Season 2 • Episode 16
Genealogy has been around a while. So has DNA evidence. But what if you combined the two? What if you could use DNA from a crime scene, compare the unknown killer’s genetics with public databases of other people’s DNA, figure out who his relatives are, and thereby determine his identity? That’s the system that CeCe Moore invented five years ago. So far, she’s cracked over 270 cold cases using this method—and brought closure to hundreds of grieving families.
Police files are full of unsolved rapes and murders. If there aren’t any witnesses, and they didn’t leave any clues, how are you supposed to track them down? I mean, even if the bad guy leaves his DNA behind, the police don’t know who it belongs to. Or at least—that used to be true.
CeCe Moore almost single-handedly invented genetic genealogy. She’s used it to solve over 270 cold cases…and hot ones.
Cece: [00:54:13] // we will identify you. It might take days. It might take weeks. / But you will be identified. People are not going to get away with these types of crimes anymore.
I’m David Pogue. And this is one of my all-time favorite episodes of …“Unsung Science.”
Season 2, episode 16: CeCe Moore Cracks Cold Cases with Genealogy.
This is the first “Unsung Science” episode that’s ever come with a parental advisory. I’ll tone it down as much as I can, but here it is: this episode involves some grownup topics like violence, crime, and mitochondrial DNA analysis.
I’m going to begin this episode with a description of the first cold case that CeCe Moore ever cracked. I have to begin with that case. “60 Minutes” began their CeCe Moore story with that case. The New Yorker began their story with that case. The ABC series “The Genetic Detective” began their story with that case.
I wouldn’t want to violate some kind of journalistic law! So here we go.
One November day in 1987, 20-year-old Jay Cook and his girlfriend Tanya Van Cuylenborg set out from their home in British Columbia, Canada, in the family van. Jay’s dad had asked if they’d be willing to drive to Seattle to pick up a part for his business. Here are Jay’s parents as interviewed in ABC’s “The Genetic Detective:”
Dad: I said, “We’re going to send you down to Seattle, get a furnace. And he said to me, “Can I take a friend?” And I said, “Sure.”
Mom: The plan was that they were going to stay overnight and come home. And he didn’t come back.
Jay had been strangled; Tanya had been raped and shot.
It was an infuriating case. No witnesses, no description of the guy. Couldn’t be someone they knew, because Jay and Tanya were 13 hours from home when it happened.
Hundreds of tips poured in; all dead ends.
Tanya’s lens cap showed up at a pawn shop; another dead end.
All the police had to go on was the killer’s DNA, which they recovered from Tanya’s clothes.
Now, you might expect that the FBI would have some kind of national DNA database of convicted criminals—and they do. But when they ran the killer’s DNA through that database, it came up blank. Apparently, he was a first-time criminal. This guy’s DNA wasn’t in the database.
A year went by. Ten years. 20 years. After 30 years, the grieving families of Jay and Tanya had to accept that the killer would never be brought to justice.
Finally, in 2018, a detective heard about CeCe Moore, who’d earned a reputation as a genius at DNA genealogical sleuthing. He asked her if she could look into this case—and WOW, did she ever.
CeCe: We got really lucky. I found him in probably two hours or less from the time I rolled out of bed. I was not—
David: They’d been looking for over 30 years!
Cece: Well, I was fortunate.
She gave detectives a name: William Talbott the Second. Here’s detective Jim Sharf, on that ABC show:
Scharf: We found out that he was a truck driver, and our guys started following him around.
Incredibly, as the detectives watched, Talbott threw a cardboard coffee cup out his truck window. They swabbed it for DNA, and sure enough: His DNA from the cup matched the DNA from the 1987 crime scene.
Scharf: My eyes got watery and I’m like, “I can’t believe it.” And I yelled, “We got him!”
They had indeed gotten him. Today, William Talbott is serving a life sentence in prison.
Pretty cool, huh? Yes—but not as cool as how she did it. And how she’s solved over 270 other rape and murder cases in the last five years.
As a kid, growing up near San Diego, there were early signs that CeCe Moore possessed, shall we say, intellectual doggedness.
