Crime & Justice

Earlier search for Golden State Killer led to wrong man

Joseph James DeAngelo, the suspected Golden State Killer, appears in court for his arraignment on April 27, 2018 in Sacramento, California.
Joseph James DeAngelo, the suspected Golden State Killer, appears in court for his arraignment on April 27, 2018 in Sacramento, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Investigators hunting down the so-called Golden State Killer used information from genetic websites last year that led to the wrong man, court records obtained Friday by The Associated Press showed.

An Oregon police officer working at the request of California investigators persuaded a judge to order a 73-year-old man in a nursing home to provide a DNA sample.

It's not clear if officers collected the sample and ran further tests, but it was not the man arrested this week outside Sacramento in one of the state's most notorious string of serial rapes and killings. The Oregon City man was unable to answer questions Friday about the case.

A photo of accused rapist and killer Joseph James DeAngelo is displayed during a news conference on April 25, 2018 in Sacramento, California.
A photo of accused rapist and killer Joseph James DeAngelo is displayed during a news conference on April 25, 2018 in Sacramento, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The case of mistaken identity was discovered as authorities hailed a novel use of DNA technology that led this week to the arrest of former police officer Joseph DeAngelo at his house outside Sacramento on murder charges. Critics of the investigative approach, however, warned it could jeopardize privacy rights.

DeAngelo's suspected of being the sadistic attacker who killed 13 people and raped nearly 50 women during the 1970s and '80s.

Handcuffed to a wheelchair in orange jail scrubs, DeAngelo made his first court appearance Friday. The 72-year-old looked dazed and spoke in a faint voice to acknowledge he was represented by a public defender. He did not enter a plea.

He has been charged with eight counts of murder, and additional charges are expected, authorities said.

"We have the law to suggest that he is innocent until he's proven guilty and that's what I'm going to ask everyone to remember," DeAngelo's public defender Diane Howard said outside court. "I feel like he's been tried in the press already."

The FBI released these three sketches of the suspect in the Golden State Killer case.
The FBI released these three sketches of the suspect in the Golden State Killer case.
FBI

Investigators were able to make the arrest this week after matching crime-scene DNA with genetic material stored in an online database by a distant relative. They relied on a different website than they had in the Oregon search, and they did not seek a warrant for DeAngelo's DNA.

Instead, they waited for him to discard items and then swabbed the objects for DNA, which proved a conclusive match to evidence that had been preserved more than 30 years.

Also Friday, the co-founder of the genealogy website used by authorities to help identify DeAngelo said he had no idea its database was tapped in pursuit of the suspect who eluded law enforcement for four decades.

Authorities never approached Florida-based GEDmatch about the investigation that led to DeAngelo, and co-founder Curtis Rogers said law enforcement's use of the site raised privacy concerns that were echoed by civil liberties groups.

The free genealogy website, which pools DNA profiles that people upload and share publicly to find relatives, said it has always informed users its database can be used for other purposes. But Rogers said the company does not "hand out data."

"This was done without our knowledge, and it's been overwhelming," he told The Associated Press.

Law enforcement officials leave the home of accused rapist and serial killer Joseph James DeAngelo on April 24, 2018 in Citrus Heights, California. He is accused of being the Golden State Killer, responsible for 12 murders and 51 rapes as well as more than 100 burglaries.
Law enforcement officials leave the home of accused rapist and serial killer Joseph James DeAngelo on April 24, 2018 in Citrus Heights, California. He is accused of being the Golden State Killer, responsible for 12 murders and 51 rapes as well as more than 100 burglaries.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For the team of investigators tracking the attacker suspected of killing 13 people and raping nearly 50 women during the 1970s and '80s, GEDmatch was one of the best tools, lead investigator Paul Holes told the Mercury News in San Jose.

Officials did not need a court order to access GEDmatch's large database of genetic blueprints, Holes said. Major commercial DNA companies say they do not give law enforcement access to their genetic data without a court order.

DeAngelo, 72, was arrested Tuesday after investigators matched crime-scene DNA with genetic material stored online by a distant relative. From there, they narrowed the search down to the Sacramento-area grandfather using DNA obtained from an item he discarded, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said the use of GEDmatch to track down DeAngelo was "brilliant." She said upon hearing the news, "I was on fire. I thought, 'Well, let me go back to my office and find out, are we doing this also?'"

It turns out her office has not yet used that tactic, she said. Lacey also predicted that "there’s going to be litigation," since people who hand over their DNA to a website in search of long-lost relatives probably don't expect police to use their genetic profiles, too.

"There are probably people calling these companies right now saying, 'I want my DNA back,'" she said. 

Civil libertarians have said the practice raises legal and privacy concerns for the millions of people who submit their DNA to genealogy sites.

There are not strong privacy laws to keep police from accessing ancestry site databases, said Steve Mercer, the chief attorney for the forensic division 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."

While people may not realize police can use public genealogy websites to solve crimes, it is probably legal, said Erin Murphy, a DNA expert and professor at New York University School of Law.

"It seems crazy to say a police officer investigating a very serious crime can't do something your cousin can do on a Tuesday," Murphy said. "If an ordinary person can do this, why can't a cop? On the other hand, if an ordinary person had done this, we might think they shouldn't."

While most consumers would have to get a genetic profile from a commercial company such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe, the police may have obtained the DNA profile in their crime lab before uploading it to GEDmatch, she said.

DNA was just coming into use as a criminal investigative tool in 1986 when the predator also known as the East Area Rapist apparently ended his decade-long wave of attacks.

As a former police officer, DeAngelo probably would have known about the new method, experts said.

Police at the time suspected they were chasing a fellow cop or armed services member because he was so methodical and meticulous, said Wendell Phillips, a former Sacramento deputy who joined the hunt for the rapist who terrorized the suburbs east of the state capital.

In fact, officers assigned to a special task force were required to submit saliva samples to exclude anyone who shared a genetic trait, Phillips said. About 85 percent of people secrete their blood type in saliva and body fluids, but the rape suspect was in the roughly 15 percent who didn't.

"Obviously, you didn't want the East Area Rapist on the team," Phillips said. "That turned out to be a pretty good concern."

No one who knew DeAngelo over the decades connected him with the string of crimes throughout California from 1976 to 1986.

DeAngelo worked nearly three decades in a Sacramento-area supermarket warehouse as a truck mechanic, retiring last year. He was known by neighbors in suburban Citrus Heights for keeping his lawn manicured and cussing loudly.

Investigators are removing virtually everything from DeAngelo's home in search of mementos such as class rings, earrings and photos taken from crime scenes as well as weapons, Jones said.

DeAngelo, who has been charged with eight counts of murder, is on suicide watch in the psychiatric ward of the county jail and has been muttering to himself, said Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones. Authorities said more charges are likely to be filed later.

Police in the central California city of Visalia said Thursday that DeAngelo is now a suspect in a 13th killing and about 100 burglaries that occurred while he was a police officer in the neighboring farm town of Exeter from 1973 to 1976.

In 1975, community college teacher Claude Snelling was shot while trying to stop a masked intruder from kidnapping his 16-year-old daughter from his home.

This story has been updated.