no idea how,” said Ms. Rae-Venter.
She found that the website DNAAdoption.org offered a class on how to use DNA matches, family trees and public records to find one’s biological parents.
She was not a typical student. Before going into law, she’d gotten a Ph.D. in biology. And as a patent lawyer, she specialized in biotechnology inventions, often working with companies that were innovating in molecular biology. Originally from New Zealand, she’d first moved to the United States with her ex-husband, J. Craig Venter, the geneticist who would become known for his work sequencing the human genome.
Soon after completing the course, she began teaching it.
Although she insists that she still considers genetic genealogy a hobby, she’s now talking to various law enforcement agencies about 50 cases involving homicide and unidentified victims.
How did she get involved in criminal cases?
In 2015, Ms. Rae-Venter assisted a detective who was trying to figure out the identity of a woman named Lisa who had been kidnapped as a baby.
Now in her 30s, Lisa had spent most of her life thinking that the man who had abused and then abandoned her was her father. That man had later been convicted of murder. In the course of that investigation, detectives had discovered that her DNA did not match his. So who were her parents? Where had she come from? The man refused to answer questions about her origins.
It took 20,000 hours and the assistance of more than 100 volunteers. But ultimately Ms. Rae-Venter used her techniques find the woman’s birth name, Dawn, and connected her with her grandfather, who was her closest living relative interested in a connection.
Ms. Rae-Venter was able to narrow Lisa’s likely father down to a grouping of brothers. All had been married at the time of her birth and those that could be located refused DNA testing. Still Lisa had gone from knowing nothing about who she was to holding a family tree containing thousands of people.
Mr. Holes learned about Ms. Rae-Venter’s work on that case in 2017. If she had been able to figure out this girl’s identity with so few clues, couldn’t she also identify someone using well-preserved semen?
Was she conflicted?
Ms. Rae-Venter was not the only genealogist approached by law enforcement. At genealogy conferences, a debate about whether or not to cooperate was raging.
It’s not possible for law enforcement to search a genealogy site like 23andMe without a court order. But genealogists solving adoption cases knew there was a workaround. They could upload crime scene evidence to GEDmatch, a sort of Wikipedia of DNA that has a looser customer service agreement.
Some felt that helping law enforcement navigate GEDmatch amounted to exploiting a loophole and violating users’ trust. Others felt it was O.K., but that it was best to proceed quietly, so as not to drive people off the site.
Ms. Rae-Venter said she was not aware of these conversations.
“I didn’t get into any debates,” she said.
Rather, after a review of Mr. Holes’s previous cases, she agreed to help him. It was only later that she was told the details of the Golden State Killer case.
The more she learned — not only had the suspect killed at least 13 women, he’d raped dozens more — the more determined she was.
“This man needs to come off the street,” she said.
Ms. Rae-Venter, is no stranger to ethical debates. An interest in medical ethics led her to law school. And as a lawyer, she helped the company Calgene obtain a patent for the Flavr Savr tomato, the first genetically engineered fruit licensed by the F.D.A. She was also involved in patenting crops that were genetically modified to resist Roundup herbicide.
Why did Mr. Holes need a genealogist?
There is a misconception that solving a case using this new approach is as simple as finding a genetic match in a database.
“DNA is an initial baby clue,” said Ms. Rae-Venter.
In the hands of someone without experience in genetic genealogy, that clue — typically a couple second or third cousins located in the GEDmatch database — is useless.
There were obstacles to overcome in the Golden State Killer case.
A crucial step involves following cousins back until a common ancestor is identified. Many of the suspect’s relatives were recent Italian immigrants — and so the team hit dead ends in locating family tree data.
Eventually, by focusing on the British side of the suspect’s family, they began making progress and developed the rough outlines of trees, which would eventually be merged.
Ms. Rae-Venter then guided the team in how to fill out the branches using birth records, newspaper clippings, social media profiles and family tree data.
Her trainees, which included two people from the F.B.I., two people from the Sacramento County district attorney’s office along with Mr. Holes, were quick studies, she said.
What cannot be so quickly learned is how to compare two autosomal DNA profiles and understand what the overlapping fragments are hinting at, knowing which branch of a tree to focus on or seeing how these pieces will fit together to identify the unknown person.
Mr. Holes said that genetic genealogists like Ms. Rae-Venter, “are worth their weight in gold,” because “they understand the DNA testing and DNA inheritance and the genealogy aspects,” which is rare to find in a single person.
After several months, a handful of men emerged as candidates for further investigation because of their ages and histories in California. The team took a voluntary DNA sample from the man who looked like the most likely suspect. He was not a match. But he was closely related to the Golden State Killer, which was helpful information.
Ms. Rae-Venter then turned to an eye color prediction tool on GEDmatch.
It said that the suspect’s eyes were blue.
A site called Promethease.com, created for health risk analysis, suggested that the suspect would bald prematurely.
Only one man they were looking at — Mr. DeAngelo — had blue eyes. A DMV photo showed a receding hairline.
Investigators knew that these types of predictions could be misleading. But they illustrate how layers of clues built up to reinforce moving in a certain direction.
From there, traditional detective work suggested that Mr. DeAngelo was the likely suspect. Eventually, after obtaining a discarded DNA sample and confirming a match, detectives arrested him. Mr. DeAngelo has yet to enter a plea.
Why is she coming forward now?
Soon after the Golden State Killer announcement, Parabon, a forensic consulting firm, said it would be launching a genealogical arm. CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist known for her work on adoption cases, went on to announce breakthroughs in six murder cases and two sexual assault cases.
“The Golden State Killer case said we could go into homicides,” said Colleen Fitzpatrick a rocket scientist turned genetic genealogist, who is now working on a dozen murder cases for Identifinders International, a forensic identification organization.
Because these women have been public about their work, Ms. Rae-Venter said she felt safer coming forward. If multiple people were out there identifying perpetrators from semen or blood, it helped make any one genealogist less of a target.
But other genealogists feel that in the excitement about helping catch the Golden State Killer, some in their community are failing to remember that cooperation comes at a cost. Once they’ve turned over their insights about all that can be gleaned from public family tree and genetic data to law enforcement, there is no taking them back if they don’t like how the techniques are being used.
“The larger issue here — one that the larger genetic genealogy community hasn’t really advocated for yet, is to start pressing for laws to protect the privacy rights of all people and limit access to everyone’s genetic material,” said Teresa Vega, a genealogist and family historian who writes a blog called Radiant Roots, Boricua Branches.
Ms. Rae-Venter agrees that these investigations have the potential to go off the rails. She has seen it in her work with adoptees.
“There are people who are self-proclaimed ‘search angels.’ They are charging adoptees money and they really don’t know what they are doing,” she said.
On several occasions, she had to explain to an adoptee that the person they’d been told was their father was actually a cousin.
After hearing reports of genealogists showing up at police departments to offer their services, Ms. Rae-Venter has been reminded why a certification process could be useful.
“If anyone gets it wrong it could damage this whole, emerging field,” she said.
Did she ever find her cousin’s father?
The cousin is from Britain. Finding genetic matches and family tree data for people outside the United States is exponentially more difficult.
But just recently a new match popped up, and so this may be the year she solves that case as well.