Thirty-eight years ago, an infant boy—hours old, tears frozen on his face—was found dead in a ditch in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Last week, police arrested his mother and charged her with murder, after investigators uploaded the baby’s DNA to a genealogy website and matched her relatives.
The same strategy led police to the Golden State Killer suspect in April 2018, and since then law enforcement working with genealogists have made dozens of arrests for rape and murder around the country. Once a headline-grabbing technique, forensic genealogy has become quietly normalized. Now this powerful tool, first used to catch a serial killer, is being applied to abandoned-baby cases that genealogists once hesitated to take on.
More dead and abandoned babies are likely to be identified soon. The Sioux Falls police worked with a forensics company called Parabon NanoLabs, which opened a dedicated genealogy unit after the surge in interest following the Golden State Killer case. Another company called IdentiFinders, run by the forensic genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick, says it is working on three abandoned-baby cases.
One such case—the death of a baby boy found frozen in Connecticut in 1998—has been in the works since before the Golden State Killer, and its arc demonstrates how much attitudes have changed. This baby was supposed to be the first case of a nonprofit, the DNA Doe Project, that Fitzpatrick founded with Margaret Press in 2017. They planned to use genealogy to identify John and Jane Does, and Fitzpatrick and Press even paid to sequence the Connecticut baby’s DNA out of their own pocket. But over and over again, people advised against taking the case. One medical examiner even told the team she would not work with the DNA Doe Project if it tried to identify dead babies.