Cece: I was the thick-glasses kid who got teased, the four-eyed brain, the teacher’s pet, the academic person, the person who had to get straight A’s. If I got a 90 on a test, I was upset. If I missed one thing, I was upset.
But it was not at all obvious that she would wind up revolutionizing the field of criminology. Her first career was acting, singing, and modeling.
Cece: In fifth grade, they decided to do a school musical, and they made me do it because they knew I would learn my lines and I would, I would be responsible.
And then I just loved singing. And then people saw me on stage in theater who then wanted to hire me for commercials and other things. I was never intending to be a performer, an actress, and certainly not a model. I’m short. I never thought I could be a model. I was shocked that I got work.
But she did get work—all the way through her 20s and 30s—until she switched to Career number 2.
CeCe When I became pregnant with my son when I was 35, I decided I was done. I was— I went behind the scenes, behind the camera. I produced instead. And I was very happy with that.
Her first taste of genealogy was an attempt to make a family tree for her niece’s wedding.
Cece: I thought, oh, you know, I could create a family tree for her wedding present. Ha ha ha. Famous last words, right? Because that’s not a project you just do and move on—like that, especially for someone like me.
She actually never finished the project. But too late! She’d been bitten by the genealogy bug. You know: Building your family tree. A chart where YOU are the tree’s trunk, at the bottom. And then above your name are the names of your parents, and above their names are the names of their parents, and on and on. Some people get really obsessed, and build these family trees all the way back to their great-great-great-great grandparents or whatever.
Trust me—I know the type. My own grandfather, Welch Pogue, spent six years of his retirement creating a Pogue family genealogy, which he self-published in 1990. He traced our genealogy all the way back to a dude named Fulbert, who died in Scotland in 1053 A.D. Fulbert was my great-geat-great-great-…well, 22 greats…grandfather.
For CeCe Moore, the pivotal moment was 9/11, when her acting and modeling gigs suddenly dried up.
CeCe: That really gave me time to dig into my own genealogy.
She entered the pulse-pounding, thrilling world of genealogical research: Poring through birth and death records, marriage licenses, newspaper clippings, census forms. All to find out who married whom, and when, and what kids they had, named what, and who they married, and what kids they had, and when they died..
In 2009, CeCe met the president of ISOGG, the International Society of Genetic Genealogists, a nonprofit of volunteers dedicated to using genetics in genealogy. And she told CeCe about a company called 23andMe. For a thousand bucks—the price back then— they’d send you a tube. You’d spit into it, mail it back, and they’d analyze your genetics. They’d tell you where your ancestors came from, and assess your likelihood to get certain diseases, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Cece: And that’s when my life changed. I said to her, “This is what I want to do. How do I do this?”
And she said, “You start answering questions.” And she said, “I can make you an admin of the DNA Newbie group. And people will start to think of you as an expert, in time.”
DNA Newbie was one of ISOGG’s chat boards.
CecE: So I spent all day reading and answering questions on DNA Newbie and reading academic papers as much as I could to learn the underlying science. The more I read it, the more it made sense somehow—it just all clicked.
In 2010, she started a genealogy blog of her own.
CeCe When people had these really intense family mysteries or discoveries through consumer DNA testing, they were reaching out to me.
Soon, people were hiring her to track down their biological roots.
Cece: What I really decided to focus on was people of unknown parentage, adoptees, donor-conceived individuals—the millions of people, as it’s turned out, that have taken a consumer DNA test and found out their father was not their biological father or their grandfather wasn’t. And so that is what I created. I developed the techniques to try to help these individuals that had really significant personal family mysteries.
Because to me, that was where you could change lives. If you can find your siblings, your birth father, if you can expand that family, that circle of love and support, that can be lifechanging.
It turns out that there are three different kinds of DNA tests.
If you’re a woman, they can test the DNA from your mitochondria—these teensy, tinesy capsules floating in every cell of your body. Your mitochondrial DNA came from your mom. And she got hers from her mom, and so on, unchanged from generation to generation.
CeCe: You likely have the exact same mitochondrial DNA profile as, say, your 10th great-grandmother.
In fact, if you keep following the line of moms of moms of moms, every woman alive today can trace her lineage back to one woman who lived around 150,000 years ago. Her descendants have gradually populated the entire globe. Genealogists call her …Mitochondrial Eve.
