Home // Forensic // Genetic Genealogy // Identifying the Golden State Killer: An Interview with Paul Holes and Barbara Rae-Venter
Dec 12 2019
Identifying the Golden State Killer: An Interview with Paul Holes and Barbara Rae-Venter
In April of 2018, news broke that the elusive Golden State Killer had been identified through a new technique called genetic genealogy (or investigative genealogy). In just 4 ½ months, Paul Holes and his team (including genealogist Barbara Rae-Venter) put a name to the man who had terrorized California for years.
In this interview, Paul and Barbara discuss working on the case together, how genetic genealogy has helped solve other cold cases and what they foresee for the future, how their lives have changed since news broke of their involvement, and what’s next for them.
Are you interested in learning more about the Golden State Killer? Watch Paul’s keynote presentation at ISHI 30 in September, 2019.
Laura: Hi, we’re here with Paul Holes and Barbara Rae-Venter. Paul, Barbara, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background for those who don’t know, which might only be a handful of people at this time.
Paul: So, I started out my career as a forensic scientist, and then became this, what’s now an archaic job class for the Sheriff’s office, a Deputy Sheriff Criminalist. So, I had to go to the Police Academy to do the CSI work and, basically do the very beginnings of DNA. But, I found myself always being pulled toward the investigative aspect. So, during the course of my career, I started getting more and more involved with the investigative side. In particular, in cold cases, and serial predator type crimes. And, then ultimately finished out my career as a cold case investigator with the DA’s office.
Laura: Fantastic. How about you?
Barbara: Well, I’m a retired patent attorney, and as part of my retirement, I was planning on working on my family history research and playing a little tennis and doing some traveling. And, as I started doing my family history research, I started getting matches with people who were adopted. And, I really didn’t know how to help them find their birth relatives. So, I took an online class through a group called DNA Adoption, and what they do, is they teach you how to do genetic genealogy.
Barbara: At one point, there was a detective in San Bernadino who contacted us and wanted some help on a case. That was the Lisa Jenson which got me started on all this.
Laura: Wonderful. That’s amazing. So you were working in patents. Did you ever foresee this as what you would be doing in your retirement?
Barbara: No, not at all. This is definitely a left turn.
Paul: I pulled her into it!
Laura: It’s pretty amazing! It’s quite the story! So, you’re obviously here to talk about the Golden State Killer case, and how that came to pass. Paul, maybe you want to start and just give us a little bit of background for those who don’t know.
Paul: Well, the Golden State Killer was an offender that committed at least 50 attacks in Northern California, mostly sexual assault cases, and then moved down to Southern California where he started killing people. And that was the series that I was working and investigating. I started out as a forensic scientist and looking at it doing DNA work, and then I moved into the investigative realm. At a certain point, in 2017, that’s when I ran across Barbara, and what she had done in that Lisa Jenson case, because I had a connection to that case. And I was like, how did that happen? So, I had reached out to Barbara, saying, “I need help on this.” I didn’t even tell her what case it was. I think I said I said something like it’s a cold case, but it would be a feather in your cap, because it’s such a big case. And, she’s like, “Sure, send me what you’ve got.” And then I didn’t hear from her. And then she pops up in, what, six months later, and she said, “Hey, do you still need some help?” And I was like, “Yes! Please!”
Laura: That is incredible. What did you think when you first got the call?
Barbara: Well, I had actually already been working on some cases, so it sounded intriguing, so I said, “Sure, I’d be interested in working on it.” And then, unfortunately, I had some health issues, so it took a little bit before I could work on it, and then, when I was recovered, I called Paul back, and the rest is history.
Paul: That’s right.
Laura: That’s amazing. So this was an unsolved case for how many years? I mean really…
Paul: 44 years.
Laura: 44 years, and then how long was it working together working with the team you were working with before you were able to…
Paul: It took us, what, about 4 ½ months once we got the initial DNA results. 4 ½ months to the time that DeAngelo was taken into custody.
Laura: That is incredible. Now, how did you work together as a team?
Paul: So, well, a lot of it was done via email and over the phone. So, I had initially talked with Barbara, and then we were emailing, and then, on the law enforcement side, we had a group with two individuals down out of Southern California, and then I had reached out and got two individuals up in Sacramento. We created a centralized account in order to be able to do all of the genealogy work, and so we are just remotely, for the most part, doing this. And Barbara would take a look at the trees that we were building and tell us what we were doing wrong and correct us.
