In 2018, a new technique named Joseph DeAngelo as the Golden State Killer when a small team of investigators uploaded his DNA profile into a publicly available DNA database to reverse engineer his identity based on familial relations.
As a part of his 19-year career with the FBI, from 2018 to 2021, former SA Steve Busch led the effort within the FBI to build a national program to train and equip FBI personnel to solve cases using FGG. The FGG process is legal, ethical, and extremely effective, yet it is often portrayed as invasive, erroneous and exorbitant.
Isn’t the federal government using special access and tools to look at the genomes of innocent Americans? Why aren’t there boundaries placed on this overbroad technique? Aren’t the cops going to arrest the wrong person? Don’t Americans have a right to privacy with their genetic code? DNA is different right?
In this interview, Steve shares his experience in working FGG cases within the FBI, including some of the cases that he’s worked on and how the FBI came to be the leading authority on FGG. He also busts some of the common misconceptions about the technique and describes the public response he received while actively working cases. Finally, he shares how his new company aims to make FGG more efficient, leading to cases being closed even sooner.
Laura: Thank you for joining for us for our annual video series from The International Symposium on Human Identification. Today, we’re here with Steve Busch, and we’re very lucky to have him. Steve, why don’t you tell us a little bit about you and what you do?
Steve: You bet, Laura. Thank you so much. First off, I’m humbled that you would ask me to come and speak to you guys today. I’m very excited to talk. I just finished up a 19-year career at the FBI, so I’ve worked there since 2002. I just resigned in May, so I’m freshly out of the federal government and now I’m in the tech world. So, most notably, there at the FBI (right before I left), I was involved with the forensic genetic genealogy. It’s been called different things now. I think the FBI is currently calling it investigative genetic genealogy, though it’s gone through several different name transitions over the years. So, I was one of the pioneers of that unit. I was one of the first fulltime FBI agents to work on FGG investigations, so I’m coming fresh off of that into the tech space. I’m happy to be here at ISHI and happy to talk to you.
Laura: We’re so happy to have you here. Thank you so much. I know you’re giving a presentation about some common myths. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Steve: Absolutely. So, I think that they’re… I mean, this is a new technique, right? This isn’t something that’s been around for very long, and 2018 was kind of the genesis of this. The Golden State Killer case was the big case. The watershed case, if you will, that everyone references as the FGG case in law enforcement. I had the fortune of watching that case be solved. Steve Kramer, who’s an attorney at the FBI, he led that team. It was a team just of six people, and I know you’ve talked to several of those six people. Some of them were here this week. It was a big deal. It was a huge deal in law enforcement, and you can imagine after that case was solved, the phones at the FBI were ringing off the hook with local detectives calling up and saying, “how can I solve my case? How did you do it? How much did it cost? How long did it take?” So, that spawned this, I don’t know if you’d call it a revolution, but it’s certainly the next best thing in law enforcement. It’s a game changer in solving cases, so it’s been a pleasure to be a part of that and to see how it’s impacted people’s lives in a positive manner (in my opinion).
Laura: Absolutely, we’ve been talking about it for many years here at the symposium, and I think it’s really interesting to see how it’s grown and changed, and given your long history at the FBI, what’s been most surprising to you? What have you observed as it’s evolved?
Steve: I think, in the beginning, my biggest surprise was the vocal minority who was opposed to it from the beginning. I think that generally speaking, people fear what they don’t know and what they don’t understand, and I can tell you, as the people who were doing it, we didn’t know it and we didn’t understand it either, because it was brand new. I didn’t know what a SNP profile was five years ago. Most people had never heard that term, nor would they know what to do with it if they had one. So, after the Golden State Killer case was solved, I expected more people would be excited. They’d be, “Wow, we’ve got this new technique.” No one really likes serial killers, right? They like to put them in jail and move on, so I thought that more people would be supportive of it. But there were a lot of folks, and I’ll call them the vocal minority, who were opposed to it. They said that this is government overreach. This is things that the government shouldn’t be involved in, and I didn’t expect that. I expected that people would be more supportive of that. And, some of those folks were even in law enforcement. But, I think that as the truth starts to come out about what this technique is and what it’s not and it’s transparent to the public what we’re doing, I think that more people are going to start to support it.
