Silent Mass Disaster No More

We need efficient and cost-effective ways to match families of missing persons to the unidentified. Time is not on our side.

Traditional forensic methods won’t solve the hundreds of thousands of unsolved cases in the United States, but new DNA testing technology can help. I started this newsletter to share stories about cases that have been solved by uniting cutting-edge DNA tech with the passion of the public. Browse some of these stories to get an idea of how new technology has closed cases that have been unsolved for decades, bringing peace of mind and some closure to families.

Evelyn Colon, formerly known as Beth Doe, was a pregnant teen homicide victim who was unidentified for 45 years. The revelation of her true identity meant that investigators could arrest the person identified as responsible for her death, and her family could finally know what had happened to her. This case was notable because it was resolved only through the intersection of two seemingly unrelated events: new DNA testing technology that has enabled us to unlock information from even the most challenging forensic evidence; and the efforts of Evelyn’s nephew, who uploaded his consumer DNA profile to various databases hoping to find her. The first is shiny and futuristic, while the latter reflects an age-old human need for connection and history.

My company, Othram, built the genealogical profile for Evelyn. When it was used to search genealogical databases, it immediately matched her nephew’s profile. If this is not serendipity, I don’t know what is.

According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered in the United States annually. Many of these individuals are victims of crimes, but imagine the difficulty of investigating what happened when you don’t even know the victim’s identity. Most of these unidentified bodies remain mysteries, anonymous case numbers. They accumulate year after year, a phenomenon the National Institute of Justice calls a “silent mass disaster.”

As these cases build up and the years pass, the world moves on, but the families and friends of the unidentified victims do not — they cannot. You never forget a missing loved one, even if you don’t speak of it. Left out in the cold, these people have a hole in their heart. Families need answers to even begin the process of healing. This is the ultimate reason we have to tackle the backlog of cold cases. 

There is always someone waiting for answers. We need to match what we know and our genuine sympathy, with an urgency to provide answers. The family and friends of victims will not be around forever, and once they are gone then the opportunity to do right by them is lost. So how do we replicate the serendipitous circumstances of Beth Doe for all the anonymous victims?  

The standard forensic DNA testing framework is the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), an FBI program that supports DNA databases and infrastructure for searching unknown DNA profiles against a catalog of known felons. While CODIS will remain a critical and irreplaceable component of forensic DNA testing, countless cases remain unsolved due to the simple fact that CODIS was designed – when DNA testing was in its infancy – to confirm the identity of those individuals who had already been targeted by other methods. While effective in tracking crime by repeat offenders, CODIS is relatively ineffective for unidentified remains, as victims are not usually  present in a database of criminals. Additionally, CODIS will not match many criminals. Many perpetrators are not in the database because they were never caught before, and even those that were indicted earlier (and even convicted) may purposely or accidentally be missing. CODIS is a powerful framework for tracking repeat offenders and confirming their identity, but it’s not the standalone solution for the “silent mass disaster” of unidentified persons. 

But the times are changing, as cutting-edge genomics techniques enable the construction of more detailed profiles for forensic DNA evidence. My company, Othram, builds DNA profiles that draw upon tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of markers (rather than the twenty or so from CODIS). With such a rich marker set it is straightforward to develop leads that help identify and reconnect unidentified individuals back to family.

Nevertheless, in the case of Beth Doe, constructing a more detailed profile was only part of the challenge. The DNA profile of an unknown person has to be compared against a database of other profiles. Right now, investigators enter these profiles into the subset of available genealogical databases that permit law enforcement search. These genealogical databases were built to enable end users to find genetic relatives or, in other cases, to help adoptees find their biological families. When it became apparent that these same databases could be used to identify unknown persons at crime scenes, law enforcement made recourse to the tools at hand. But, this prompted a number of societal, ethical, and legal questions about how and when to use genealogical databases. This is an important ongoing discussion that we’ll explore in more detail in later posts, but the databases that continue to work with law enforcement now provide their members with options to decide if they will allow their data to be used in a law enforcement investigation. Choice is important.

DNASolves was started in the fall of 2019 because of all these issues. We envisioned a new kind of database that would be used exclusively for reconnecting the unidentified to their families and for solving “unsolvable” crimes. There are many databases specialized for genealogy, medical research and other applications, so we wanted to focus on this one use case. Much like with Othram’s laboratory, the focus on one mission, identifying the unknown persons from forensic DNA evidence, allows us to refine tools and methods for forensic DNA evidence specifically. This has been the key to our success in unlocking information from DNA evidence that has failed testing with other methods or at other laboratories.

We believe that a clear explanation of what the database is for, with a singular focus on forensics, would help address some of the concerns that have emerged from the use of genealogical databases that have been drafted by law enforcement. DNASolves works like other genealogical databases and its aim is transparent and clear. If you’ve already taken a consumer DNA test from a third-party DNA testing service, you can download your raw DNA data from that service and then upload it to DNASolves. There is only one reason to do this: to help solve a cold case. 

And yet today DNASolves has grown into a lot more than just a database. DNASolves is a platform for sharing updates about cases, and for financially supporting casework that would otherwise not be possible. This support is made possible by private donors, sponsorship, and crowdfunding. We are truly grateful to everyone that has helped support a case. If you are curious which cases currently need assistance, we keep a running list here. We would love for you to get involved!

The main question is how we can continue to accelerate solutions to the “silent mass disaster” of accumulating cold cases? The widespread availability of genealogical databases cuts both ways. It is, and has been, very useful for law enforcement. But these databases are often difficult to use because their original aims were so very different, resulting in great inefficiencies.

Over the past several months we have been thinking about how we would design a database for forensic purposes from day one. How would we make them more efficient? How do we build the smallest database that can do the most good? Why not build a database for families of the missing and unidentified? If you have data, great. You can start here. But the intersection of genealogy enthusiasts and those who are concerned with missing persons and unsolved crimes is limited. So what about everyone else who has not tested?

We want to do what is best and most efficient, even even if it is not the easiest path forward. We need efficient and cost-effective ways to match families of missing persons to the unidentified. So we are announcing DNASolves® Connect. Launching with the new program is our new logo for DNASolves. We hope you like it, it was a labor of love.

The DNASolves® Connect program allows people that have not previously tested with a DNA testing company to contribute their DNA profiles to DNASolves by ordering a swab kit directly from DNASolves. The swab kits cost $14.99. That’s it. You order a kit, register the kit, swab, and then return the kit, using a provided return label. Your DNA, whether you upload a profile or send us a swab, is never shared. It is not publicly searchable. However, if investigators submit a profile for an unknown person from a crime scene, we will use the profile to compare against these submitted profiles.

We have the technology and we can start making a difference now. We can identify missing persons and bring peace of mind to the families of victims. Please help us spread the word and let’s get started!