Mitochondrial Eve…Man, I’d love to have gotten that interview.
Footnote: Don’t get all creationist on me. Mitochondrial Eve was not the first woman. There were thousands of other women at the time; Mitochondrial Eve is just the only person whose line of daughters of daughters of daughters remains unbroken to this day. End footnote.
Then there’s another test—similar, but for guys. They can test the DNA on your Y chromosome—the one that only males have. This kind of DNA can tell you all kinds of interesting things about your dad, and your dad’s dad, and so on—and they go all the way back maybe 250,000 years to a fellow we call, that’s right, Y chromosomal Adam.
Cece: So it’s not super helpful for recent genealogy. It’s good for learning the origins of your very deep ancestral lines.
Now, 23andMe was not the first company to offer genetic testing for consumers; that distinction goes to an outfit called Family Tree DNA. But in those early years, Family Tree offered only mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA tests. There was no test that could analyze your entire ancestry all at once, fathers and mothers.
What 23andMe introduced was a test of your autosomal DNA. That kind of DNA comes from both of your parents’ lines, from all your ancestors.
Cece: And so it’s mixing and mixing, and you don’t know which line it comes from. You might share DNA with someone from your father’s mother’s father’s father’s mother’s line. And so that was what was exciting to me.
So 23andMe, at the end of 2009, actually came up with this data tool called Relative Finder. And it allowed genealogists to compare their DNA against other people in the database.
And when I saw that, I dropped everything else in my life. That is when I started thinking of, what could we do with this?
This was a big deal. It’s one thing to get your report back from 23andMe and read neato information about yourself. It’s quite another to upload your data and compare it to other people’s, finding common genetic links with total strangers all over the world.
Relative Finder didn’t last long. But a year later, something even better came along: GEDmatch.com. (The GED stands for genetic data.)
Today, about 20 million people have taken those genetic tests, from a bunch of different companies—23andMe, Family Tree DNA, Ancestry.com, and so on. No matter which company did your DNA testing, you can upload the data to GEDmatch, to make it searchable by other geneaologists. What a resource!
With the creation of GEDmatch, and a smaller database run by Family Tree DNA, the art of building your family tree by shuffling through dusty old birth and death records took a screaming leap forward.
OK. Now you know about the rise of CeCe Moore, and 23andMe, and GEDmatch.
But there’s one more key player in this story, without whom hundreds of criminals might still be out there criming—and that’s a company in Virginia called Parabon Nanolabs.
Greytak: I’m Ellen Greytak. I’m the director of bioinformatics at Parabon Nanolabs.
Parabon’s original business was selling massive computing power. But one day…
Greytak: The Department of Defense put out a solicitation for, basically, a kit that could predict what someone looked like from DNA. You collect DNA from an unexploded IED or something like that…is there more that the DNA can tell us if it can’t tell us the identity?
Pogue: Is that possible? To look at a DNA printout and say, “this person had red hair and a big nose?”
Greytak: Yeah. We call it DNA phenotyping. We can tell them the eye color, hair color, skin color, ancestry and the shape of the face of that person just from the DNA.
Parabon won the contract.
Greytak: We spent a few years developing this system, you know, showing that we could predict eye color, that we could predict skin color and face shape and all of these things from DNA.
But the question was, what about forensic DNA? And that’s a whole other thing that needs to be thought about.
Forensics, noun: using science to investigate crime. Parabon’s government clients began asking, “Yeah, yeah, the DNA can tell us what the bad guy looked like. That’s cool. But can you tell me his name?”
Greytak: We came to the attention of CeCe Moore, who was THE genetic genealogist, literally. And at that time it was sort of like, well, she had this amazing genetic genealogy that could connect DNA back to an identity. And so, we started exploring, could we work together? And, you know, the rest is history.
So now you know how CeCe Moore, and Parabon, and law enforcement eventually started solving unsolvable cases. What you still know is how. I’ve kind of been dancing around that, because it’s a whole thing. But very, very cool.
I also need to tell you how the whole thing came crashing to a halt when GEDmatch took its database away.