Laura: Absolutely, I see that growing and growing as we move forward. In addition to the Golden State Killer, are there other cases that you’ve observed where it’s had such a remarkable or surprising potential, or where it was illuminating what you could do?
Steve: Yeah, so I think it’s important to understand kind of how that folded out at the FBI. So, post GSK, for the next 12 months, Steve Kramer and I got together, and we had a small team of folks at the FBI. An analyst named Melissa, who was awesome, and a couple of other people who I won’t name, and we just got together and said, “Let’s solve more cases. We need to build more data, more metrics, so we can really understand what this process is.” And in the next 12 months, we solved an additional 12 cases. And it was a big deal. We kind of called those the initial 12. They were the first 12 that we solved, and we learned a lot along the way about how much DNA do you need? What is the quality and quantity of DNA? And what particular cases that would be useful for this?
In that initial 12, there was a case that I remember, and I thought that this was a very notable case. It fit a couple of very interesting pieces of this puzzle, and that was a case called the Daralyn Johnson case. She was a nine-year-old girl in Idaho – this was back in 1982, and she went missing. No one knew where she was, and it wasn’t until a short time later that she was found. It was horrible. It was tragic. She had been sexually assaulted and murdered and her body was left in a river. What was interesting about this case when they came to us was we learned that someone had already been convicted for this case. A man named Charles Fain lived up in the area. They put a circumstantial case together; the law enforcement folks back then, and they used a hair that was found… There was actually a couple of different hairs that were found on her body. One in her underwear and her sock, and they used those hairs as part of the circumstantial case to convict Charles Fain. And Charles Fain spent 18 years on death row in that case for a crime that he didn’t commit. And he was released I think in the late ‘90s. I think ’99 was when he was let go, because the mitochondrial DNA exonerated him. They finally took one of the hairs… Because back in 1982, they didn’t have DNA. There was no CODIS or any of that stuff for comparison. So, they took the same hair that initially convicted him, and then they used that mitochondrial DNA to exonerate him, because the DNA didn’t match, and this case remained unsolved. So, I think there were a lot of folks who suspected it still could have been him somehow, and there was this mess. When those detectives… There’s a detective up there, and I won’t say her name, because I haven’t gotten permission to say it, but she wouldn’t let that case die. She came to us and she said, “All we have is this hair. It was a hair that convicted the wrong guy. It was a hair that exonerated the wrong guy. Can you use this hair to do this magic genealogy thing to do the same thing that you did with the Golden State Killer?”
Now, at that time, there was no was no DOJ policy in place for STRs being a requirement, because obviously, you’re not going to get an STR from a hair, and we talked to the prosecutors ahead of time and said, “hey look, this could be difficult.” Because you have to have a comparison of crime scene DNA to suspect DNA that has to match at the end of this process for this to work, and they said that they wanted to do this; they wanted to make it work.
So, we went to a lab at UC Santa Cruz, and saw Dr. Ed Green. He’s here presenting and he’s a great guy, and Ed was able to get an autosomal profile from that hair, and from that profile, we conducted forensic genealogy, and we identified the killer of Daralyn Johnson, a guy named David Allen Dalrymple. And this won’t come as a surprise to you, but Mr. Dalrymple was already in prison for lascivious acts for a child under the age of 14, so fortunately, he wasn’t out in society harming anyone else, at least at the present. But, our hope is that this newfound conviction will put him in jail for a little bit longer.
And I thought that this was an interesting case, because it hit on so many different things. It wasn’t just a typical case, but it was a cold case where the wrong person was convicted, and FGG, in this case, was able to help exonerate the innocent and convict the guilty. To enlighten the truth, a really cool story.
Laura: I think that’s a remarkable illustration of how everything is coming together and how people are working together to achieve justice in ways that weren’t possible before. So you can look at those cold cases and solve them now.
Steve: It’s such a cool team effort too because there were so many things that had to go right, in all of these cases – especially the cold cases. It started, back in this case, with whomever the first detective was that arrived on scene and preserving that evidence and making sure that it was logged correctly, and it was in the correct spot in the evidence locker, and that they hang onto it, and know where it is. There are so many investigators that work on it along the way, and then, it’s almost like in football where they get the ball all the way to the 1 yard line, and then they hand it to me, and I get to score the touchdown and feel like the cool guy, but really, it was all these other folks that pushed it all the way down. All those different teams came together to find a solution like that and it really is exciting.