Barbara: You were doing pretty good!
Paul: And then that’s really how we were interacting. Now, of course, I’m interfacing with the law enforcement guys on the team every now and then. So, I’m going up to Sacramento, or I’m meeting with the FBI, but this is literally the second time that Barbara and I have sat down face to face in person.
Laura: Ok, that’s remarkable. I mean, there’s been so much press about this. There’s the TIME 100 Most Influential People, and you wrote the introduction for Barbara, which was beautiful. I mean, to think that you’re just meeting in person for the second time. What was the first meeting?
Paul: It was at a bar.
Laura: That’s ideal.
Paul: They were at a conference.
Barbara: It was the I4GG Conference in San Diego, and I was giving a presentation, and you were shooting…
Paul: I was working. I was shooting a case for the Oxygen Network. It was the Death in a Mansion. So, I was down in Coronado, and they were down in San Diego, and it was like…
Barbara: It was the whole team.
Paul: It was the whole team. So, that was literally the first time that the whole team was in the same room at the same time.
Laura: Ok, that is amazing. Any good stories that you can share from that meeting?
Paul: Oh, we were all well behaved!
Laura: I believe it. That sounds incredible. Well, what attracted you to this show?
Paul: So, you’re talking about the San Diego show?
Laura: No, to ISHI. To this, where you’re presenting.
Paul: So, actually, Promega reached out to me last year and they were looking for a keynote speaker, and because the Golden State Killer and the technique that, really, Barbara was kind of innovative with, we kind of followed Barbara’s lead, that technique has touched off such a revolution within law enforcement, and so many other cases have been solved using it. They said, hey, we’d love for you to come here to just talk about the case. The Golden State Killer case, and so that’s how I wound up coming here.
Laura: That’s amazing. It was a great presentation. How do you think things would have been different if the technology that we have today (and DNA in general) was available in the 80’s when you were working the case initially?
Paul: Well I would like to think that we would have been able to solve this case and prevent further victimization. I think that’s what… DNA does do this. There’s other tools and other investigative aspects that get the bad guys off the street and prevent them from re-offending, but when you take a look at these kinds of crimes, like the Golden State Killer cases, and the horrific experiences that, both people that are still alive today that were victimized and lived with that trauma, or the people that lost their lives, and the family members and all the pain that they still experience to that day. If this tool had been available back then, my hope would be that we would have found DeAngelo and at least saved some of those lives.
Laura: He was quite sadistic in his methods.
Paul: He was. He’s definitely a psychological sadist, and he really enjoyed inflicting that fear.
Laura: Yeah, it’s hard to hear about, but thank goodness that coming together within a couple a months, you guys were able to solve this case.
Barbara: And it wasn’t just the victims either. You know, I shared a story with you last night about a man who came up to me after one of my presentations who said he was a little boy at the time that the East Area Rapist was active, and how he had a sliding glass door on his bedroom. And, so at night, (he’s like 12 years old) he’s sticking a dowel in it and he’s going to bed with his BB gun.
Paul: Yeah, and I hear that over and over again. People that lived in Sacramento at the time that the East Area Rapist was attacking, who was the same person as the Golden State Killer. Or, even in Davis, where there’s only 3 attacks, but because of the type of attack and who he’s attacking… He’ attacking just the every day people in their own home. Anybody could have become his victims. So, it caused fear in the community, because everybody is recognizing, “I could be a victim of this guy.”
Laura: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. It is the nightmare. It’s the thing you don’t think happens very often, and then it’s happening really frequently.
Barbara: It could happen to you, yeah.
Laura: Absolutely. What were some of the challenges that you faced in getting his DNA?
