New perspectives at ISHI

Those who attend the International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI) know that the annual meeting bringing together the world’s top forensic DNA analysts, law enforcement, and legal and ethical experts offers unique opportunities for new perspectives on old cases. For Phoenix Police Department detectives, the novel approach provided by genetic genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick, whom they met at ISHI two years ago, led to what became the big break in an almost 25-year hunt for a serial murderer dubbed the “Canal Killer.”



Written by: Karen Burkhartzmeyer, Promega Corporation



The murders of two young women in Phoenix 10 months apart in the early 1990’s had stumped determined detectives. The bodies of both victims were found in or near the Arizona Canal after each woman had been out on a bike ride. DNA evidence connected a single suspect to the murders, but police had little else to go on and CODIS offered no leads. The case went cold.

Skip ahead to 2014 when Fitzpatrick was attending ISHI, which was being held in Phoenix that year. An internationally recognized forensic genealogist, Fitzpatrick and her company, Identifinders International, are known for helping name the Unknown Child of the Titanic and helping identify remains in the 1948 crash of Northwest Flight 4422 in Alaska. Since she was in Phoenix anyway, Fitzpatrick contacted detectives to see if there were any local cases in which she may be able to help.

“I knew they would probably also be at the meeting because, well, isn’t everybody?” says Fitzpatrick in reference to the tight-knit forensic DNA community who regularly attend ISHI.

Genealogists often use Y-DNA profiles to research ancestral family surnames. However, over the last few years, Fitzpatrick has added a forensic twist by searching the public Y-DNA genetic genealogy databases to possibly identify the surnames associated with unknown Y-DNA profiles for law enforcement applications. She met with the Phoenix detectives that year at ISHI and described her technique.

She explains that, just as surnames are traditionally passed down through the male line of a family, the same Y-chromosome is also passed unchanged through males from generation to generation. Therefore, a match between an unknown Y-DNA profile and a profile found on a genetic genealogy database, even from a very distant male relative, can produce a possible last name for an unknown perpetrator.

“There are about 300,000-400,000 Y-DNA profiles that are posted in perhaps 8,000-10,000 public databases on the internet,” says Fitzpatrick. “I’ve developed search techniques to mine that data for matches to unidentified Y-DNA profiles.  The process is similar to a bingo game, trying to match the values of the 17 Y-STR loci to their corresponding values in the genetic genealogy databases.”

Following discussions at ISHI, Phoenix detectives took the initiative to send Fitzpatrick the Y-profile from the “Canal Killer” case, and she went to work looking for a link. Within a week or so, she was able to identify the surname ‘Miller.’ Since the murders in November 1992 and September 1993, the list of suspects in the case was extensive. According to Fitzpatrick, her discovery of a Y-DNA match to the name ‘Miller’ narrowed the list to five suspects. It was then up to the Phoenix PD to investigate those five individuals.

“Any kind of lead generated from genetic genealogy is just a lead,” says Fitzpatrick. “Whatever information forensic genealogy provides to law enforcement must be consistent with all other information available on a case. There is more work to be done after that if an arrest is to be made.”

Of course, there are challenges in that the technique can only be used with male DNA. The person may have been adopted or the surname may have changed in a previous generation. And currently, Caucasian Europeans are most represented in genealogical databases. Sometimes a lead goes nowhere.

Fortunately in this case, the lead was almost immediately valuable. Within weeks of Fitzpatrick identifying the Miller surname, Bryan Patrick Miller was arrested. Local news sources, including The Arizona Republic, indicate that police were able to link his surreptitiously collected DNA with that of the unknown suspect in the case. Miller’s trial is set to begin in April 2017. He has pleaded not guilty.

Fitzpatrick says she’ll never forget the evening her phone rang while she was at a restaurant with her office manager.

“I saw the phone call from the detective coming through, and I couldn’t believe they made an arrest,” she says.

After the arrest, it was important that Fitzpatrick comply with the Phoenix PD’s request to remain silent and not speak to media about the case, which she admits that was a challenge. She was excited about her accomplishment, but she says she learned to be patient and trust the process. It is only recently that she has been able to speak about her innovative role in the Phoenix case, which she is quick to point out is only part of the story.

“We must give credit where credit is due to the Phoenix PD,” says Fitzpatrick. “They never gave up, even after 20 plus years. They knew where every period and every comma was in every report because they’ve read them 50 times or more. The Phoenix Police Department is a great example of how dedicated and hard-working law enforcement agencies can solve even very old cases like the Canal Murders.”

ISHI also plays an important role in successful outcomes such as this, says Fitzpatrick, because as the industry’s largest meeting of its type focusing exclusively on forensic DNA analysis, ISHI offers a multitude of opportunities to learn about new technologies and trends in forensics. This dynamic can, in turn, lead to robust new approaches to unsolved crimes.

“ISHI is the place to hear about emerging DNA technologies,” she says. “It’s like a watering hole where you can absorb so much at one time.”


Learn more


Colleen Fitzpatrick, PhD, is the founder of Identifinders International, offering forensic genealogical services for law enforcement cold case work, DNA identification, identity fraud and adoption searches. She is also the author of three books including Forensic Genealogy. Fitzpatrick is currently the forensic genealogist on the Abraham Lincoln DNA project. Learn more about Fitzpatrick’s projects by visiting her website or by following her blog.