Laura: I think that team effort makes the story so compelling, and that’s why so many people are interested in the work being done. Now, I understand you worked on the curriculum. How did you take all these learnings that you have and seeing something grow and put it into something that others can learn from, and have some metrics, and understand how to do it properly with best practices?
Steve: It’s hard. It’s really hard. The FBI is a bureaucracy. It’s in it’s name. Any big government, or any big company, for that matter, when you try to do something new, I think they’re hesitant to change. So, for the FBI, I think it took a while for them to adopt what that was going to look like. And part of the precursor to the curriculum that we wrote is that we had to get some approval from someone higher up in the FBI. So, after we did those first 12 cases, myself, Steve Kramer, a couple of other folks went back to headquarters and presented all of this to the Deputy Director and said, “hey, this is what we’ve done. Here are some facts about a dozen cases. What it costs, how much it takes, the legal implications (if we think there are any), and how we think this lane should be drawn.” And he said something to me, Laura, that I’ll never forget. He said (at the conclusion of this big presentation with a bunch of guys in suits that I don’t know), he looked us right in the eyes and said, “Gentlemen, this is the Lord’s work, and the FBI should own this.” To me, as a Christian guy, I was like, “Wow, this is a big deal. This is a big deal.” And it really is a gamechanger that he wanted this to move forward. Part of his pledge was that he wanted to establish a national program within the FBI, he needed us to establish a curriculum to train additional FBI personnel to do that. I had done a lot of teaching in my previous roles at the FBI. I was a SWAT team leader at the FBI, so I taught firearms and sniper operations, and stuff like that. I built a lot of curriculum for that part of my job, so I had a foundation to build on, but I’m not a science guy. I was an engineer by training, but I’m not a DNA guy. I wasn’t a biology major. So, the good news is, most of genealogy, you don’t really need to understand some of that. You need to understand the practical application of it, but you don’t necessarily need to understand all of it. So, that made it a little tough, but we assembled a team of motivated people, and we’ve worked hard and put together a curriculum that’s good, and I think it’s helpful, and I think it adds value to the investigators who do it. We started that curriculum back in March of 2020, actually. It was right as COVID was kicking off, which was a crusher, right, because you do this 40-hour in person training, and literally when that training ended, they said, “COVID, everything’s done.” So, at that point it was tough. Virtually delivering it in the following years was not easy. So, it’s tough.
Laura: Yeah, absolutely. Last year was crushing in so many ways. How did you navigate that? You know, what challenges did you face? I’m sure you faced challenges introducing a new curriculum anyway, but what was that like over the next year?
Steve: I mean, it’s hard enough to explain something to somebody in person… You can see this with your kids. I have four young kids at home, and when you’re trying to explain math over Zoom, it just make sense to them. So here, you’re taking a concept that a lot of agents don’t understand and haven’t done before, so it was just hard. We tried a lot of the virtual curriculum thoughts and it just made it difficult. I think that there was a hit in the quality of those trainings and what was coming out of it, but that was just par for the course. There’s just not any way to do it better until you can get back in person with people.
Laura: Absolutely. Well, I know as part of your talk, you’re going to bust a few myths that are out there about forensic genetic genealogy. Can you share a couple with us?
Steve: You bet. I think that probably the biggest myth that I hear, and this is from people in the public, is that the FBI is looking at your private genetic code. They say, “This is my private genetic code,” which I would agree it is, and, “the FBI shouldn’t be looking at it.” What’s interesting, and let’s just blow the myth up – we don’t look at it! So, the only person whose private genetic code that we see is the bad guy, and I would make the argument that when you leave your DNA inside a person that you’ve raped or murdered, that you’ve given up your right to privacy, with what we can do with that DNA. I think there’s subtle case law for that, so that’s what the FBI would do. We’d get a SNP profile of the bad guy’s DNA, which has his genetic code, which you know (if you’ve ever looked at it), would be like me showing you the backend code to Facebook or Google. It’s just a bunch of 1s and 0s. Right? Right, it’s just a bunch of As, Gs, Ts, and Cs. I don’t know what it means even if I did see it. But once we upload that to one of these DNA databases, like FamilyTreeDNA or GEDmatch, and we get results back, those results don’t show us the genetic code that that innocent, private, third parties have put in. It simply shows us a percentage of DNA; an amount of DNA that you have in common. And, I’d remind you, that those are folks who have voluntarily uploaded their DNA, and voluntarily checked a box that says, “I would like law enforcement to be able to use my DNA to help solve crimes.” So, I see it as a win-win. It’s very different from CODIS. CODIS is DNA that is not taken with consent. It’s taken against your will. And it’s also housed by the government, and I’m a supporter for CODIS, don’t get me wrong, but it’s Congressionally mandated, so it’s a whole different deal. It’s voluntary, and informed consent is given for those who are doing it, and we’re not looking at their private genetic code.