Paul: Kind of an interesting aspect, is I actually had DNA from 3 cases in Contra Costa County, but over time, as different technologies came on board, I’m dipping and consuming more and more of that DNA. Initially, I do the old technology; the first type of DNA testing that my lab had, this DQ Alpha Polymarker System. And then we consume more DNA, because now we had the great STR technology that now we could put up into CODIS, but that didn’t solve the case. Then, we start looking at well, there’s this genealogy side with Y-STRs, so I end up consuming everything else I had thinking, “CODIS isn’t doing it for me, so maybe genealogy with Y-STRs will do it.” I didn’t know anything about the SNP testing at all. I spent 6 years pursuing the Y-STR leads, and then I find out about SNPs. I have no more DNA left, so the challenge at this point is me reaching out to the Southern California agencies with homicides, and asking them, “Do you have any DNA left in your cases?” And some of them did not, or they never had enough for the type of DNA, because it was too mixed with the victim’s DNA, and it just didn’t work. And we were just fortunate in this case, that in the Ventura homicide, Lyman and Charlene Smith, that the pathologist in that case collected two sexual assault kits. One that he gave to law enforcement and one that he kept in the Coroner’s Office. Well, that got forgotten. So, law enforcement kept dipping in and consuming the DNA from the one kit, and then myself and Steve Kramer went and briefed Ventura about this new tool that Barbara was championing, and we’re saying do you still have any DNA left? That investigator from Ventura starts digging, and he discovers that untouched sexual assault kit, and it turned out to have a gold mine of Golden State Killer DNA in it.
Laura: That is so fortuitous. That’s amazing. Wow! Wow! So, let’s talk about some advice that you might give. Barbara, if someone wanted to do some investigative… How would they start? Would they contact you? Would they contact someone else? Obviously, this is a burgeoning field and everybody wants to know where it’s going to go. How do you see it being used?
Barbara: Well, where they’re going to have to start is with the evidence that they have, because it’s really going to depend on what they have. As Paul was just mentioning, it’s important that you have single-source DNA, that is not mixed with some other person, which makes it too difficult to work with. You need to have enough of it that you’re going to be able to create the SNP profile, and from there, you need to be working with a genealogist to try and interpret the results that you get.
Laura: What do you think the future holds, now that many cases are being solved in this manner?
Barbara: I think it depends on what happens with the rules that we promulgate to protect how this work is being done, and that people are careful with how they use it, so that we don’t end up getting people upset so they say, “You can’t do that anymore.”
Laura: That’s a fantastic point, putting protocols in place.
Paul: Right, and we’re starting to see that happen. I would say, like within California, the Sacramento DA Anne-Marie Schubert has kind of led that charge, where her office has developed what she’s calling “best practices”. Which all her law enforcement agencies need to abide by and to use the genealogy tool. And then she’s passed that to other jurisdictions within California, and I think it’s promulgating across the nation. So, as we move forward, we want to see standardized protocols put into place, and my fear is that legislators are going to have a knee-jerk reaction, and they’re going to say, “Oh my God. Law enforcement is taping into people’s genetic information and I’ve got to pass a law banning this” before they educate themselves as to what the tool really is. And that’s my message to any decision maker is to understand the technology so you don’t implement some restriction that is going to negatively impact public safety.
Laura: That’s good advice across the entire field. I mean, really, breakthroughs have been happening repeatedly over the last 30 years, so we’re just going to keep moving forward. So, I read an interesting article in the New York Times that said you receive a lot of packages of serial killer’s hair. I think it was by Heather Murphy. I don’t know if you remember doing that interview.
Barbara: I’m actually not the recipient of the hair. I use the results that Dr. Green comes up with after processing the hair, but actually the labs send the hair to Dr. Green, and then he has this new technique that he uses where he can get nuclear DNA out of hair strands, which is a very, very new finding. And we actually used that to solve the Allenstown Four case out of New Hampshire. So, if it wasn’t for Dr. Green, we wouldn’t be able to solve who those people were.
Laura: Ok, that’s amazing. So, obviously things have changed for both of you probably in the last six months to a year. What is that like after solving this very high-profile case? How do you make way?
Paul: Well, I have not had a break since we had a press conference announcing that DeAngelo had been arrested. My life has been a whirlwind, for better or for worse. But, I’m now very much on the media side. I’m doing shows for TV. I’ve got a podcast, and my platform is really to try to continue to help law enforcement agencies with their unsolved cases. Even though I’m doing it from a television or a podcast perspective. I still want to keep my fingers in that investigative role. So, that’s what I’m doing now, and it’s great, but it’s a lot of work. It’s been a grind.
Laura: It is a lot of work, but I did really admire what you said in your presentation about being upfront with the media and sharing what you could to leverage that to assist with public safety, versus having a fear of speaking to somebody, which is a great approach.
