As a disclaimer I am in no way affiliated with or sponsored by GEDmatch, Parabon Nanolabs, or the DNA Doe Project.
Before we begin, and to acknowledge Memorial Day coming up, I just want to talk briefly about our military members' remains who have never been identified, and their current status in the John Doe community. It’s a club no one wants to be in. Many of the cases that I cover are true crime cases of course, but the other side of forensic genealogy is identifying unidentified found remains of people, and bringing them home to their families. And I often find myself on the unidentified Wiki website trying to find John and Jane Does to bring it to you. During these searches, I come across a whole slew of military servicemen who have been identified in the last 6 months or so based on DNA investigations. But these cases are not solved using genealogy; the government has not changed its policy to allow for that at this time.
In 2015, the US Department of Defense worked with the POW/MIA accounting agency to set up a program with the sole purpose of identifying unknown remains of military service members lost in war and other military endeavours. To do this, families of service members have submitted their DNA over the years to be put in a database strictly the purpose of eventually bringing Grandpa or uncle Henry home from World War II, or the Korean War, for the Vietnam War. And what this program does, is when they get the okay to exhume remains from some of our military cemeteries, the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System will extract the DNA from the remains, and hope to match it with the civilians’ profiles in the database. So it's pretty much like CODIS, but our military personnel. In an article from The New York Times we are told “The agency’s rules do not allow a body to be exhumed unless there is at least a 50 percent chance that the remains can be identified by doing so.” The same article tells us that it's much cheaper to go the genealogy route than waiting for families to come forward and ask to be placed in their database, but when asked about using forensic genealogy, Timothy McMahon, who oversees DNA identification of remains for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System. “The technology is there — we just have to develop the policy to use it.” Understandably, the government is worried about privacy concerns.
In the meantime, if you have a family member who has been lost to war or other conflicts, and do not know about this program, there will be a link in the show notes for how to reach out to the proper office of your particular military branch. They will help you through the process; it's on the website for the Defense POW/MIA accounting agency, at DPAA.mil.
Today’s episode is going to be a bit different, as I’m sure you could tell by the title. We understand once police have a suspect they have to go the extra step and get that person's actual DNA sample, oftentimes, garbage can gross, and then compare it to DNA evidence from a crime scene. but how do they get that suspect's name in the first place? So now that I’ve got my feet wet in this whole podcasting thing and genealogy and solving crimes and finding out who the John and Jane Does are, I’m thinking maybe some of you want to know what goes into these investigations. What is forensic genetic genealogy? The forensics part is the research part, the genetic part is obviously the DNA part and of course, the genealogy is mapping out the family tree.What is it all about? So this is a very special episode where I’m going to explain it. And to do that we’re going to explore ancestry DNA and GEDmatch. Just to put it right out there in the beginning, I am not an affiliate, nor am I sponsored by either of them. So with that let’s get into it….
When you create an account at Ancestry.com, the initial login is free. There are subscription levels that give you varying degrees of access to the database. But the gist of it is, you can find people you know you are related to AND have created their family trees on the site, and then build your family tree off of theirs.
Ancestry.com will give you notifications that suggest people they think are related to you. These are people that have their own Ancestry account and have added to their own family trees. So when you hook up Aunt Sally, at first, you’re not adding anyone else she is related to, you're only adding Aunt Sally, the specific person. After you make the connection, you can then look over her family tree and add people there that you are also related to. There might be historical documents (birth certificates, marriage licenses, death certificates, other legal documents) uploaded by family members prior and you’ll be able to look them over too, to be sure that Sally’s “brother” James is actually your uncle. Then you look at Uncle Jim’s family tree… and this activity might get you some pretty interesting stuff you never knew about your Uncle Jim, and it’ll also help you be absolutely sure you’re adding the correct entry for him to your own family tree. Now, Aunt Sally and Uncle Jim are just two members of your family. Say your grandparents had 7 kids! Now we’re thinking about all the aunts, uncles, in-laws, cousins... And then of course for the really interested “Where did I come from?” type people out there, think about your grandparents’ parents and siblings, and then go farther back in time to their parents, and so on! And what about the family members that married into your bio family? Step-families? Adoptions? What if you're adopted? Do you create two family trees just to keep yourself sane when you log in to the site and learn about your connections?
Ooh, you can tell, genealogy research can get out of hand pretty quickly. I’m exhausted just explaining it!
But the DNA profile aspect of the whole process is when our initial family tree can get messed with. A genetic family tree leaves people in our family that we are not related to by blood out. Our adopted cousin isn’t going to be part of this genetic web. But maybe extra people that we didn’t even know existed begin to come in. AncestryDNA or 23andMe suggests in a tip that we are cousins with Derek Shoemaker… we’re related by blood, and we’re the same age, but we don’t know anything about them… how? Secret extra-marital affairs → need I say more?