And, the second one, that I think a lot of people don’t realize, is law enforcement, specifically the FBI, we don’t have some sort of special access to these databases. We don’t have some super-human computer code that’s doing stuff black box behind the scenes type of stuff. What we see when we upload a suspect’s DNA is exactly what you see when you upload your DNA. Exactly what the public looks at. So, we look at the same thing. We just draw conclusions based on what we see there, and it’s just… There isn’t some secret, behind the scenes computer program that allows us to hack into Ancestry DNA or something like that. It just doesn’t work that way.
Laura: I think that’s a good clarification for people who are reading a lot of the media coverage of what’s going on and don’t really understand the nuance of it and what’s happening behind the scenes. What do you think the future holds? I mean, this really is the beginning. It’s a little bit nascent.
Steve: I think the future’s bright for FGG. I think we’re at the tip of the iceberg and if law enforcement continues to be transparent about what they’re doing, if they continue to do the right thing the right way (is the way that I would say it), then I think genealogy is going to be ok. I know some states have come out with some laws that have limited what we do. I’d say that there’s some ignorance in the support of those laws. I mean, you’re talking to the person… I was blessed to be in a spot where I could do this. I wasn’t some awesome investigator. It was just that the Lord lined me up to be in that spot and I got to see some things that other people didn’t get to see, and I can tell you that a lot of the misconceptions that are out there are driving those decisions, but those decisions aren’t based on facts. Truth has to be the arbiter of that disagreement. It has to enlighten what’s actually going on. What law enforcement officers are actually doing. And once they do that, then they can make educated decisions.
I think an interesting point to bring up is that one of the pieces that we use as part of this process is a thing that we call voluntary reference testing; maybe you’ve heard some people call it target testing. What this is, is this is where we’re in the process of building family trees. We’re trying to reverse engineer who our bad guy is and we get to a spot on the tree where we say, “you know what? I’m not really sure where it goes. It’s either going to go this way, or it’s going to go this way. But if I could talk to one of these 20 people who are in this spot and get them to voluntarily give me their DNA, I could trim this entire half of the tree off, and I could focus over here where we know our suspect is.” So, one of the things we did at the FBI, is we wrote a guide; a standard operating procedure for how to conduct these reference tests. Number one on that guide is be truthful. You’re not going to and hide the ball with these folks. You go in and you be truthful. And I would do this all the time. I’ve done it probably more than any FBI agent yet, although now that I’m not there, someone else will surpass me and break the record, I bet. But, you go out and you knock on their door and you just tell them the truth. “Hi, I’m with the FBI, and I’m here to solve a horrible crime.” Whatever publicly available details I can pass on to them, I pass on to them. Here’s what happened. Here’s the female whose life was taken away from her. Whose livelihood was taken away from her. And we’re trying to solve this. We don’t know who did it, and your genetic information is going to be enough to help us figure out who this person is. Do you know how many times I was refused in those voluntary situations?
Laura: Are you going to say zero? Wow!
Steve: I’m going to say zero. And what does that tell you? It tells you that the public is supportive of this when they know the truth. When they understand the facts. If you go over there and you lie to them and say, “I’m here looking for unidentified human remains”, when in reality you’re trying to do something else, that’s not cool. That’s not what law enforcement should be doing in my opinion. And you don’t need to. There’s no need to interview that one particular person, you could interview anybody in this little area, and it’s going to give you basically the same thing. So, I just think that that’s something that’s worth pointing out. I just think that once the public really knows what it is, that they’re supportive of it, or at least that’s been my experience.
Laura: I think people do want to help, and when you put a face on it, and a story on it, it’s all the more compelling. They think, “What can I do to make that a little bit better?”