Paul: And that’s what you see. You see people that are so jaded against the media, and they don’t even want to talk to them at all, and that ends up polarizing, let’s say your local newspaper reporters. And they’re suspicious about what law enforcement is doing, and the next thing you know, that’s when you start getting negative articles. Just develop a relationship, and just be open.
Laura: That’s a great way to do it. How has your life changed?
Barbara: Well, I kind of chickened out at the beginning. I asked to be anonymous. So, Paul gallantly stepped in and protected me, and then at some point, when other people started doing it, and I wasn’t the only one out there, then Paul did a tweet outing me as it were.
Paul: She gave me permission! Barbara said, “Hey, I’m ready to be known that I had involvement in the Golden State Killer case.” So, I just tweeted out, and I had a number of Twitter followers at this point, and I said, “Hey, the genetic genealogist that helped solved the Golden State Killer case was Dr. Barbara Rae-Venter.” And, then it took off.
Barbara: It took off, yeah.
Laura: Did you need to get a new phone number then?
Barbara: Well actually, I’m fortunate. I have a landline that I just use for that, and I don’t give out my cell phone.
Barbara: I mostly get stuff through my website. Lots and lots and lots of media requests, requests from folks like Netflix and whoever else wanting to do sort of like you’re doing, I guess. Trying to do series and what have you, and I’m still actively working on cases, so I really don’t have time to do all of that. I actually solved another, what did I add up? 20 cases? Some of them are with the GSK team. Some of them are just on my own since the Golden State Killer. So, I’ve been very busy doing cases.
Laura: I’m sure, and people really do want to hear about it, and understand how this happened. Can you tell us anything about the shows that you have coming up?
Paul: You know, I’ve had a couple of appearances on shows on the Oxygen network, and I’ve got a contractual relationship with Oxygen, so I have a series coming out that’s premiering on October 12th. It’s called The DNA of Murder with Paul Holes and it’s not a show about DNA. It’s me doing active investigations with (working collaboratively) law enforcement agencies, and literally trying to solve these cases. It’s going to be hard spending such a short period of time on each case, but my hope is that the law enforcement agency and the victim’s families feel that my show has advanced the case in some way. We want to tell the story about who the victim was, the trauma that the families are still experiencing to this day, and seeing if I can come in and with my experience, and my expertise, or even just with fresh eyes, and see something in the case that can help the agency to get it to where they can now kind of go out and make an arrest.
Laura: That sounds wonderful. Any TV in your future?
Barbara: Not at present.
Laura: Ok, well we’ll be watching for it just in case.
Paul: She’ll be on my show at some point.
Laura: I was going to say, I think it’s unavoidable at this point, right?
Paul: Yes, I can guarantee it.
Laura: So, Barbara, I think this is your first year at ISHI.
Barbara: No, I actually came last year.
Laura: That’s right! Now the reason I don’t remember is because you really kept a low profile. You probably couldn’t say anything, and this was probably before you were outed on Twitter, I’m assuming.
Barbara: Actually, I had just come out, and I actually had a very interesting experience at the meet and greet evening. Of course, I didn’t know very many people at the conference, and so I’m sitting at the table with some ladies from the Austin CODIS lab, and so we talked about what they’re doing, and they asked what I’m doing, and I said genetic genealogy. They said, “Have you worked on any cases that we might have heard about?” I said, “Well, I worked on the Golden State Killer.” “Oh! Your CeCe Moore!”
Paul: But I think that does underscore that you do have a private company that CeCe has been working for, and they get a lot of publicity, but the GSK team has just been quietly working on these other cases, and other cases have been solved, but people don’t realize that it’s the same people who were involved with the Golden State Killer.
Laura: Which is interesting.
Barbara: Yes, we’ve solved several cases.
Laura: Which is why we love to have you at the show and share that with the community here. Paul, I think you’ve been coming to the show for quite a long time. I’ve heard you were there in the early Scottsdale days.
Paul: I went to two conferences. I believe 1997 and 1998 in Scottsdale. I’m not sure about those years, and it was, at that point, a pretty big conference, because it had been around for about 10 years, but nowhere near what it is today. And I hadn’t gone to one since, because I had promoted up and I wanted my DNA analysts to attend, and so I was pushing them to the Promega conferences, or now ISHI, and so this is my first time back since the late 90’s.
Laura: Oh, so that’s interesting. Compare and contrast? What’s it like now coming back?
