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The Journal Gazette

  • Michelle Davies l The Journal Gazette CeCeMoore, forensic genealogist

Sunday, May 19, 2019 1:00 am

DNA detective

Technique that aided in identifying April Tinsley's killer gains wider acceptance

CeCe Moore is the genetic genealogist whose work helped police bring April Tinsley's murderer, John D. Miller, to justice after 30 years. She spoke with The Journal Gazette editorial board recently while in the city to film a TV show about the case.

Q. Tell us how you got involved in the April Tinsley case.

A. I work with a company called Parabon NanoLabs. Their very first case that they worked with law enforcement on was the Tinsley case. They had already created a snapshot phenotype from the crime scene DNA. They took the DNA and predicted approximately what the killer looked like, just from his DNA ... hair color, eye color, skin color, shape of face.

After the Golden State Killer arrest almost a year ago, I decided I would use the methodologies that I had created for adoptees and unknown parentage to help law enforcement. So I joined forces with Parabon. ... They asked me to give that case some very special attention, which I did.

Q. Indeed you did. How many cases have you worked on?

A. I have a team now of four other genetic genealogists. And we've worked on about 135. Maybe 35%, we've been able to help successfully identify the perpetrator. But many of those cases are still in the pipeline. We'll have a lot more of those successfully identified in time.  

There was one case where I was able to identify the contributor of the DNA; it was a successful identification. ... But when they questioned him, they were able to rule him out and determine that his DNA was there for a different reason. So it doesn't always result in arrests.

Sometimes they're deceased. We just had our first Doe case we used our techniques to identify.  

And we've had two that were already put to death on Texas' death row. So we found some previously unknown serial killers, in fact, where they were put to death for one murder and it turns out there were multiple (murders).

The technique is applicable to any type of human identification case. I've worked with an amnesiac, Benjaman Kyle, helped him identify his legal identity and his biological family – which he didn't know for 11 years. It turned out he was from Lafayette, Indiana.

Q. Are you training other people? 

A. Yes, I've actually been teaching the same methodology for many years, all over the country, but it was specifically for people who were adopted or donor-conceived or born to an American soldier overseas. But it's the same methodology.

Law enforcement, of course, now is very interested. ... A lot of departments would like to have someone in house that is an expert at this. It's quite a learning curve. But there are some lucky agencies who have a genealogist-hobbyist that is a little bit further ahead of the game. Sometimes rather than me working the case just sitting alone doing it, I'll work with the detective and train them how to do it.

There is no certification; there's no degree you can get in this. I'm one of the only educators that has been teaching these techniques for the last several years. I'm sure there will be some college courses and a degree program, but it hasn't happened yet.

Right now, you really have to be very proactive to try to learn it. The best way is really to join my DNA detectives Facebook group. We have 110,000-plus people that have been learning these techniques to find their own biological families. We have a lot of volunteers there that help other people. ...

You just test your own DNA, work with that, work with your own family. And then try to start helping other people with whatever their family mystery is. That's the best training at the moment.

Q. Do you have any concerns that this kind of technology could be misused?

A. If somebody wants your DNA, they're going to get it. They can do a trash pull (as happened with Miller in the Tinsley case), they can follow you to McDonald's. I'm not so much worried about the genetic privacy part of this. But I do want genetic genealogy to be represented in the most positive way. And that means that skilled people should be doing this work.

Because if someone's not skilled enough, they could mislead law enforcement. Now I don't think an arrest would happen because they have to follow up and get that exact match to their original forensic coded sample. So it shouldn't lead to people being wrongly arrested or imprisoned. But it could just waste time. It could make what we're doing look less effective if less-skilled people are doing it.

So I'm not concerned in the same way some people are. People say oh, so you're informing on your family members. But people have always informed on family members. It's no different than police questioning a neighborhood and someone saying, “I think my brother may have done this, or my uncle.” It's really not that different – it feels different because it's our genetic information.

But what's great about genetic genealogy is that we can actually eliminate the vast majority of people from ever being put under suspicion. They tested and looked at 700 men in this case. And it turns out all 700 were innocent ... because they never looked at John D. Miller. With genetic genealogy, we can eliminate the need to do that, and narrow down to a much smaller number of people.

Not only can we give a population group – and I don't mean black vs. white vs. Asian – I mean Mennonite-German from Indiana – we can get that specific. If someone doesn't have those roots, then don't even consider them.

So I think it's actually a benefit. It can actually help people never have to go through being suspected for one of those crimes. And we can narrow down to a very specific group of people or families – depending on how much data we have. We can't always get it down to John D. Miller and his brother. But we can really narrow it down. It can save public resources. It can save law enforcement time and effort to allow them to really focus in and accomplish a lot more, a lot more quickly.

So I actually see the reverse of what some people are saying is the concern. Some people's lives have been ruined because they were suspected of a crime. And it's just not going to be necessary in many cases if you have DNA. They should be ruled out for DNA anyway, but they wouldn't even have to ask that person for DNA. Sometimes that alone puts someone in a really bad position with their family, their neighborhoods.

(She noted that an innocent man had been arrested in 1988, shortly after Tinsley's murder.) Imagine what that did to that poor guy's life and reputation.

Q. You were here to speak at the library (in October 2017). You didn't know about this case then?

A. I knew about it just because it was a famous case, but I was not working with law enforcement at that point. So I had no idea I would end up working on it.

Q. Are there cases that you would like to get involved in that you've not been invited into?

A. Oh sure. Everyone would like to work Zodiac. They've been trying to get DNA – I don't know if they were successful.

I think the case that's not as famous that I would like to work is the Angie Housman case in St. Ann, Missouri. That's also a little girl. She was held for nine days (in 1993) then tied to a tree in the freezing cold, with no clothes on. ... They let her sit there and suffer until she froze to death. I would love to find that person.

There's a lot of famous cases – JonBenet Ramsey, Zodiac – but I think if I could pick one, it would be Angie Housman.

Q. Do you find resistance from law enforcement?

A. Some ... That's why I do media. I want to get the word out, I want it to become more accepted. I want some of these smaller agencies that have been resistant to say, OK, fine, look at the successes we're having. These families are finally getting answers, we're finally getting justice in some of these cases. Why not try it?

If they don't invite me in, even with community pressure, family pressure, I can't.