So here is the clincher: Once we go rummaging through our bloodline, we are bound to find out family history information that someone in the family never wanted anyone to know. We might find out an aunt or an uncle or grandparent is not actually genetically related to us! And they might not know it either. They might only be finding out they are not as “legitimate” as they thought they were because we’re just digging into this stuff now. And that can open a whole can of worms. That’s a can you can't close once it's opened, and it’s a chance you take when you go digging into your bloodline.
On the other hand, maybe you or one of your relatives always thought something was off with the family history you were given growing up. You’ve already suspected and resigned yourself to having a missing part of your family tree. Do these suspicions affect your sense of identity? Is it affecting your familial relationships? Maybe that's the whole purpose of getting your DNA profile on these sites.... in order to get answers and validate your feelings that something just doesn't add up in the family history you've been given. For some of us, aside from high school and our grown up work life, there's no kind of drama like family drama. WE GOTTA KNOW!!!
I don’t personally have any questions or suspicions about where I came from and who I belong to and who belongs to me. So my purpose of being on these sites is strictly to add to the database for Law Enforcement to search through.
Jan - unboxed spit kit. Feb - sent to Ancestry
During this time, I was connecting people on both sides of my family to my family tree on the Ancestry.com website. Some of these connections are not blood relations, as my birth parents divorced when I was a toddler, and then later remarried other people. So in my Ancestry family tree, I do have entries on my tree that are not blood, but instead, we are connected by legal marriages and adoption. Even though we might not be tied genetically, we are tied by familial love. Psst... even my ex-husband on my tree… I mean, how else do I explain my first two kids?
March 20 - received email that processing was done, uploaded zip file of report to GEDmatch. I am told:
DNA Origins: date back to 1700s, includes: 35% northwestern europe, 32% Spain, under 10% each of: German, Indigenous America, Portugal, Scotland, Eastern Europe/Russia, Ireland.
By 1925-1950, those bloodlines have focused directly on 2 locations: Jalisco Mexico, and Mountain West Mormon Pioneers.
This makes sense - my father is a first generation Mexican-American, and my mother is from Mormon country. I myself was born in Utah, just two hours from the Salt Lake City Temple.
So now I'm looking closer at my blood relations and what Ancestry is telling me based on my DNA and the other DNA they have for my bloodline in their system. And I'm solidifying my genetic relationship with my birth father and his side by clicking on the “yes” and the “merges” and the “confirms” Ancestry askes of me. And the same thing is happening on my birth mother's side. Each person that adds information to their family member on their tree will prompt ancestry to ask me if I want to add that information to my tree as well. So like we said before, it is a bit overwhelming to think about adding all this information to your digital family tree, but it is very interesting and a hobby in and of itself if you start looking at all these old legal documents and these new people you are attached to!
But we have to move on because we need to get over to the GEDmatch site and solve some crime. Now, I hope I don't get a call from Law Enforcement because of the implications it would have on my family, but I guess we would all say that. But at the same time, families need answers and justice, so I’m willing to take the chance. So let's discover what is going on over on GEDmatch….
Now, the original purpose of GEDmatch was not to solve cold cases or give John and Jane Does their names back. The original purpose was to be a free public database that accepted DNA profiles of users of companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA. Why bother? Well, consider this: if I'm on ancestry.com and I’m looking for... let's say... my cousin who was adopted out when we were just toddlers. He is now living somewhere else, far away or maybe right in my own town. My cousin has put his profile on 23andMe hoping to find his biological family. But because these companies are private, we will never find each other because our profiles are not in the same database. So if you're looking for long lost relatives, the most efficient way to find them would be in the biggest database, right? The one that holds information from all different DNA profile companies. This is where GEDmatch comes in, and this was its original purpose.
This is a quote directly from the About Section of the site:
The GEDmatch story is one of connecting people. From amateurs to professionals, genealogists, historians, researchers, and adoptees have leveraged the large pool of data on the site to build family trees, find birth families, and learn more about their DNA and by extension, their history. Recent advancements have also allowed genetic genealogy to make communities safer by putting violent criminals behind bars and exonerating the innocent. Protecting your privacy remains the top priority, with our commitment to safeguarding your information at the foreground of every decision.
Before we can explore GEDmatch, we need to have our ancestry DNA profile uploaded to the site. I will have a link in the show notes to a tutorial by Mike Rhea. It doesn't look like a blog, it's more like a Google site, I guess? But he also has a ton of other tutorials, including for users of 23andMe, and how to navigate these other different sites.
Pretty much what we do is download all the technical who-is-whats-it DNA information, all the sciency stuff on the DNA profile report. Then we create a profile on GEDmatch (or Family TreeDNA), and upload that zip file into its database. Now, part of creating the login on GEDmatch is to review all the default settings and one of them is if you're going to opt-in to the group of users that will show up on hits for searches that law enforcement conducts. Now, GEDmatch has recently updated the way the site looks, but when I set up my profile a few months ago, the law enforcement opt-in toggle was part of the profile set up process, so it was super easy. If it's not there anymore, you can find a link pretty easily on the web if it doesn't show on the GEDmatch search of “law enforcement” within the site itself.