Paul: You know, I’m here under a different… For a different reason. There, I was coming to hear all the talks and learn about all the new DNA technologies and statistics, and all the court battles that were going on back then. Now, I’m coming, of course, as the keynote speaker, and I’m talking about my case. For me, as an investigator, I don’t really have the interest to go in and hear about the fine details about how to interpret this mixture off of the electropherogram. That’s not me anymore, right? I’ll let the other people handle that. Just tell me what I need to know. But, it’s been great bumping into all these people, and meeting them. Of course, there’s people that I know from way back when and out of the forensic world within California, but I’m also meeting new people. I mean, you’ve got people from the Netherlands that are here. This is a global show.
Laura: It’s true. So many countries. It is remarkable. Yeah, it’s wonderful. And what have you thought so far? Last year? This year?
Barbara: I do go a little bit more to some of the presentations. More, I’m interested in finding out what other people who are doing what I’m doing, what they’re doing to maybe get hints on things that could help me with some of my cases. So I did go to the workshop yesterday that was put on on doing genetic genealogy, and I plan to go to the presentation that Colleen Fitzpatrick and Margaret Press are doing. Just to, you know, you might pick up a few extra tricks.
Laura: Yeah, absolutely. What’s next for you both?
Paul: I know for me, it’s really the media stuff. That’s where my focus is at this point in time. I will continue to be filming for the show, and then I have a podcast, Jenson and Holes, the Murder Squad. So, I’ll continue to be recording for that. That’s where I’m at right now, and who knows what the future holds?
Paul: I will just keep riding this wave, and if the shows don’t work out for whatever reason, I’ll just be retired in Colorado and taking my Jeep out into the middle of nowhere and enjoying nature.
Laura: That sounds good as well. And I think there is a lot of interest. I hear there are trending Twitter hashtags, but we don’t have to talk about that.
Barbara: I shared what your hashtag was.
Laura: Sorry, I had to ask. I’ll have to look it up now.
Paul: There’s a whole world out there. I know it’s out there, but I don’t even pay attention to it.
Laura: I understand. I’m glad you don’t let that stop you. How about you? What’s next for you?
Barbara: Well, what I’ve been doing is a lot more in the realm of education. So, I do a number of presentations. I do, I talk to anything from little genealogy societies that are sort of interested in learning about solving non-parentage cases and I then talk to law enforcement groups, do workshops, and then, of course, I’m also working on my cases. So, that’s pretty what I do. And also, since I’m theoretically retired…
Laura: You’re both theoretically, I don’t know, that doesn’t…
Barbara: Maybe some time I’ll get back to doing some tennis and traveling.
Laura: Maybe! Well, anything else about the case or your work together that we haven’t covered that you want to make sure this audience knows about? It’s a big question, but…
Laura: GEDmatch. Let’s talk about that.
Paul: Ok, I think, obviously, we used GEDmatch as part of the process to solve the Golden State Killer case, and at that point in time, there was a lot of profiles that were in the database that were searchable. Now, we’ve seen where there’s been this new policy of the explicit opt-in to allow law enforcement to search, and that’s caused GEDmatch basically to lose so much information that it’s not a useful tool for law enforcement at this point in time. The hope is that we want to see that turned around. And that’s going to be ongoing discussions as we move forward. I know Barbara’s going have a whole different perspective. I just want to see it where we can make it as big as possible so law enforcement can benefit and public safety can benefit from the information that can be contained within GEDmatch.
Laura: Ok, what’s your take?
Barbara: I guess what I’d like to see is somebody who has deep pockets to do an advertising campaign. I think a lot of people don’t know GEDmatch exists who have done DNA testing. They’ve tested at Ancestry. They’ve tested at 23andMe. They’ve tested at MyHeritage. And, if we could get the word out to those people to please download their files and please upload to GEDmatch and upload them to FamilyTreeDNA, which is the other site that we can use for law enforcement work, that would be huge. It would be absolutely huge. Because right now there’s only about 625,000 people who’ve opted in at GEDmatch, and that’s out of 1.25 million. But, if we can make the database bigger, with some of those people who don’t even know that the database exists, that would be huge.
Laura: That sounds great. Thank you Paul and Barbara both for sharing your thoughts and taking some time out when it is so crazy and busy for you both. We really do appreciate it and are so glad that you’re here.
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