Sarah Dingle, an investigative journalist with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation interviews CeCe Moore to discuss how she’s used genetic genealogy to help adoptees and donor conceived individuals find their biological families, and is now applying the same techniques to cold cases.
Sarah: Hi, I’m Sarah Dingle. I’m an Investigative Journalist from Sydney, Australia, and I work for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I’m here with CeCe Moore – a DNA Detective, a genealogist. Welcome!
CeCe: Hey, nice to be here.
Sarah: CeCe, can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you get into this line of work?
CeCe: I was a genealogy hobbyist, who has always loved genetics. So, when I discovered that DNA was being used for the purpose of learning more about your family tree and your heritage, that was a great marriage of two of my interests. When 23andMe introduced autosomal DNA for genealogy, I just saw that there was a huge potential. That we’d be able to do incredible things with that. So, I dropped everything else that I was doing, jumped in with both feet, tested about 40 of my family members.
I started telling one of the scientists at 23andMe what I was doing, and he said, “you should write a blog.” And I thought, “a blog, what’s a blog?” And I started one, and I started writing up the data that I was finding, the family comparisons that I was discovering, and the real data that we really didn’t have at that point. We didn’t have much real family data. And so my blog got real popular, real quickly. I became very involved in the genetic genealogy community. And although it was initially all volunteer work, it ended up leading to me being (I think) the first person who called myself a professional genetic genealogist; there may have been one other who was doing the work, but didn’t actually use that title. So, it really came from just a passion for this work.
Sarah: Now, for the layperson, what is autosomal DNA, and why is it so good for this line of work?
CeCe: Autosomal DNA is the DNA that you get from all of your ancestral lines, as opposed to YDNA and mitochondrial DNA which is what we were using prior to 2009. That was very limited. You could only trace your direct maternal or direct paternal lines, and as a woman, you couldn’t even test yourself to learn about your father’s father’s father’s line. You had to find a brother or father; somebody on that direct paternal line. So, autosomal DNA kind of leveled the playing field for female genealogists who wanted to use DNA to learn more about their family history. Women get half of their autosomal DNA from their father, and so they can test their own DNA and learn about his side of the family. It really opened up that inner portion of our family tree for exploration, as opposed to those two direct lines only. It became very apparent to me very quickly that if we had enough data, we’d be able to do incredible things with that. It took a long time for us to get here, but we’re here now.
Sarah: Now, your work went far beyond building your own family tree very quickly. It became quite investigative. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you started out with cases of unknown parentage. Is that right?
CeCe: Yes, that’s correct. Originally, I was just working on my own family data, and then I started answering a lot of questions for people on the genetic genealogy forums. I was running the DNA newbie ISOG list. I became known as sort of a teacher and an expert very quickly, because there were not many people doing it. It was a wide open field. And so when people would make discoveries of misattributed paternity, in particular, I was often the one they would come to, and ask questions, and ask for help.
I started working with people who discovered that their father was not their biological father. At the same time, I joined forces with a group of traditional search angels. People who use records to help adoptees find their biological family. That group became DNA adoption. We were working on genetic genealogical methods to help people identify their immediate family members, instead of their distant ancestors, like your second great-grandfather.
Sarah: So you were helping adoptees. What are some of the cases that you’ve worked on that really struck a cord with you? The ones you remember most vividly?
CeCe: It’s hard to say, because I’ve worked on hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of them. I definitely enjoy working on foundling cases where children were abandoned as babies or young children, because there’s no other way to ‘solve those cases’ except DNA – those what we call “DNA only cases”. Even if states were to open their records to adoptees, there’d be nothing in those records for foundlings to discover. So, I really have enjoyed working with them. It’s been very fulfilling. It’s a great group of people. I have a separate Facebook group that is specifically for foundlings. It’s an amazing community. I have a lot of respect for the way all of them have approached their searches and their quest for knowledge about their origins.
I also worked with donor conceived people, and oftentimes, it’s people who didn’t know they were donor conceived. So they learned through consumer DNA testing. I guess that’s your situation, which I didn’t know when we were first spoke years ago. So that is similar to finding out someone who raised them is not their biological father for other reasons. That all seems to kind of go together. So people who think they know their biological heritage take a DNA test and find out their paternity is not what they thought. So, I’ve enjoyed working with those people very much, because it’s a very difficult transition to learn for someone who wasn’t aware of it.
Sarah: So, CeCe, the majority of your work, at least at the start, focused on people who were foundlings, who were adoptees, and then it shifted into donor conception. Is that right?
CeCe: Actually, donor conception was one of my very earliest focuses. Because people were discovering form consumer genomics, from participating in consumer genetic genealogy, that their father was not their father. It was happening pretty often. A certain percentage of those people were learning that they were actually donor conceived.
