Michael Blasamo, Associated Press
(AP) — Investigators hunting for the so-called Golden State Killer — one of California's most elusive serial killers and rapists — subpoenaed a genetic website last year while investigating an Oregon man who was misidentified as a potential suspect.
The revelation that investigators compelled a genetic company to provide user information adds to a growing debate about legal and privacy concerns involving law enforcement and companies whose millions of users submit their DNA to discover their heritage.
Court records obtained by The Associated Press last week showed investigators persuaded a judge in Clackamas County, Oregon, a year ago to order a 73-year-old man in a nursing home to provide a DNA sample.
The investigators said they obtained the order after comparing crime-scene DNA linked to the serial killer to information on a free online genealogical site, YSearch.org. They said they had spotted a rare genetic marker that the Oregon man shared with the killer who was responsible for 12 killings and nearly 50 rapes in the 1970s and 80s.
The website's parent company, which also owns FamilyTreeDNA.com, said Tuesday it had received a subpoena the same month that "sought limited information, with respect to a single user account" from federal investigators in California. The company, Gene-by-Gene Ltd., said it complied with the subpoena "to the minimum degree legally required."
Court documents detailed how investigators pinpointed the Oregon man, saying the profile they discovered was the only match among more than 189,000 searchable genetic records on the website. The court documents identified a specific user ID, the user's first name and the most distant paternal relative in the family tree.
A company spokeswoman told The Associated Press last week that it had not been contacted by law enforcement but later discovered the subpoena after further review of its records. The spokeswoman, Terry Murphy, did not immediately say Tuesday whether company officials notified the user before turning over the records to investigators.
The Oregon City man, who had been misidentified as a potential suspect, is in extremely poor health in a rehabilitation facility and was unable to answer questions about the case on Friday.
His daughter said his family had not been aware that authorities took a DNA sample from him while he was lying in bed at the rehabilitation center until she was contacted by the FBI in April 2017 and asked to help expand the family's genetic tree in the search for suspects.
The woman, an amateur genealogist, cooperated, but ultimately investigators determined none of her relatives were viable suspects, she said. The woman spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because she did not want the family's name publicly linked to the case.
Ultimately investigators turned to a different genealogical site and arrested a man last week who they say was one of California's most elusive serial killers.
Joseph James DeAngelo, a 72-year-old former police officer appeared in court on Friday to face murder charges. DeAngelo has been charged with eight counts of murder, and additional charges are expected, officials said. He did not enter a plea during the court appearance.
The issue of law enforcement comparing DNA to samples in genealogical databases garnered national attention several years ago when a New Orleans filmmaker was wrongly identified as a potential suspect in an Idaho killing based on a DNA sample that his father had given years earlier. As part of a church-sponsored genealogy project, the man's father had provided his DNA, which was later sold to Ancestry.com.
The company was required to identify the man to police after receiving a court order. The man was eventually cleared after his DNA didn't match the evidence at the crime scene.
Ancestry.com and 23andMe, two of the largest companies that produce genetic profiles for customers who provide DNA samples, have said they don't cooperate with law enforcement unless they receive a court order.
Ancestry.com has said it hasn't received any such requests for genetic information in the past three years and 23andMe said the company has never given customer information to law enforcement officials.
Associated Press writer Gillian Flaccus in Oregon City, Oregon contributed to this report.