Steve: Agreed! Because they see the personal nature of what it is.
Laura: So talking about the myths and busting some of those, are there any cases that illustrate what you’re talking about that might help people better understand?
Steve: I think that forensic genetic genealogy has been mislabeled a lot of different ways as a cold case technique. I know a lot of people when I was at the Bureau still, who said, “Hey, you’re the cold case guys, right?” Ok, I get it, we have cut our teeth on a lot of cold cases, and that’s great. It’s been a way that we can really forge what this process is going to look like and help refine it and make it better, but I think that people really need to understand that it’s not a cold case technique. It’s an identity resolution technique. And an identity resolution technique is a tool that’s in your toolbox to solve crimes. Violent crimes. So, we had a case recently; it’s not adjudicated, and it’s not done yet, so I won’t give you the specifics, but it’s a case where there was a man who was making active threats against a woman and her daughter, and those active threats started with written letters and then escalated to phone calls. It got to a point where we, as law enforcement, were concerned that this person was actually going to act on these threats (and they were horrible – the things that he had written to this woman and her young child). The things that he had called on the phone and said he was planning to do. They were terrorized beyond belief. We were able to use genealogy to actually thwart anything happening to them, and we were able to figure out who this person was before he did something.
It brings up an interesting point, because in the beginning of the FGG world, there were a lot of people that said that homicide and sexual assault is all that this should be used for. Period. And GEDmatch got in some hot water back in 2019 when they allowed a law enforcement agency to use their services for something that was not a homicide, and it was not a sexual assault. It was a woman who was beaten to within inches of her life. She didn’t die. She wasn’t sexually assaulted, but people saw that as a violation of their terms of service, the way that they put it forward. Now, this case that I just described to you would have fallen under that same category. Now, fortunately, when DOJ came out with their interim policy, which was at ISHI, by the way, in 2019, in Palm Springs.
Laura: I remember that.
Steve: I was there when they presented that. Fortunately, they left a carve out for that. They said it’s no longer just homicide and sexual assault. We allow for ongoing threats to public safety and ongoing threats to national security. So, those two little carve outs in the policy give us a little bit of wiggle room with cases like this that wouldn’t necessarily fit as a homicide or sexual assault case. Now, I used to tell people I used to use what I called the “pressure-cooker example”. You remember the Boston bombings and how horrible that was and the improvised explosive device that those folks used. In the beginning, when there were those who said that homicides and sexual assault is all that genealogy should be used for, I said, “what about the pressure-cooker example? What about the IED that got the major sporting event in the major city? It doesn’t go off. It doesn’t kill anybody. It doesn’t sexually assault anybody, and the suspect’s DNA is all over that. The FBI, who’s the leading counter-terrorism authority in the world, we shouldn’t use every means necessary, including interrogating the suspect’s DNA from that device, to figure out who that is?” And it sounds asinine at face value, but there were some people that said, “Well, I’m not sure we should do that.” Well, I absolutely think we should do that, right? We’re preventing future loss of life, and fortunately, the DOJ policy when it came out, it left a pathway for us to be able to do that in the future.
Laura: That’s a great example, and I think making that distinction for human identification versus cold cases, which is what we’ve all read about in the news. Well, you said you left the FBI in May, so I understand you’ve been working on something new with Indago. Can you tell us something about that?
Steve: I will. I’m excited about it, and I’ve staked my livelihood on it. When I left the FBI, (I did not retire, I resigned, which is a big difference in terms of your paycheck; when you retire you get a paycheck and when you resign you don’t, so that’s the big one.) What I noticed, and anyone who’s worked a number of these cases is going to tell you they came to this same conclusion at some point. Genealogy is hard. It take a long time. It’s a grind. You’re up all night. You’re on your laptop at 2 in the morning, and your wife wonders why you’re on your laptop at 2 in the morning, and when you tell her you’re doing genealogy, she doesn’t believe you. You tell her you’re talking to Steve Kramer from the legal unit, and she says (like the State Farm commercial), “He sounds hideous”, because he is hideous on the phone. Just kidding. But, it’s hard. It takes forever. So, with these cases, there’s no software that’s out there that helps investigators that are doing these cases, and there’s specific pain points that come along with doing this type of casework that is ripe for automation. It’s ripe for a computer to come in and do things that a human doesn’t do well. I have a 9 year-old daughter who likes to play that memory game. You know, that game where you flip over the cards and 20 cards, 30 cards, I can hang, right? But 50,000 cards? It is almost impossible. A human could eventually solve that problem, but it’s a really hard problem to solve, and that’s where anyone who’s done this has realized, and I’ve been asked this many times, when is someone going to come out with a software program that helps? So, we’re trying to do that. I’ve just resigned a couple of months ago, so we’re just in our infancy stages. We don’t have anything to sell yet. We’re just in our building stage. We’ve got high hopes, and idealistically, Lord willing, we’ll make something happen. Maybe next year we’ll be talking about what we’ve done at our place and hopefully we’ve got some case solutions under our belt.