We’ll get into all of that… after the ads.
Welcome back! Our story so far: Law enforcement was approaching this biology-slash-computing company Parabon to ask if it might be possible to submit a piece of DNA, and find out whose DNA it is. Even if it’s really old DNA.
But I did have a question for Parabon’s Ellen Greytak:
Pogue: DNA is organic material, isn’t it? Doesn’t it degrade just like tuna fish salad?
Greytak: Yeah. DNA is a huge, long molecule, and over time, it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. If you have a perfect sample from today, you can get all 1 million pieces of information that you’re targeting. If your DNA is 50 years old, well, you might only be able to get 80% of them or something like that. But that’s still 800,000 pieces of information you didn’t have before.
CeCe Moore had been already using genetic genealogy to help out adoptees, people conceived by donors, and even amnesiacs. So when Parabon proposed using the same techniques to identify killers and rapists, she said, “Sure, I’ll give it a shot.”
Cece: Now, of course, they didn’t have any genetic genealogy expertise, and I didn’t have any law-enforcement expertise. So putting those two things together in conjunction with our brilliant scientists like Dr. Ellen Greytak, who could work with that degraded DNA, that mixed DNA.
Hey, we know her!
The very first case that Parabon and CeCe attempted to solve together is the one you already know about: The case of Jay and Tanya, the young Canadians who disappeared on their trip to Seattle. We may as well use that one as an example.
That killer’s DNA, at this point, was 30 years old—but still usable. Ellen Greytak shipped it to a lab for analysis, and uploaded the results to GEDmatch, and gave CeCe Moore the record number. The big question was: Would any part of this DNA match anyone else’s?
Cece: And I was refreshing, refreshing, refreshing, waiting for that match list, which typically takes somewhere between about 8 hours and 24 hours to load, right? They’ve got to compare that crime-scene DNA against everyone in the database, which was a little less than 1 million people at that time.
And I stayed up late Friday night checking, checking, checking. And I finally fell asleep with my computer next to me, woke up in the morning, flipped open my laptop, logged in, and there was the match list.
Now, what do we mean by a match?
By 2018, all of the genetic-testing companies were offering tests of your autosomal DNA, the kind you get from both parents.
Cece: All of us get 50% from Dad, 50% from Mom. We get about 25% from each of our grandparents, about 12 and a half percent from each of our great grandparents. We almost certainly inherit autosomal DNA from all of our fourth-great grandparents—so, your great-great-great-great grandparents.
I know what you’re thinking. “This is a really great podcast!” I know; thank you.
But I know what else you’re thinking. “But what are the odds that anyone’s great-great-great-great grandmother ever took a 23andMe test? What was she gonna do, order the kit on her iPhone and drive it to the mailbox in her Tesla?”
Ahh, but one of her descendants might have done so. Someone alive today. And if GEDmatch sees a 1.5 percent match between your DNA and 1.5 percent of someone else’s, then you guys had the same great-great-great-great grandparent. That would mean that you two are fifth cousins.
David: What qualifies as a match? What percent of the DNA has to match to qualify?
Cece: We can work with well under 1% of shared DNA. I sometimes am connecting back in the 1700s, 1600s, at sixth great-grandparents, seventh.
If I’m lucky, I’m going to get second cousins or even closer. Most the time it’s going to be third cousins.
And a quick definition here: If you and I are first cousins, that means we have the same grandparents. If we’re second cousins, we have the same great-grandparents. And so on.
Anyway. Here’s where CeCe Moore revolutionized the industry—by turning the family tree upside down.
In traditional genealogy, you start with you, and you go back in time. You identify your parents, then their parents, then their parents. The diagram you’re building looks like a tree—an inverted triangle, and you’re at the bottom.
Cece: What I did that was unique was, I flipped that upside down and tried to use it to identify living or recently living individuals that had never been a focus previously.
In other words, she starts with that great-great-grandmother or whatever, and figures out what children she had, and whom they married, and what children they had, and so on.
CeCe: Or reverse genealogy, I call it. Instead of building backward in time, now we’re going to build forward in time. We’re going to try to find those descendants of those common ancestors: who are their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren?
