Project cracks “impossible” cases using genetic databases
When Margaret Press moved to Sebastopol after careers in computer programming, speech and language consulting and novel writing, she didn’t expect to start a groundbreaking DNA identification organization.
“I didn’t know this was what retirement was going to be like,” Press said. “I thought I would just be able to do more writing.”
Throughout her many careers, Press, who is 71, has always had an itch for true crime tales and mystery cases.
She began digging into DNA genealogy around 2007. Press aided friends and acquaintances in searching for their biological families and helped adoptees find their biological parents.
After retiring from computer programming in 2015, Press moved from Salem, Mass., to live near family in Sebastopol. It was after reading a Sue Grafton novel about a “Jane Doe” character that Press started researching about the thousands of unidentified people cases in the United States. These unsolved cases with no history, no clues and no identification were the ones that led Press to a life-changing idea.
“I thought, wow, why can’t we do the same for ‘Does’ that we do for adoptees?” she said, referring to the Jane and John monikers that crime investigators historically give to people they can’t identify. “It’s the same process.”
The process is genetic genealogy identification. It involves obtaining the DNA from the missing person, adding it into a database, comparing the findings and building a family tree. The same process was used to make an arrest in the Golden State Killer case in April.
In 2017 the DNA Doe Project, Inc. was launched. The Sebastopol-based, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization helps identify Jane and John Does and return them to their families. Run entirely by experienced volunteers in the genealogy and forensic community, the organization cracked its first case in March 2018.
Marcia King, aka “Buckskin Girl,” was a case that eluded investigators and was deemed by many as an impossible one to solve. After 37 years the identification of the young woman who was found dead in Miami County, Ohio, was solved in four hours with the help of DNA Doe Project.
During an April press conference announcing the official identification of “Buckskin Girl,” Elizabeth Murray, forensic anthropologist and biology professor with Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, spoke about the case.
“This is not your run-of-the-mill, DNA solves unidentified person,” Murray said. “This is really some groundbreaking and revolutionary work.”
Press acts as executive director for the project alongside forensic genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick, based in Huntington Beach. Working as a team and with volunteers, the organization finds DNA matches on a third-party database named GEDmatch.
The database is not affiliated with any direct-to-consumer (DTC) testing companies, like Ancestry.com, but does accept data from all DTC DNA testing companies. By using the DNA genealogy tools, the volunteers can create and fill in family trees linking the missing person to their family.
Finding a database that would allow Press and her team to find and develop the family trees was a challenge. Most of the largest DNA genealogy companies do not allow law enforcement to use their database due to privacy issues.
Murray recalled that many people said it couldn’t be done. She praised the work of the DNA Doe Project for the determination to keep trying.
“This project is another example of ‘don’t take no for an answer’,” she said.
The second successful case came out just months later in May. A man who used the alias “Lyle Stevik” committed suicide by hanging in a hotel room in Amanda Park, Wash., in 2001. After 17 years, DNA Doe Project was able to identify him as a 25-year-old resident of Alameda in the Bay Area. His family requested his real name not be released.
A third case has been solved, but Press said she couldn’t reveal the name of the “Jane or John Doe” just yet. The case will be announced in the coming weeks.
For more information about the project, visit the website at http://www.dnadoeproject.org/.