Laura: We would definitely like to hear more about that. Without giving away any of your proprietary information, are there certain pain points that it’s going to address that you can or want to talk about?
Steve: I think the general pain point that people understand is just the general volume of information that you need to deal with, because when you take a SNP of a suspect and you upload it to GEDmatch, and you look at your results, you don’t just get 5 matches, or 10 matches, or 100 matches. You get 1,000 matches or 1,500 matches. I think 3,000 is the limit that they have now of what they look at. No human being can possibly go through 3,000 matches and determine which ones are relevant and which ones aren’t relevant. Some people say that the highest centimorgan match is the best match. I can tell you from experience that that’s not true, and anyone who’s worked these cases will tell you that that’s not true, because you may have a really high match, but you can’t figure out who they are. You share 900 centimorgans with email@example.com. Well, I don’t know who that is, right, and I’m never going to be able to figure that out. If I can’t determine that, then that match is useless to me. When, in reality, 10, 20, matches down, there may be 2 or 3 lower matches that will make the case solvable, but it’s tough to know that up front. That’s just one, specific pain point that I think Indago is going to be very, very helpful for investigators who are trying to do this efficiently.
Laura: I think automating that is going to be very attractive to a lot of people. We usually ask what’s next, but it sounds like that might be what’s next.
Steve: Well, what’s next is that I’m going to get on a plane, and I’m going to fly home to my beautiful wife and kids and I’m going to write some code. That’s what’s next, because that’s what we need right now. It’s going to be a little bit of a grind, but I think that in order to change the game with genealogy, that’s what has to happen. And you go to CODIS and you look at the numbers. CODIS is great and has aided in 500,000 investigations plus or minus up to this point and has been a huge tool to help law enforcement. But what hasn’t been addressed is what happens when you go to CODIS and CODIS says, “I don’t know who that is?” And we’ve had several cases like that. Serial cases. The Golden State Killer was certainly one of those. Serial rape cases where the guy rapes, and we go to CODIS and there’s no hit, and he rapes again, and we go to CODIS and there’s no hit. How long does that have to happen before we eventually figure out who this person is? Well, if software like Indago is available, then you get to rape one time, and then we figure out who you are, because it’s not going to take us months and months to figure out with genealogy. We’re hoping we can do it more quickly than that.
Laura: I really look forward to hearing about that, absolutely. And I know for a fact that you have been at ISHI before, but since you were with the FBI, we never really get to ask you about that or interview you, so we’ll take this opportunity. How have you found ISHI over the years? How many times have you attended? What have you thought?
Steve: Well, there’s one thing that’s for sure. I’m definitely the dumbest guy here, I can tell you that. You walk around this place and there’s definitely some very smart people. Some very accomplished people who are trying to do the right thing and are trying to work together. It really is a team environment, because there may be someone who’s really good at this piece of the puzzle, but they may not understand the other piece, and this person’s really good at their piece, but don’t understand the other. This is a forum that allows all of them to talk to each other. I’ve already had several side bar conversations with other people, which is really where you can make a connection and figure out who’s doing what, so it’s a fantastic event that Promega puts on. We’re excited to be here. I hope you guys continue to do it. I hope that next year the restrictions are a little bit less so that we can get more people in person, I think would always be better. But you guys do a fantastic job, and we’re honored to be here.
Laura: Well, we’re so happy to have you. Thank you so much for presenting this year. It’s wonderful to be back in person, at least half and half this year with our hybrid. Half here, half remote. Whatever we can do to bring people together.
Steve: Thank you, I appreciate it.
Laura: Thank you, Steve. Have a great rest of your conference.
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