And how does she build this upside-down family tree? Through pure, torturous, tedious, research.
Cece: The entire rest of my time is spent in public records. I’m using census records, birth records. I’m using people search databases—there’s White Pages Premium, there’s US Search, those types of things. I’m using social media, where people are interacting with their families. I’m using obituaries, newspaper archives, learning everything I can about these families. And I don’t have any special access. I’m using records that anyone else could use.
Many things make CeCe Moore unique. But her ability to shut out the world as she goes rabbit-holing is certainly one of them.
Cece: Oftentimes I will work it for 16-hour days, and maybe I’ll just sleep a few hours and come back to it. You just keep going. It’s extremely hard to walk away because there’s so much riding on these cases. There’s these families and victim—victims that are waiting for answers.
You think, “ if I don’t help them find this guy now, he might victimize someone else.”
Of course, there’s one little problem with this upside-down family tree idea: It gets bigger as it approaches modern times.
CeCe: The tree gets really big. They might have hundreds or thousands of great-great grandsons.
But isn’t the point of this exhausting exercise to identify one person at the end—the mystery killer?
Yes. And that is why CeCe desperately hopes to find more than one match in GEDmatch. At that point, she starts the whole top-down charting process a second time, hoping that the two genetic networks will eventually intersect.
CeCe: And so optimally, you’re going to finally narrow it down to one person or a set of siblings that connect to all of these top matches.
As it turns out, her very first case—Jay and Tanya, from 1987—was one of the easiest she ever cracked. GEDmatch identified two people who shared a whole bunch of DNA with the unidentified killer.
CeCe: Well, that is like…amazing. We used to call that being struck by lightning in the adoption work.
They didn’t share DNA with each other, which meant they were on different branches of his family tree.
And I found a man from one side of the tree and a woman from the other tree. And they fortunately had only one son! And so I was shocked. Because I found him in probably 2 hours or less from the time I rolled out of bed. I was not—
David: They’d been looking for over 30 years!
CeCe: And I wasn’t expecting that to be that straightforward. Remember, this was my first suspect case. I didn’t know what to expect.
Actually, there was one part of this case that wasn’t straightforward. One of the matches should have been a first cousin once removed—but the amount of matching DNA wasn’t the right percentage. Something bizarre was going on. The explanation, she figured out, was—
Cece: Grandma married twice. But the son from the first marriage took the surname from the second marriage.
David: Oh, come on! How are you supposed to figure that out?
Cece: Oh, marriage records. The son was born during that marriage, not her second marriage, and he had taken his stepfather’s name.
David: I mean, the more we talk, the less I believe in the American story of the nuclear family. You know, you marry for life. You have kids. They get married for life. I mean, is there any standard family?
Cece: We learned early in consumer genetics that a lot of people’s fathers are not their biological fathers. It has literally happened to millions of people now. It’s a phenomenon.
Even way back in time, you know, we want to think our ancestors are so different. They’re not. Could it have been an affair? Maybe. Could it have been an assault? Maybe. We’ll never know those things, but we certainly see evidence of it going back generations.
David: All right. So let me see if I have this right. So you start with the distant relative and trace all their descendants.
David: And then, having done that for multiple families, you need to find the intersection of those upside-down trees.
Cece: That’s exactly right. And we’re also taking certain things into consideration—who’s the right gender, the right age range to be the suspect, usually who’s living near the crime scene? About 99% of my cases have led right back to the area of the crime scene. It’s almost always a local.
Then I’m going to look at the snapshot phenotype predictions and say, who has consistent hair color, eye color, shape face, you know, that type of thing.
Once CeCe hands over the culprit’s name to the police, that’s not quite the end of it. Her sleuthing alone is not enough to convict.
CeCe: It’s so important to emphasize that what I do is just a tip. They’ve got to go and get the DNA from that individual, compare it to their original law enforcement profile. That is what’s admissible in a court of law, not what I do. They have to collect that DNA and get that 1 to 1 match.
David: Have you ever been wrong?
Cece: No. So I’ve never given them the wrong name and said, “It’s this guy.”
I have said, “Look, we’ve got six great grandsons in this family and it must be one of them,” and then had there be a seventh that was not raised with the family, right? But I do always warn them that’s possible.
