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Genetic genealogists solve cold murder cases

Until 40 years after their disappearance in 1976, no one knew what had happened to Pamela Mae Buckley and James Paul Freund, a pair of cross-country travelers who vanished without any notice to their families. When no explanation arose for their disappearance after many years, Buckley and Freund were presumed dead.

While the pair’s disappearance remained a mystery until 2019, two unknown people found murdered in South Carolina, also in 1976, had a Wikipedia page and hundreds of forum comments dedicated to finding their names. The “Sumter County Does“, as they were known first by law enforcement in Sumter County, SC and then by a plethora of online citizen sleuths, had remained unidentified for decades. But when the Sumter County Sheriff’s office reached out to an entirely volunteer group of genetic genealogists from the DNA Doe Project (DDP), everything finally clicked.

The DDP identified relatives of the Sumter County Does using DNA profiles extracted from their bones, in much the same way a living person might find their genetic relatives via an Ancestry or 23andMe ethnicity test. They built family trees for those relatives and continued constructing the trees until the Does could be placed within them. On January 21, 2021, the DDP announced that the Sumter County Does were Buckley and Freund. At long last, the Does had a name, and Buckley and Freund’s loved ones had closure, linking the unsolved cases and resolving both mysteries at once.

Buckley and Freund’s case is only one of 46 (and counting) solved by the DDP. Their process, genetic genealogy, has been around since the late 1990s, but has only become prevalent as commercial DNA tests have become affordable for consumers. Ethnicity DNA testing is, by far, the most popular commercial DNA service. Companies such as 23andMe and Ancestry provide a simple way for anyone to obtain information about their ethnicity by simply mailing a saliva sample to the company, which then sequences the DNA and compares that sequence to reference groups or groups of people that originate in a certain area. They can then determine the extent to which the customer’s DNA sequence bears similarities to one or more ethnic groups and match them with the corresponding group(s).

However, due to ethical and legal reasons, the DDP will not access anyone’s DNA results directly through a consumer database. They only work with DNA samples that are voluntarily made public via a third-party genealogical database and research tool, GEDmatch. On GEDmatch, users can upload the raw data from their commercial DNA test and find relatives who are also on the website. The website provides free applications that allow users to take their search for genetic relatives one step further, such as the One-to-One tool, which shows an in-depth comparison between the user’s DNA and one of their matches. When starting a case, the DDP will create a GEDmatch profile with a Doe’s DNA and compare it to other GEDmatch users’ DNA as if the unidentified decedent, or Doe, were a living person.

This GEDmatch profile is only the start of the DDP’s research. Because the number of people on GEDmatch is significantly smaller than the number of people on commercial DNA websites, it is rare to find an immediate family member of the Doe in the database. Often, the only matches a Doe has will be distant cousins. This doesn’t deter the DDP, however. With some detective work and a lot of keen observation, immediate relatives of the Doe can be located by finding common ancestors between the matches, inferring that the Doe must also share those ancestors, and working backwards until the Doe’s identity is placed.

The success the DDP has with GEDmatch can be attributed not only to its members’ research skills, but also to the genealogy know-how of GEDmatch users. The website serves as a hub for people who are actively interested in genealogy and are most often engaged in the research of their own family tree. Thus, when the DDP reaches out to a match for information about their ancestors, the match will often have a link to their family tree ready. Everyone the DDP reaches out to has a role in returning the name and life story to a Doe. GEDmatch is a user-friendly tool that genealogists of all skill levels can use. The DDP strongly encourages those interested in genealogy to explore GEDmatch; even a beginner genealogist’s research could provide the last piece of information needed to bring families of unidentified decedents some much-needed closure.

To the DDP, identifications are bittersweet, yet deeply meaningful. As Missy Koski, a case manager with the DDP, says of one of her cases:

“I think what keeps us going is thinking maybe there’s a mom out there missing their son or daughter or there’s a child out there missing, you know, their mom and dad. And when you finally find that, it’s just a feeling you can’t describe, because you’re so sad to know about the person because now you see [their] name, now you see the reality it’s not just a case or a case number.”

Genealogy is about life stories and connections, and genetic genealogy helps bridge the gap between the stories of the living and the stories of the departed. Those interested in furthering the cause of the DDP can apply to be a volunteer.