Sarah: So these are people who are going out there, just being hobbyists trying to build a family tree and finding some pretty big family secrets by accident.
CeCe: Yes, and some of these people also tested for health reasons at 23andMe. One woman that I worked with said that she tested because she was a hypochondriac; she wanted to know what she should worry about. Not knowing that she was going to find out that her father was not biologically related to her. Which then opened up the door for a whole lot of new concerns, because she didn’t even know her medical history then.
Sarah: So, I am donor conceived, and I found out because my mother told me so, but would you say from your work that donor conception is relatively common? Because the one thing I get asked is “how many people are donor conceived?” And I say, “I don’t know, because clinics have never kept the numbers.” How common is it would you think?
CeCe: It’s impossible to say for the reason that you said, there were no numbers kept. Based on what we’re learning through genetic genealogy and these consumer DNA testing companies, it appears it’s actually quite common. Many, many people are finding multiple half siblings, as you know. It is really revealing, the underside of the fertility industry, I think that perhaps those in charge thought would never be revealed.
Sarah: Now I’ve met you a few years back, when I was reporting on the story of the Brennans. Pam and Annie who did exactly what we just described; did a DNA test and found out that Annie’s father was not her biological father. Have you heard from the Brennans since? Have they had any updates on how many siblings Annie has?
CeCe: Yes, I keep in touch with them. Every time a new half sibling pops up for Annie on her paternal side, I get a text from Pam (her mother), so I have definitely kept up with it. Sometimes, the person isn’t responding, so I jump in and help figure out who they are from the information on the site. They usually don’t have family trees. Sometimes it’s a very common name, so it takes a bit of sleuthing to figure out who they are, but when I find them on social media, they always look like Annie. I can always tell that’s the right one.
Sarah: Wow, and how many siblings has she found so far?
CeCe: I don’t know that I should say, because they have released it publicly, but multiple. And they keep on coming in, particularly in the ancestry DNA website, because she was conceived in Salt Lake City, and that’s a real popular company in Salt Lake. I mean, they’re headquartered in Utah, so there are a lot of people testing there from that local community that are popping up as half siblings to Annie.
Sarah: Now how important was the Brennan case to you personally? When you started working on this case and helping Annie and Pam, what did it mean to you?
CeCe: Well it was such a shocking thing, because as you know, Annie was supposed to be her father’s daughter. This was not an intended donor conception situation. They were merely getting fertility treatment. The husband, John, was the intended donor. So, it was one of the first cases where I realized there was a lot of things going on in the fertility industry and these clinics that were not so on the up and up. This was not a one off, it turns out. So, I think this was the first case that really opened my eyes about the lack of oversight and that these fertility clinics were really like the Wild West. They could do whatever they wanted and thought nobody would ever figure it out.
Sarah: Those questions are coming home to roost now. Wouldn’t you say?
CeCe: Oh absolutely. I think that’s an important case for me, because I have a lot of media experience; that’s my old job. But, I had done genetic genealogy as a new, separate, career that had absolutely nothing to do with the media. That’s the first case, I think, that I worked where there was a lot of media attention, and so it brought me back into that media realm, which was not ever my plan or intention. Personally, that was an important turning point for me where my genetic genealogy work and my media work came together.
Sarah: Now, I want to ask you about the forensic application of genetic genealogy, because this is the new horizon that we see now. Just a few short months ago, the Golden State Killer – alleged Golden State Killer – was apprehended using genetic genealogy. How can genetic genealogy be used in cold cases?
CeCe: Well, it’s exactly the same methodology that I’ve been using for unknown parentage work for the past 18 years, because what we’re trying to do is reverse-engineer someone’s biological identity from the family trees of people who share DNA with them. These techniques that I developed, starting at about 2011, specifically for adoptees, donor conceived people, anyone of unknown parentage (be it one or both parents), are directly applicable to identifying these unknown subjects for law enforcement cases. So, just to have some DNA and figure out who it is biologically, that’s what I’ve been doing all these years. Although it’s a different application, the approach is exactly the same. The methodology is the same. People always ask me, “This must be really different; what you’re doing.” It’s actually not, because I’ve been dealing with people’s secrets for years now. I’ve learned so much about society and what was going on behind closed doors in some of these industries, that there are a lot more parallels than people would think.
So, pretty much all of my experience in unknown parentage has been helpful and applicable, and even necessary in this work, particularly with sensitive family situations (upholding the highest ethical standards). All of that is part of this as well.
