Justice for John Doe: La Jolla native solves cold cases with forensic genealogy

La Jolla native Lee Bingham Redgrave
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

When the co-called Golden State Killer case broke last year, the burgeoning field of forensic genealogy was thrust into the limelight. In the case, Joseph James DeAngelo — who became known as the Golden State Killer for his crimes in California — was arrested and charged with eight counts of first-degree murder and four additional counts for other crimes committed in the 1970s and 80s. He was located after investigators uploaded DNA from a Ventura County rape kit that identified distant relatives, and then traced the family tree to DeAngelo.

A few weeks ago, in Washington state, the first person arrested through genetic genealogy to be found guilty at trial was sentenced to two life sentences, bringing further credibility to the field.

But for La Jolla native Lee Bingham Redgrave, working in forensics to solve cold cases (which have not yet been fully resolved and are not the subject of a recent criminal investigation) has been a longtime passion.

Speaking with La Jolla Light in her mother’s Windansea home while on a visit from Massachusetts, Redgrave shared her thoughts on forensics and its achievements.

“It is extremely hopeful work,” she said. “There are emotions behind solving a case in which someone has been murdered, which are always sad, but there is also a feeling of hope when a cold case that has been unsolvable for 40 years could be resolved.”

Redgrave said she attended The Bishop’s School, La Jolla High School and La Jolla Country Day School and, “I also used to live right next to Birch Aquarium and took classes there. I knew I was surrounded by UC San Diego and Salk, which made me aware from a very early age, that science is constantly changing, and changing our futures.”

She explained that since she was adopted, she started in the forensics field while on the search for her biological parents. “I solved my own mystery using DNA, and helped several other adoptees with their mysteries,” she said.

She was introduced to Colleen Fitzpatrick, who was investigating how to use DNA technology to solve cold cases, and Fitzpatrick ended up using this technology to help solve the Golden State Killer case. She taught Redgrave how to use DNA to trace a person’s lineage.

Here’s how it works

Volunteers take information given through direct-to-consumer DNA tests (often via 23AndMe or or DNA from a deceased person, and upload the data into a system known as GEDMatch, a not-for-pay site accessible to law enforcement. From there, Redgrave said: “We look at the person’s DNA, and hopefully, we can create a family tree and find the common ancestors and build back down to cousins to see if we can find where there’s a person missing. Sometimes it’s easier than other times.”

She then got involved in the fledgling DNA Doe Project, which looks to solve unknown Jane or John Doe cases, and was part of the team that solved the first case using the GEDMatch family tree system.

“We just solved our most difficult case, which required 10,000 hours of volunteer work between 30 volunteers — our easiest case, we solved in under four hours,” she said.

The system Redgrave uses differs from other law enforcement DNA programs in that it can span farther into the family tree.

“Law enforcement uses CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), but that can only work if you have a mother, father, child or full sibling in the system,” she explained. “If someone commits a felony in California, they automatically get their DNA swabbed and entered into CODIS. That creates a file. If there are any other crimes in which that DNA profile comes up, there is a match.

“Or if someone’s direct relative commits a crime, that comes up. But CODIS will not produce a match for a half-sibling (which our system does). With enough data from enough family trees, we can take segments of DNA that we see represented in several people with a common ancestor.

“It’s been described as a way to find a needle in a haystack. If you have a description or even a sketch, it’s still a needle in a haystack, and you could work a case for decades. This is a specific way to find exactly who you are looking for.”

She and her husband formed a company called Redgrave Research and are compiling a team of forensic genealogists, starting in the New England area. They sub-contracting on cases, including four murder cases in which the victims are known, and the perpetrator left DNA at the scene.

“We worked with a family whose daughter was taken and killed, but they didn’t know if she had just run off,” Redgrave said. “They never moved and never changed their phone number in case she wanted to come home. We were able to give the family an answer. It was not an answer they wanted, but it was an answer.”

The future of the field

Still considered the “Wild West” due to ethics and other issues, Redgrave explained that those in the field are still trying to figure out how using and tracing DNA should work, how much it should cost, and whether there should be a certifying body. But, forensic genealogists recently breathed a sigh of relief when a sentence was handed down in a case tried through genetics.

“Everyone was hanging on these court cases and waiting for validation that our work was going to hold up in court,” she said. In July, in Washington State, a man was given two life sentences for the 1987 killing of two people. He became the first person arrested through genetic genealogy to be found guilty at trial, according to local published reports.

“The future of this field, I hope, is that it becomes something easily accessible to more law enforcement departments because there’s no shortage of cases,” she said. “There are thousands of unidentified remains across the country and thousands of unsolved cases of violent crime, where the DNA was left at the scene.”

Redgrave noted San Diego law enforcement departments have been “open to this new technology,” and that could mean her return to La Jolla.

“I have been in Massachusetts since 1997 … but I hope the field will take off in Southern California. It has been more widely looked at since the Golden State Killer.”