As a disclaimer I am in no way affiliated with or sponsored by GEDmatch, Parabon Nanolabs, or the DNA Doe Project.
So we're going to go through a thought experiment to show you how genealogists end up with a name (or an immediate family) for law enforcement. We’ll use my family as an example, but nothing is actually real here, I’m making these details up as I go along. Well, my mom is real. But everything else is made up.
And we’re going to start by saying my DNA profile is NOT part of the pool for Law Enforcement to get hits on. My mom's family lives in Arkansas. And she told me once about her nephew, Jared, who was 10 years younger than my mom. In 1980, Jared was 20yo, and decided to meet up with some friends at a county fair in Tulsa Oklahoma. He doesn't live there…. he’s about 5hr away, so this was going to be a weekend trip for Jared. But he never came home. A missing person’s report was made, interviews were done, clues were investigated, no one ever knew what happened to him, and his case went cold. My mom’s family is heartbroken - we don’t know if he was killed, or decided to leave his life, or had some kind of accident on the way home from the fair. We’re going to put Mom’s story on the shelf, now….
There is a John Doe in…. I don’t know, Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Population is under 10k, and it’s by Interstate 40, the route Jared would have driven to get back home to Arkansas after the fair in 1980. In 1985, someone found remains of a man, but no ID, no car, and no other identifying information. Just a body. They did the best they could to find out who this man was, but they exhausted all avenues - this is 1985 - and they came up with nothing. So they bury him in the local cemetery and hope they solve the mystery someday.
Now we are in early 2020 and the day has finally come! The Sallisaw PD, or maybe the county sheriff’s office, has the funds allotted to the Sallisaw John Doe’s case, and they send off a DNA sample to Acme DNA company, and wait for a report. And now Grant is a genealogist at Family Mapping Inc - he is the guy that is going to work on the family tree to figure out who the heck this guy was that was found on the side of the road somewhere in po-dunk Oklahoma 35years ago. He gets the profile and uploads into GEDmatch. And there are hits! Awesome! Buuuuut, the hits aren’t so good. Matches are like 100 centimorgans, 59 centimorgans… And he, or maybe the detective assigned to the case? Well, one of them is going to have to email these people… “hey, um, we are working on a John Doe case here in Oklahoma…. Do you have any missing people in your family?” Remembering that my mother and I share almost 4000 centimorgans, we can tell that 200 centimorgan hits are like, a very very small match….The higher the centimorgans, the closer the bloodline, and therefore, the more likely you are to know the man that Grant is talking about exists. So unfortunately it’s very unlikely that this person knows anything about some guy in their family going missing in Oklahoma or Arkansas in 1980. We saw this in the Lavender Doe case in Episode 4 of season 1. The aunt they found didn’t know anything about Jane Doe’s section of her extended family - they were like third cousins or something. But at least she had a name or two of some distant relatives that maybe could help them find a closer relative to Lavender Doe. But in the end, the name she gave wasn’t even a living person that the police could call… they had to use public records to find out about that person's life, and then find a descendant of that person.
Part of what Grant is going to have to do is to compare the Sallisaw John Doe’s matches against each other to figure out which matches match each other and those that don’t. This will help him figure out which kits belong to John Doe mom’s side and which belong to his dad’s side. Because we can’t get to John Doe without getting to his parents, and can’t get to his parents without getting to their parents, and so on. Hopefully Grant gets at least one person on each side of John Doe’s family to give him names to research. For one side, we’ll call this match Olivia. Olivia is in her forties and she was just a little kid when this John Doe died.
Grant and Olivia know that this John Doe is not part of her immediate extended family. The centimorgans are too low for that. So she gives Grant a few older family members' names to work with that are not on GEDmatch. And they aren't there because they’re dead. And he’s not getting DNA profiles to check, he’s getting names of people, so he doesn't even know if these names are related to John Doe. He’s going to have to flesh them out, he’s going to have to rely on public records to get info about these people that Olivia gave him and see where they take him on his road to John Doe’s grandparents, and then parents, etc. Is it Olivia’s mom’s side and John Doe’s mom's side that came together? Oooor Olivia’s dad’s side and John mom’s side? And at what level did the family come together? Great-great-grandparent? Great-great-great-grandparent? With a centimorgan match that low, there’s a lot of other people’s DNA over the generations that are mixed to create Olivia AND to create John Doe. Too bad there isn’t a centimorgan hit that’s like 2500 or even 1000 on GEDMatch, right? Grant wouldn’t have to go so far back in time before coming forward to present day! So Grant digs in… he’s searching public records - birth and death certificates, mentions of people in the newspapers over the last 50, 60, 70 years, public hits on social media about old timely family names. And Grant is doing this for every name he finds that is somehow related to Olivia. (And to the person on the other side of the family that also decides to give him some names!) He starts with Olivia’s mom’s mom,she wasn't a match…. She and her immediate family lived in Norway her whole life.
