Sebastopol-based DNA sleuths to help Sonoma County coroner with cold cases
The Sebastopol-based DNA Doe Project, which uses cutting edge science to solve cold cases, has entered “a multiyear partnership” with the Sonoma County Coroner Unit to investigate up to 20 unsolved cases in the area.
The announcement comes as the organization ramps up its nationwide outreach.
In April, DNA Doe Project co-founder Margaret Press and some fellow members left their comfort zone and went to Las Vegas, where they set up their booth at Crime Con, a convention devoted to true crime.
“We were a little nervous,” she recalled. “We thought we’d be the geeks in the room.”
The DNA Doe Project’s volunteer army of 80-or-so citizen scientists doesn’t usually catch killers. What they do, using techniques they’ve pioneered in the promising new field of investigative genetic genealogy, is identify previously unnamed Jane and John Does — returning names to people who died years, and often decades, earlier.
They were a huge hit at Crime Con, where people were invited to stop by the DNA Doe booth to upload their data from genetic testing services — 23andMe and Ancestry.com — to GEDmatch.
GEDmatch is a database popular with people trying to track down family members. By uploading their data on the spot, attendees could see if they were a relative match to any of the Jane or John Does featured on a poster in the booth.
While there were no close matches, so many people participated, said Press, that “we were personally responsible for a 10% to 20% spike in GEDmatch uploads that weekend.”
The DNA Doe Project has become a go-to organization for law enforcement agencies and medical examiners across North America — including one in its backyard. it recently took five unsolved cases from the Sonoma County coroner.
The process is complex and expensive. After DNA is extracted from forensic matter — a bone, a tooth, a hair — that material is processed, then put into a sequencing machine. The resulting data is then analyzed by bioinformatic virtuoso Kevin Lord, who distills it to a smaller file that can then be uploaded to GEDmatch, at which point the DNA Doe Project’s armchair detectives can start doing their thing.
Three of those five cases are already in GEDmatch, said Press. They are Wohler Bridge John Doe, whose remains were discovered in Forestville 18 years ago; Motorcycle Mountain John Doe, found in 2001 in Monte Rio; and Leveroni Road John Doe, whose skeletal remains were found in a shallow grave near Sonoma in 2002.
This partnership comes after the Sonoma County coroner hit a dead end trying to identify of a man whose body was found near a Rohnert Park walking path in 2015. In 2021 they sought assistance from the DNA Doe project, whose armchair detectives solved the mystery “fairly easily,” recalled Press. “So I think that got their attention,” she added, referring to the Coroner Unit.
Meanwhile, the field of forensic genealogy is “exploding,” said Press, who describes, with some alarm, people “jumping in” and “forming companies left and right with their friends, because they solved their own adoption and they think they’re experts.”
Well-intentioned amateurs can do damage “on a lot of levels,” she said, whether it’s squandering scarce DNA material or making premature contact with “top matches” — before they’ve done sufficient research.
That can result in law enforcement visiting the wrong family.
“That wastes time and resources, and can break hearts,” said Press. “And it undercuts the credibility of this field.”
Press and other pioneers in that field recently started a nonprofit called the Board of Certification for Investigative Genetic Genealogy, a self-policing group whose purpose is “ensuring competence and ethical practice” in the area of investigative genetic genealogy.
To be accredited by this certifying board, applicants would have to pass a difficult exam. “We’re not going to require a college degree,” said Press. “It’s how much you know, not how you learned it.”
The board’s hope is that its stamp of approval will be used as a national standard. “We don’t want every state to do it on their own,” she added. “Cause they’re gonna do a bad job. We don’t want someone in California who can only work in 17 states.”
For its part, the DNA Doe Project has worked with well over 150 law enforcement agencies, “and every one of them is different,” she said. “Some we don’t even hear from after we send reports. So finally, at the end, we say, ‘Did you get our report?’”
In Sonoma County, they’re working with Detective Coroner Sgt. Justin Haugen. “We have a good working relationship with him,” said Press. “He’s very responsive.”
Haugen declined an interview request.
The DNA Doe Project’s volunteer sleuths hail from all over the United States, plus Canada and Great Britain. Where a Jane or John Doe was found doesn’t really matter to them.
Still, said Press, “There’s a special place in my heart for local cases. There’s a sense of attachment.”
The Rohnert Park John Doe, for instance — he was 48-year-old Stephen Patrick Archer from Seattle — was found across the street from the Popeyes she patronizes.
“The location really gives you a personal connection.”
You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ausmurph88.