Investigators who used a genealogical website to find the ex-policeman they believe is a serial killer and rapist who terrified California decades ago call the technique groundbreaking. Others say it raises troubling legal and privacy concerns for the millions of people who submit their DNA to such sites to discover their heritage, the Associated Press reports. There aren’t strong privacy laws to keep police from trolling ancestry site databases, said Steve Mercer of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. “People who submit DNA for ancestors testing are unwittingly becoming genetic informants on their innocent family,” Mercer said, adding that they “have fewer privacy protections than convicted offenders whose DNA is contained in regulated databanks.”
Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, was arrested Tuesday after investigators matched crime-scene DNA with genetic material stored by a distant relative on an online site. From there, they narrowed it down to the Sacramento-area grandfather using DNA obtained from material he’d discarded, said Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said. Authorities declined to name the online site. DNA potentially may have played an earlier role in the case. It was just coming into use as a criminal investigative tool in 1986 when the predator known as the East Area Rapist and the Golden State Killer apparently ended his decade-long wave of attacks. DeAngelo, a former police officer, probably would have known about the new method. “He knew police techniques,” said John Jay College of Criminal Justice Prof. Louis Schlesinger. “He was smart.” No one who knew DeAngelo over the decades connected him with the string of at least a dozen murders, 50 rapes and dozens of burglaries from 1976 to 1986.