Now, if you’re still there, following along with this story of mitochondrial genetic tests and autosomal DNA fragments—well, first of all, well done, you big-brained thing.
But you might also be wondering at this point: “Hold on there—are these GEDmatch customers cool with the government using their uploaded DNA records—for the purpose of putting their own relatives in jail?”
That’s an objection that CeCe didn’t consider at first.
Cece: Like, who wouldn’t want this? Who wouldn’t want a good deed like this? Who wouldn’t want to find the rapist-murderer of a 16-year-old cheerleader, right?
But there are all kinds of reasons you might feel uneasy with the prospect of your DNA being used to catch a killer.
Cece: That’s why it’s controversial, right? Because you never know if sitting around your Thanksgiving table, there’s somebody who’s been getting away with murder or rape. And some people think that person deserves to pay for that crime. And some people think blood is thicker than water, and you need to protect your own.
So there’s a disagreement there, you know? And it also means some people might test and maybe their son gets arrested. You know, maybe their child, maybe later their grandchild.
Is it more important that justice is done, that victims of violent crime and their families get answers and resolution and justice? Or is it more important to protect your own family?
In the end, CeCe decided not to go there. This was 2017 or so, when the idea of using innocent citizens’ DNA to capture killers and rapists was just too touchy a subject. She limited herself to working with people who wanted to be identified, like adoptees and donor-conceived people, or identifying John and Jane Does—bodies the police can’t identify.
Cece: I was having a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out how I could do this without betraying my own community. And Parabon agreed. They didn’t want to overstep either.
But everything changed on April 24, 2018. That’s when, after 44 years of hunting, police finally caught the Golden State Killer.
His name was Joseph DeAngelo Jr., and he’d committed at least 51 rapes, 13 murders, and 120 burglaries. He would have gotten away with it, too—if amateur genealogist Barbara Rae-Venter hadn’t used GEDMatch to identify him.
It was the first time anyone had used genetic genealogy to capture a bad guy. And it was a wakeup call for law enforcement, who had no idea you could catch people this way. Parabon’s phones started ringing off the hook.
Greytak: In that first week after the Golden State Killer, we were able to start 150 cases.
But not everyone was thrilled. Thousands of genealogists felt betrayed. Somebody had used their intimate, private genetic data in a way they’d never intended—and that somebody was the government.
Of course, many of them didn’t really get what had happened.
Greytak: When the Golden State Killer came out, there were all of these articles saying, “Oh, my God, the police can see your DNA if you test it at Ancestry or 23andMe.” And it’s like, “No, no, no, no, no! It’s only if you explicitly put your DNA in this other database!”
Meaning you’d have to have uploaded it to GEDmatch.
Greytak: And even then, we can’t see the DNA. All we see is, “oh, this person, John Smith, shares this much of his DNA with our unknown person. You know, he shares this little segment on chromosome 1 and this segment on chromosome 18.” That’s all we see. We don’t see the A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s.
In other words, all GEDmatch reveals is the percentage of DNA two people have in common. It doesn’t reveal anything that’s in the DNA, like medical information, or hair color, or, I don’t know, musical ability.
Even so, GEDmatch was suddenly on the receiving end of blistering rage from its members.
Eventually, the owner, retired businessman Curtis Rogers, invoked the nuclear option: He declared the entire database off-limits to law enforcement, except for participants who explicitly offered their records for that purpose.
CeCe: And so now you have to opt in actively, meaning when you upload your DNA there, there’s a little box you have to check that says, “I will allow law enforcement to compare against my DNA.”
Overnight, as a tool for catching criminals, GEDMatch vanished. CeCe’s crime-solving database went from a million genetic records to zero.
David: Great day for you.
Cece: That was very painful. It was a horrible day and week and month.
You know, it eventually grew back, but it was a really hard time because I saw what it meant to these families and survivors of violent crime, to finally get these answers for many of them after decades.
Today, GEDmatch keeps the records of 1.5 million people. About a third of them have chosen to make their records searchable by crime-solvers.
Cece: But it’s still enough that we are having a lot of success. We’ve been able to help solve more than one case a week on average for the four and a half years that we’ve been offering this service.