Sarah: Now, I do want to ask you about some of the cold cases you’ve worked on, but first of all, there is something that we should make clear. That the database that you use in forensic cases is not anyone of the big commercial databases. It’s not Ancestry. It’s not 23andMe. Can you tell us why that is?
CeCe: I’m glad you asked, because this was a big misconception that was out there. I think people are starting to understand more. We are not using the consumer DNA testing companies. We’re using GEDmatch, which is not a testing company. No one is sending their DNA into GEDmatch (their raw DNA). It’s not being analyzed there. They are a raw data file repository, and that’s what they were created for. If you tested at 23andMe, and I tested at Ancestry, and we wanted to see if we shared any DNA, we could both upload to GEDmatch and compare there rather than paying for a second test. That is really important, and it’s the reason we can use GEDmatch, because they will take raw data uploads. You could process crime scene DNA using a genotyping process like we do for genetic genealogy and upload that to GEDmatch, even it if didn’t come from a consumer DNA testing company.
Now, we’re not using the DNA testing companies like Ancestry DNA or 23andMe for a couple of reasons. One, for those two, the biggest databases, you have to spit in a tube and send it in. And they make sure that you have to produce a lot of saliva, because they want to make sure that the person submitting that DNA has given consent for that DNA to be analyzed. So they actually require more than they would need. So you can’t get crime scene DNA. Dead people cannot produce saliva to fill up that necessary requirement for those companies. So that’s the first reason.
The second reason is because after the Golden State Killer arrest, all four of the consumer DNA companies came out and said it was against their terms of service for law enforcement to use their databases. So, I don’t want to use any databases that are not welcoming us in for this application, and also I don’t want to use any databases where the participants are not consented.
So, with GEDmatch, it’s now in the terms of service. It specifically states that law enforcement can and is using the database, and people were given the opportunity to remove their data if they weren’t comfortable with that. That is the database I feel comfortable working in. It’s much harder, because it’s so much smaller than the other databases, but I only want to do this work in the most responsible and ethical way, and I don’t want to cause my own community to distrust me by trying to do something secretively behind the scenes.
Sarah: Now can you tell us about one or two of the cold cases that you’ve cracked using genetic genealogy?
CeCe: I guess the April Tinsley case, was one that got a lot of interest, because it was such a terrible child murder and sexual assault. What made it worse was that the perpetrator was sending letters, or he was putting letters on other children’s bicycles and things; there was continuous threats over the years. I think there were two different periods of time, where he was kind of taunting law enforcement and the public and caused the whole community to be fearful for their child’s safety. That case was, I’m told, the oldest cold case in Indiana state history. They had interviewed hundreds or thousands of persons of interest in that case, and used a lot of resources (time, money, all of that) in order to try to identify the suspect in that case. They weren’t able to do that until they asked Parabon, which is who I work with, to apply their genetic genealogy analysis to this – to that particular crime.
Parabon does Snapshot Phenotyping, where they’ve already processed a lot of DNA from these cold cases to predict what someone looks like. So, when I started working with them, they already had 100+ raw data files from mostly cold cases that could be uploaded into GEDmatch right away. So, I was able to get a quick start with this. Once I made the decision to do it, there was a lot of data available to me right away to start working with. The Tinsley case was one of the early cases that I worked on. It wasn’t as straight forward or as easy as some of the cases that I’ve worked thus far. It was actually extremely difficult. I felt like I was fighting my way out of a dark jungle just to try and get to that one ray of light, so I could go in the right direction. I was just data-mining, digging my way in that data, and I felt a lot of pressure to help law enforcement help identify this person, because the severity of the crime. Although he didn’t appear to have re-offended since that time, it seemed like there was a constant threat that he could, that he was capable of this, and he had threatened to do it again. I think that’s when I coined the term “brute force genetic genealogy”. I really did feel like I had fought a battle. I just kept crunching that data until I started to find those triangulations or those connections where the family tree matches were starting to come together. Sometimes that means building hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of ancestral lines forward, because I might have someone who shares enough DNA to be a third cousin. I’ve got to trace back to their second great-grandparents and then turn around and bring those trees forward. You don’t know which branch you have to work on until you start finding those triangulations, and you can say one of these descendants married a descendant from this other match’s tree. I wasn’t finding that at first, so I had to keep at it and keep at it. Then as soon as you find that, you know you’re going in the right direction.
Sarah: I think of it like a mathematical equation. Quite a long equation for which you only have a few of the values, and then you’re supposed to reach at the end, the conclusion, but you have no idea how to get there. How long did it take you to find a suspect?
