Familial DNA helps investigators solve cold cases

Nicole Earnest-Payte is a survivor of sexual assault. Investigators say she may be the first victim of numerous attacks committed by a suspect known as the Norcal Rapist. The crimes remained unsolved until recently.  

"I was really angry, voraciously angry when I saw him," Earnest-Payte told KTVU. She described the moment she was  finally able to put a face and name to the masked man who raped her in her Rohnert Park  home 27 years ago. Suspect Roy Charles Waller appeared in court in September, accused of attacking at least 10 women.

"When he turned around and for a split second looked at me in the eye. That was a split second...bone-chilling like the blood was leaving my body," said Earnest-Payte. 

She was among the victims who attended the Waller's court hearing.

"What I saw was if I get out of here, I'm going to kill you...should have killed you that night," said Earnest-Payte. 

For years, she lived with the fear that he would return.

"I had hoped every single day that I would get the call that he was caught, but I thought it would never happen," said Earnet-Payte.

But it did happen after almost  three decades. In September, authorities  identified and arrested Waller, a long-time UC Berkeley employee now accused of  being the NorCal Rapist. Investigators say they used GEDmatch, the genetic genealogy website, the same method used successfully  just months earlier in the highly publized case of the Golden State Killer and East Area Rapist case. It led Contra Costa County investigators to suspect Joseph DeAangelo,  a former police officer who is accused of  terrorizing his victims  from 1976 to 1986

"There is no question in my mind that Joe DeAngelo is the Golden State Killer," said Paul Holes, the retired Contra Costa County District Attorney  Investigator.  He came up with the idea to upload dna from a crime scene onto GEDmatch where a relative of DeAngelo had uploaded DNA.

"We did everything without success.  Law enforcement has been chasing this guy for 44 years," said Holes," Once we started down this genetic genealogy road, it took us four months with five people plus some outside consultation to get it accomplished." 

But with success comes ethical questions in a field that is largely unregulated.

"Typically science moves faster than the law does. The law is constantly racing with science to catch up with it," said Hadam Aviram, Professor at UC Hastings College of the Law.  

She says the use of dna information uploaded to ancestry websites raises privacy concerns,"Because familial dna exploits genetic profile between relatives, they might find some information about people who not only did not voluntarily submit their information to the website, they didn't even know that information was available on that website." 

In October,  Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office  announced  it had solved a cold case from 1985. 57-year-old Virginia Vincent, a Danville real estate agent, was raped and murdered in her apartment. Investigators used a method called "familial dna search." They  worked with the California Department of Justice to solve the case.  using the state's criminal database to come up with a list of relatives of the unknown perpetrator.

"If you're convicted of felonies or arrested for felonies. you have to give a dna sample," said Rick Jackson, a retired Los Angeles Police homicide detective, who helped solve the case.  He says a piece of rope used to tie the victim was tested last year. 
"Obviously when you tightened the rope, you put a good grip on the ends where you're tightening it.  So after 33 years, we swabbed the ends of that rope," said the cold case investigator. 

The DNA was sent to the California Department of Justice to do a familial search in a database of criminals. There was a "hit" from a man who turned out to be the brother of the perpetrator.

That man was Joey Lynn Ford. Using old-fashion police work, investigators learned that on the day Vincent was killed, Ford was pulled over for dui in Danville just hours before the crime. But Ford killed himself in 1997 when confronted by police after a 16 year old girl accused him of sexual assault. Still, investigators wanted to confirm that the dead man was responsible for the crime. Detectives got a court order to exhume the Ford's body  buried in a Fairfield cemetery.  They obtained DNA from a femur bone and they say it was a match. 

But a geneticist with UC Berkeley said  law enforcement's use of criminal databases for familial matching has an inherent bias.

"It doesn't represent all population groups equally.  Certain population groups such as African Americans, Latinos are all represented in those databases. That means when you do familial searching, you're more likely to be falsely investigated," said Rasmus Nielsen, a geneticist with UC Berkeley.

"It'll be interesting to see how it evolves in the next year or two," said Nancy O'Malley, Alameda County District Attorney, 

She says solving crimes is about following leads to find justice and describes DNA as a remarkable forensic tool.    

"If we test DNA against the person...the suspect... and it doesn't match,  we know he's not the person and that's just as important as identifying the guilty person," said O'Malley. 

For Earnest-Payte, she says she believes in science," We never stopped fighting and we won." 
She says a suspect identified through dna gives her confidence that justice will be served.