So Grant will try Olivia’s mom’s dad. He finds out he had divorced the wife in Norway, and took his 4 kids with him to America. All the kids grew up, got married, and had families. Olivia was one them…. She herself was one of four kids! But are any of those cousins more closely linked to John Doe than Olivia is? We don’t know if they are on the same branch unless we can get in touch with - and interview - them. From what Grant can tell, aside from Olivia, they are all either dead, are not stronger hits on GEDmatch, or are too old to have facebook accounts. So Grant can’t find them to ask them more info about their more immediate family trees. And he is still just trying to figure out if he is in the correct tree branch - the one that includes the Sallisaw John Doe.
Grant continues to research, but finds another dead end. Turns out, John Doe is not related to Olivia’s mom’s mom OR dad, so it must be through Olivia’s dad’s side of the family. Oh by the way, Grant is now six months in. And he’s also trying to work the case from John Does on the other side of the family! Plus, this isn't Grant’s only case. He has other family trees he is helping with, he’s married, he’s got kids, he has other hobbies, his wife is making him re-watch LOST for the third time, and it's now July and he’s determined to perfect his weekend BBQ skills.… ugh if only there was a higher centimorgan hit on GEDmatch! He could cut out all these family tree branches that aren’t related to John Doe!
I feel so bad for Grant. And Grant so badly wants to help John Doe. This man found in 1985 has been waiting so long. Grant imagine’s that this man’s family has been waiting for 35 years and they still have no way to find their son, brother, cousin, friend. His family is literally at the mercy of someone coming forward. Like, “hello, I met your son that weekend, he told me he hated Arkanasas and was never going back” or, “I picked up your son as a hitchhiker and dropped him off in Missouri. I don’t know anything about him after that.” or what about, “I have a confession to make and I had to come clean. I’m a sex trafficer and you’re son was quiet the looker back then. I lured him in and sent him off to Columbia.” No. No one is calling John Doe’s family after all these years to shed some light on what happened to him.
And all the while, my mom’s family IS that family. But none of us can know that the John Doe resting in some podunk town in Oklahoma is our Jared! It’s 35yrs later, in 2020. All us kids from back then have grown up and moved out of state. My mom and some of her generation moved too. Jared's parents moved to Oregon in the early 2000s. His grandparents have died. We might all be connected to our immediate cousins, aunts, uncles, on FB and maybe some weekly phone calls, but most of us in our family now… we are the ones who were babies back in the 80s. We don't remember much about him at all. My mom and Jared’s dad have health issues…. And in this scenario, without the database changing, it’s going to take Grant another nine months before he finds Jared’s parents, or maybe at that point, his parents have passed, and he ends up contacting Jared’s sister, but not until 2021. So Jared’s parents never got answers.
And Grants workload has never stopped piling up. There’s a million Does out there and just as many unsolved murders and other crimes that need solving. The requests are overwhelming on the intake desk for Grant’s company. And it took him a year just to solve one mystery! There’s got to be a better way... and the search doesn’t have to take so long.
SO! Let’s try this scenario. It’s late 2019, and I, Rachel, am 1000 miles away from Oklahoma, but I know about my older cousin that went missing in Arkansas when I was just a toddler. And I come across this story about how they found the Golden State Killer. Who? What? WTH? So I google “forensic genetic genealogy,” and after I figure out what the hell it’s all about, I call up my mom, and I say, “Hey! You or Uncle Carl need to put your DNA into this database! It could help find Carl’s son Jared!.... No. No, Mom…. Don’t worry…. It’s complicated, I’ll do the legwork. You just spit in the tube, it’s fine. Maybe we can get some answers.”
And then 3 months later, Grant at Family Mapping, Inc. gets this Sallisaw John Doe case and sees my email attached to a hit for over 2000 centimorgans! So he types out an email, crosses his fingers… and hits send.
After dinner, all the way over in NY, I check my email and see this random message from some guy named Grant. And he says “Hey, um, we are working on a John Doe case here in Oklahoma… Do you have any missing people in your family?” BOOM!
“YES!!! That’s my mom’s profile you matched! We Do, We D We Do! Hold on, let me call my mother!!!”