Last month I wrote about the police’s relatively new use of genetic genealogy to solve serious criminal cases like rape and murder. The idea is simple. In cases where investigators have DNA samples but no exact match, they submit the samples to a public site where people have already uploaded their own DNA test results. Investigators then look for a familial match which can help them narrow down possible suspects to a specific family tree. This is the technique which was used to solve the Golden State Killer case. Today, NBC News published a follow up story about a cold case in New York which in which investigators believe genetic genealogy is their last hope to solve it. However, New York won’t let them try:
On March 25, 1980, a woman had noticed a barefoot figure lying on a neighbor’s lawn a few miles away in Bay Shore. It was Eve Wilkowitz. She’d last been seen boarding a late-night Long Island Rail Road train from Penn Station in Manhattan, where she worked as a secretary at a publishing house.
Sometime during her journey home, she’d been kidnapped, bound, raped, strangled and dumped. She was 20…
Today, they are no closer to Eve’s killer than they were the morning she was found. Wilkowitz, 57 and Eve’s only living close relative, has pressed investigators to try a new option: investigative genetic genealogy, a revolutionary — and divisive — tool that has been used to crack dozens of cold cases across America in the past 18 months. It would enable police to submit the killer’s DNA, found in semen left on her sister’s body, to consumer DNA databases, which contain DNA profiles of tens of thousands of people who are not in criminal databases. The move could increase the chances of finding a relative of the killer ─ and, ultimately, the killer himself.
But New York health officials won’t let investigators do so…
Under a decades-old regulation from a time when DNA analysis first became common in criminal cases, private labs are required to obtain permits before they can do such forensics work in New York…No private lab has this permit for investigative genetic genealogy.
Eve’s younger sister Irene Wiklowitz is the only surviving member of the family. Her mother had died of cancer before Eve’s murder and her father died a few years ago. After years of trying not to think about the case, Irene now realizes she’s the only person left who can push authorities to finally get justice for her sister.
Of course there’s no guarantee that the new testing will result in a lead. GEDmatch, the public DNA database which most investigators have used to find matches recently created an opt-in system for people on the site to allow their data to be used by police. As a result the number of potential matches dropped from over a million to zero overnight. The number is now back up to nearly 200,000 but finding a match in that much smaller pool of data is still a long shot.
But it seems very possible that Eve’s murderer, whoever he is, is probably still alive and still out there. And without this new technique, police say they are out of options:
Suffolk County police say they’ve exhausted every possible lead. They investigated the Manhattan boyfriend who saw Eve last and the ex-boyfriend with whom she lived in Bay Shore. They pored over old crime reports, tracking down people who’d been accused of acting suspiciously in the area. They questioned local parolees and sex offenders. They logged the names of everyone who lived in the neighborhood, and spoke to as many as they could. They traced Wilkowitz’s final route from Manhattan, showing riders pictures of the young woman and interviewing people who recognized her. They looked into complaints of people acting strangely on the train.
The case went cold, but police have revisited it a few times. They collected DNA from many of the people who’d been interviewed in the original investigation, but the profiles didn’t match DNA from the semen found on Wilkowitz’s body. The suspect’s DNA profile was uploaded into a national crime database, but searches came back negative. Police even took DNA from the brother of a dead suspect in a string of 1980s killings to see if any shared DNA indicated that Wilkowitz was one of his many victims.
New York already has a law allowing police to do the search, they just need to approve a company to do the testing that state crime labs can’t perform. That approval process takes time but has already been underway for a year. In other words, this is just bureaucratic red tape that could be cut through very quickly if someone in the Governor’s mansion were motivated to do so. New York State Sen. Phil Boyle told NBC News, “It works, but for some reason the Department of Health is slow to get off the mark and we’re the only state that doesn’t allow it.”