CeCe: Well a few days, but when I’m working these cases, it’s many, many, many hours. I have a hard time just setting it aside and going off and doing something else. So, when I start working these cases, it can be 12, 16, 18 hours at a time that I’m working on them. So, a couple of days doesn’t sound like very much, but I could put a full workweek in a weekend. It took many hours. The only reason I was able to help identify him, is because I’ve been doing this for so many years. I’ve worked thousands of cases Or, it would have taken much longer. I know what I’m looking for. When that clue is there, you recognize it, and then I know I’m going in the right direction. I think you know from working with your own DNA what I’m talking about. When you finally find that common surname, that triangulation, you go, “this is the right direction.” And then it’s hard to put it aside too for good reasons.
Sarah: Obviously there are law enforcement agencies who are really interested in your work, who want to work with you, and have worked with you. Is there a diversity of opinion in the industry about genetic genealogy? Are there concerns about using it in law enforcement?
CeCe: From my experience, law enforcement is very enthusiastic about it. In genetic genealogy, there is a difference of opinions. The vast majority of my community is very enthusiastic about it. Very proud that what we created can be used for such a good purpose; to help families, to make society a safer place. They think that’s a wonderful thing and they’re happy to contribute their DNA towards that.
But, there’s a subset, a much, much smaller subset of the community that isn’t happy about this turn of events. There’s been a lot of debate about it, because some of those people are leaders in our community. So, I have had some people unhappy with my choice to do this work. I’ve lost some friends over it, some colleagues, but I feel deep down that this really is the right thing to do. Whenever I hear from the family members of the victims, it just reinforces that.
Last week, I had the opportunity to meet Christy Mirack’s brother (she was murdered in her home in December of 1992), and I also met Michella Welch’s mother and sister last week (she was a 12 year-old who was killed in Tacoma, Washington). All my work has always revolved around families. It’s always been about families, about reuniting families, about putting families back together. This is really the same, except, as I said in my lecture, there’s no happy endings for these people. It’s not the same celebratory feeling as well I find a birth parent, and I know there’s a pretty good chance that they’ll be welcomed by at least one family member with open arms. In these cases, the damage is done, but these families need justice, they need answers. I don’t think that we can give them closure, per se, and they still have a long trial to go through in most of these cases. But, it means everything to me to be able to give the families something after what they’ve gone through.
So, although I’ve had some friends and colleagues unhappy with my change of focus towards law enforcement, I still feel that it was the right choice.
Sarah: But just to be clear, you’re only using a database where everyone on that DNA database has consented to law enforcement.
CeCe: We probably can’t say that 100% have truly consented, just because there may be people in there that were uploaded by family members and don’t know about it, but the vast majority of GEDmatch is consented. That’s mostly thanks to the Golden State Killer’s arrest, because what happened was there was such broad coverage, that pretty much everybody heard that GEDmatch was used for this purpose. You’d have to be on a deserted island with no connectivity not to know that this happened. So that means that the vast majority of people in the database heard about that and were able to make that choice. And GEDmatch was able to take an action also to try to make sure that their participants know about it. But, I don’t think that we can claim 100% of the people. I think it’s in the high 90’s have explicitly consented to this use, with just a few exceptions.
Sarah: Finally, do you have a case that you would love to crack? Is there a cold case that you’ve been itching to get involved?
CeCe: It just so happens that I followed cold cases long before I became involved working on them. Not like I had a lot of free time, but in my free time, I did follow a lot of cold cases in this country. I’ve actually had the opportunity to work on some cases that I was already following, that I was already familiar with, so that was really fulfilling. Of course, there are the big cases. Everyone would like to work Zodiac. Everyone would like to work Jon Benet. If there is DNA in those cases, I would certainly love to work them, and I’ve said that publicly before, but there are many, many other cases that cross my desk. Family members write to me begging for help with their case.
Sarah: Because not everyone is a Jon Benet Ramsey…
CeCe: And I really am interested in all of those cases, and it would be very interesting to work those big cases, without a doubt, and it would have been fantastic to work the Golden State Killer case, of course, but all of these cases are very fulfilling to me, and I wish that I had time to work all of them, because I’m constantly getting inquiries. I’m constantly getting cold cases sent to me that really capture my attention.
There’s one – Angie Hausman – I think, I really want to work. I hope they have viable DNA. She was a 9 year-old girl that was kidnapped after she got off the bus. Her house was only nine houses away, and she was kept alive for nine days or eight days and tortured, and then tied to a tree, handcuffed to a tree, and left to die in the cold. So, if there’s DNA in that case, that’s probably my first case. That person needs to be brought to justice that did that. All of these cases are horrible, but what that girl went through is beyond terrible and what her family has to endure.
Sarah: Well it’s important work, CeCe. Thank you for the interview.
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