You know what’s wild? Almost all of the genetic detectives are women. I asked Ellen Greytak about that.
Greytak: Yes, it is a very female-dominated field. For a lot of these people, it began as a hobby. They started it because they had, you know, a family mystery that they wanted to answer. And then they really enjoyed figuring that out. And they started volunteering to help other people solve their family mysteries.
Pogue: So at this point, having done—having solved 200 something of these crimes, is there any longer a bunch of running through the office and high fiving and a beer bash? Or is it just like, “oop, throw that one on the pile?”
Greytak: Well, there’s no running through the office, but there is a very excited email thread that comes out every time.
You know, that reminds me. So far, this entire episode has been devoted to the process of genetic genealogy. How things came about. How it all works.
But beyond it all, there are people. Victims, families, relatives. Deeply wounded, sometimes badly broken people.
I want to play you a scene from episode 2 of “The Genetic Detective,” the ABC series about CeCe Moore from 2020. CeCe has just cracked the frustrating case of an unknown man who raped and murdered three young women in the nineties. Turns out his name was Robert Brashers. By the time CeCe identified him in 2018, he was already dead. Suicide.
But at the end of the episode, the producers of the show have arranged for CeCe to meet Brasher’s daughter Deborah. Going in, CeCe’s a little worried about what Deborah will think of her—the genetic detective who revealed to the world that Deborah’s father was a really bad man.
I was really moved by the conversation. CeCe speaks first:
Cece: How do you feel?
Deb: Disgusted. Because part of my blood is the blood of a serial killer. They say, “Oh, maybe some things are genetic. Is that going to have any effect on my life?”
But at the same time, I am my own person, and I will make myself however I want to be made.
CeCe: So you’re not mad at me for identifying your father?
Deb: No. I’m glad you did.
The process that Moore and Parabon have developed has solved an awful lot of cold cases—but it’s not just cold cases. Here’s Ellen Greytak again:
Greytak: We have worked on active cases as well. The most recent case we solved was three weeks between when it happened and when CeCe was able to figure out who it was. And so, you know, that’s someone who might have committed other offenses later. And by stopping them now, this person is now in jail and now they can’t commit any more crimes.
I mentioned that aspect to CeCe.
David: There is a parallel universe where you don’t exist, where more people have been attacked and killed because those guys weren’t stopped earlier in their crime careers.
Cece: I think so. I feel very confident that we have been able to save lives and keep people from being victimized and having their lives destroyed.
The other thing I really hope that we’re doing is working as a deterrent. So as these stories get out, I really hope that people start thinking about the fact that if they commit an intimate, violent crime, they are going to leave their DNA behind no matter how careful they are. We will identify you. It might take days. It might take weeks. It might take years, depending on your population group and who happens to be in the databases. But you will be identified. People are not going to get away with these types of crimes anymore.
Today, CeCe Moore is busier than ever. She’s a genealogist for the PBS series “Finding Your Roots.” She co-founded the Institute for Genetic Genealogy. She’s still solving cases with Parabon. And she’s still answering everyone’s questions online.
Cece I have a Facebook group called DNA Detectives; it’s almost 200,000 members. and I have multiple subgroups off of that. I have an Unknown Fathers group. I have a foundling group which people, you know, that were left at birth by their mothers, usually. I have a Switched at Birth group, believe it or not.
David: Yeah, well, since you have this platform, is there anything else you’d like to say to the public?
Cece: Yeah, I really do want to be an inspiration to people who think their life is over 40 or 50. This is my third career. I found an incredibly fulfilling life in my forties and fifties.
I really followed a passion and I dedicated so much to it. Sometimes, you know, my family had to sacrifice, too. My son, maybe didn’t get all my attention.
But I do want people to know that we’re not done at forties and fifties and sixties and seventies, even, especially as women.
David: And opt in on GEDmatch.
Cece: Yes. There are millions and millions of people who have taken consumer DNA tests who could download that raw data, upload it to GEDmatch, and opt in to law-enforcement matching.
Please, please, please take that step. Because every single new person that uploads can be the key to solving one of those cases and providing answers to a family, getting a violent criminal off the street.