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Genealogist Who Caught Golden State Killer Continues Solving Cold Cases

The Golden State Killer’s capture in 2018 was made possible through groundbreaking innovation in genealogy. Most observers called it the most significant advance in the field since DNA testing became widespread in the 1980s.

Barbara Ray-Venter, a genetic genealogist, is credited with pioneering this new method.

Other than the Golden State Killer’s case, she has assisted law enforcement with tens of other cold cases.

GEDmatch’s role in solving cold cases

Golden State Killer case

In identifying Joseph DeAngelo as the Golden State Killer, Barbara and her team depended overwhelmingly on GEDmatch.

They built a DNA profile from a sample collected at a crime scene. The profile was then uploaded to GEDmatch, where it matched with a distant relative’s profile.

By studying their family tree and eliminating unlikely suspects based on age and gender, detectives created a shorter list.

They eventually identified DeAngelo as the prime suspect. A DNA test obtained from him later matched the one picked from a crime scene decades earlier.

A game-changing development

Golden State Killer case

Barbara Ray-Venter’s method is both astonishing and frightening in its implications.

In the past, the government would compare DNA from crime scenes with databases of already collected samples.

Although it was effective, it didn’t always work. If a suspect’s DNA hadn’t been collected in the past, there would be no match for police to compare with.

Barbara’s innovation makes this requirement irrelevant. So long as a suspect’s relatives have uploaded their genetic profiles online, they can be tracked down.

The increasing popularity of DNA testing ancestry services has undoubtedly made it easier for detectives.

How does GEDmatch work?

GEDmatch work

As opposed to fee-based ancestry services, GEDmatch does not conduct DNA tests.

Instead, it’s a volunteer-funded repository of autosomal genetic data.

Premium DNA testing services like Ancestry.com, 23andMe, and Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) offer customers printouts of their genetic results.

The problem for most customers is the closed wall approach of premium genealogy service providers.

For example, Ancestry.com will only give you matches to DNA profiles in their database.

What if your DNA matches to profiles in 23andMe or FTDNA’s databases? The only way for you to find out is by paying for separate genetic tests with these companies.

That’s both inconvenient and expensive.

By allowing DNA results from any premium ancestry service provider, GEDmatch eliminates the need to spend money on more tests.

Anyone curious about their family tree or unknown relatives can access this information for free. While this is convenient for most people, it also raises serious ethical questions.

Privacy and ethical concerns

Golden State Killer case

Barbara Venter’s team cross-referenced crime scene DNA against millions of profiles uploaded on GEDmatch. Although it resulted in the arrest of a cold-hearted killer, it also raised ethical and privacy concerns.

Can law enforcers access DNA profiles without the owners’ permission? Who owns the DNA that’s sent to companies like AncestryDNA and 23andMe? Can you prohibit them from sharing your profiles with third parties?

The answers raise even more concerns. You can’t create an account with the companies without first agreeing to their terms and conditions.

These are peppered with scientific and legal jargon that most people don’t bother with. By agreeing to the terms, you give these companies broad permissions to use your DNA as they see fit.

There have been reports of insurance companies denying coverage based on a policyholder’s genetic data. Some of them didn’t even pay for or upload their DNA profiles. Insurers can glean this information from the profiles of relatives who suffer from genetic conditions like Huntington’s disease.

Depending on how close you are to the relative, you may be branded a risk and denied coverage.

There’s also the prospect of employers denying you employment based on genetic health risks. A journey that starts due to curiosity could end up leading to unexpected discrimination.

Other than sharing your DNA, genetic testing companies also reserve the right to use it for any future scientific experiment. While signing up for the service is relatively easy, canceling it is a hectic process.

Do people care about these privacy concerns?

Americans genetic testing

Majority of Americans discover genetic testing from online and TV adverts.

These commercials arouse their curiosity by informing them of all the pleasant possibilities that await them. These include the chance to discover long lost relatives and biological parents in the case of adopted kids.

You can also discover ancestors going back centuries. When signing up, most users are blinded by these prospects, and rarely stop to think about other implications.

With the increasing popularity of genetic testing, the fear of missing out could also override any privacy and ethical concerns.

What the future holds

Future scope for DNA

Due to Barbara Ray-Venter’s contributions to solving cold cases, her methods are being taught to other scientists and law enforcers.

This has renewed interest in the field of genealogy. With the growth of premium DNA testing services, repositories like GEDmatch will also keep growing.

This is good news for detectives because it increases their chances of solving crimes that would have otherwise remain unsolved. It also paves the way for future scientific breakthroughs that would have been impossible without access to DNA databases.

Unless specific legislation is passed to regulate DNA collection tightly, the concerns of privacy activists are likely to be ignored.



As Barbara continues using her skills to solve baffling cold cases, her methods will no doubt come under deeper scrutiny.

To most of her supporters, the end justifies the means. If decades-old cold cases are solved through cutting edge genealogy, GEDmatch and other resources are tools for the public good.

Taking killers off the streets seems to be a higher priority than the other concerns raised.

To learn more about DNA testing, read our in-depth buying guide to the best DNA test for ancestry and genealogy.

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About the Author Charles McKnight

I'm just another amateur genealogist investigating my American-Scots-Irish lineage. I built MyFamilyDNATest.com after buying all of the leading DNA tests to discover everything I could about my family history. Hopefully, this site will save you time and demystify the emerging science of DNA-based genealogy, for your family project.

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