So I've got my profile set up, I'm OPT’d in, and I see my DNA genetic report has been uploaded into the site. My adopted brother won’t be there, and neither will my step-parents or my step-siblings. I still love them! But they are not going to show up here for me. Only blood relatives.
So how does it work? Every profile is assigned a kit number. There is no public profile, there is no photograph of yourself making a duck face, there's no place for you to post your thoughts about your latest family tree discovery…. Although there is a forum, but I haven’t explored it. There is no public face that you have on GEDmatch like we have on social media. You are known in the database as your kit number, or really, a specific DNA strand. You can have your name attached, or you can have just your initials. GEDmatch’s system will compare the mito-chromosomal information on your profile to others’ profiles that are in the database already. Any matches it comes up with will be put on a list that you have access to. What you get on your hit list, so to speak, is a chart with thousands of entries and each one has: a kit number, a name or initials, an email address for contact, a total centimorgan hit, what the source was (the company they did their DNA on), and some other things I really don't understand.
We need to understand centimorgans to make sure we all understand how this whole genetic genealogy process works. A centimorgan is a part of a DNA profile, a part of our DNA strand… it’s the itty bitty bits of our DNA that we pass down to our offspring. So my birth mother and birth father - they clearly have no centimorgans matching each other, as they are not blood related. But! The centimorgan matches between my mother and I are huge, and the same thing for my dad. GEDMatch tells me my mom and I share 3750 centimorgans! But my mom’s other daughter is technically my half-sister, as we have separate birth fathers. Now, she is an active member of our military - thank you very much, Sister of mine! - and she's a mother of a toddler - so she doesn't have time to go doing all this stuff. But if she did her DNA profile, and uploaded it onto GEDmatch, I think it's safe to say that we would share about half(?) of the 3750(?). This is what I get from my memory of biology and Charles Darwin in eighth grade life science. You pass down half of your info to the next generation, right? So my sister and my mother would share the same 3750, but my sister and I will not because we have different birth fathers. As the generations go, your centimorgan match with an ancestor will become smaller, because your genetic information has to make room for other people that took part in making you. So based on this, we can understand that our mom’s mom would also have a lower match number to us than our mother. My mom and her mom would have a very strong match, but my match with my grandma is not as strong because my blood has to make room for my dad's genetic information. And we can apply this to our aunts and uncles, and also their children, and our great-grandparents, etc. So the amount of Centimorgan matches you have with a person will determine how close a family relative they are to you, but not necessarily exactly where they fit in your family tree. Talking to them will help you figure it all out.
For me I have 3000 hits on GEDmatch… and I don’t even know 3000 people, let alone family members. I see maybe 7 people that are my immediate extended family, my mom, an aunt or two and maybe a few cousins. The rest of them? I’m completely clueless.
Of course GEDmatch can not give you matches for your ancestors that have long been dead; GEDmatch can only give you what it knows, and it only knows profiles that have been proactively uploaded by a living breathing human being in the here and now. These DNA analysis companies have only been around for public consumption for, what 10yrs or so? My great-great-grandma's kit is not there, unless someone goes to the effort of digging her up, shaving off a piece of bone… and, well, you get it. But! I can see another offspring of my great-grandmother that is not myself and my sister and the cousins I know. Maybe I’ll find and connect with my second cousin, who I didn’t know existed until now. She will be on this list because we share a small amount of the centimorgans that we both got from our mutual great-grandma. I'm sure she’s smart and beautiful and a wonderful person, I won’t really know until I shoot her an email that's next to her kit number.
Now say you want to manage someone else's DNA profile -- that's fine! Gedmatch will allow you to do that. Given a good relationship we have with our family members, we can manage DNA profile kits for other people, not just ourselves. So if my aunt wanted my mom's DNA here, but my mom can't be bothered, then my mom would send her the zip file from Ancestry or 23andMe, and my aunt would send it to GEDmatch herself. She would probably just label a kit with my mom’s initials, and then use her own (my aunt’s) email address as the point of contact for anyone interested in contacting the “owner” of my mom’s dna. And they would only reach out for contact because my mom’s kit contains at least a portion of centimorgan matches with their own kit.
So, what do you get when you click on someone else’s kit number? You get the list of their matches. Now, a lot of these matches will be on your own list because we already know you’re blood related. The amount of centimorgan matches will be different, though, because you're related in different ways to each person on the list. And some of the people on your list will not be on your matches list, because they come from the other side of your family.
And that is where CeCe Moore and Barbara Rae Ventner and aaaall the genealogists out there…. this is where their work gets tricky. Because they don’t know any of these people, they don’t recognize these names, and they don’t recognize these email addresses. But once Law Enforcement tosses a profile at them and says, “find me the owner of this blood sample for my cold case from 1993,” they have to start somewhere, so they start with these genetic matches. Then they have to map out the family trees based on the hit list that comes up.