DNA science used in Golden State Killer case could help identify Camp Fire victims
Their bones lie in a refrigerated morgue in Sacramento, waiting to be identified.
Seven months after California’s deadliest wildfire devoured most of Paradise, the names of two of the Camp Fire’s 85 victims remain a confounding mystery.
No relatives or friends have shown up to offer clues. There are no fingerprints to cross-check, no hip implants or other tell-tale signs.
The bones have defied an analysis called “rapid DNA” that allowed officials to put names to dozens of their fellow victims, some in a matter of hours. With one of the victims, the collection of bones is so meager that investigators can’t tell if they belong to a male or female.
“They’re bones; that’s about all I can tell you,” said Sacramento County Coroner Kim Gin, whose morgue on Broadway warehouses the Camp Fire remains. “Maybe (it was) someone who was passing through, both of them, and that’s why we just don’t have a tentative (ID) for them.”
Now a coast-to-coast team of sleuths, including a medical entrepreneur from Boston and a volunteer genealogist from Sebastapol, is taking the search to the next level.
Working with Gin and the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, the team hopes to identify the last two victims through a process called forensic genealogy. It’s an emerging field that combines an ultra-sophisticated form of computerized DNA analysis with old-fashioned birth records and other ancestry information.
Last year law enforcement investigators used the same methodology to arrest Citrus Heights resident Joseph James DeAngelo, the suspected Golden State Killer, also known as the East Area Rapist.
The Camp Fire forensics team believes it can replicate that success.
“This should be doable,” said Margaret Press, the Sebastapol genealogist and co-founder of the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit organization that has identified several cold-case murder victims. “We have all the tools.”
However, the Camp Fire effort has run into a potentially serious roadblock. Ironically, it stems in part from the notoriety surrounding DeAngelo’s capture.
Detectives nabbed DeAngelo after they uploaded genetic data from crime scene linked to the Golden State Killer to an online, publicly-available genealogy database called GEDmatch. The site is a kind of DNA meet-up place; roughly 1 million people have deposited their genetic profiles there in hopes of finding long-lost relatives. Investigators found a partial DNA match that eventually led them to DeAngelo.
Last month, though, the site changed its rules governing law enforcement searches because of concerns that arose about genetic privacy following DeAngelo’s arrest and subsequent cases. Now the DNA profiles on GEDmatch are off-limits to law enforcement unless the profiles’ owners give their consent. Only 50,000 people have agreed so far, putting hundreds of thousands of potential matches out of reach.
While there are other public DNA databases out there, GEDmatch had been considered the most comprehensive.
“It’s a huge obstacle,” said Press, a retired mystery novelist. “That’s throwing an additional challenge our way.”
But she said the search for the Camp Fire identities will proceed anyway. “We don’t give up hope,” Press said. “There’s never a point where we’re not hopeful.”
DNA matches in two hours
It was Nov. 14, nearly a week after the Camp Fire. Only four victims had been identified so far and the task seemed endless. But help was coming on a commercial jet from Boston.
Dr. Richard Selden, a Harvard-trained doctor and founder of a DNA-technology company called ANDE Corp., was en route to Sacramento to help identify the dead.
Putting names to unidentified corpses can be an extraordinarily lengthy process. More than 1,000 sets of remains from the Sept. 11 terror attack in New York remain unidentified. NamUs, a DNA project founded by the U.S. Justice Department and operated out of the University of North Texas, said 4,400 new sets of human remains turn up annually in the United States — and 1,000 of them are still unidentified a year later.
So when ANDE volunteered to help accelerate the identification of Camp Fire victims, the offer was accepted by Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, who’s also his county’s coroner, and Gin, whose staff in Sacramento had been enlisted by state officials to help with the grim task.
Selden and a small group of employees from company headquarters in Colorado brought to Northern California a fleet of DNA analysis machines manufactured by ANDE. About the size of a computer printer, the machines would be used to examine victims’ remains and develop a data file of genetic markers. They’d then be matched up with DNA records from hundreds of anxious relatives, who were having their cheeks swabbed at mobile stations in Chico.
Selden said his “rapid DNA” machines could do the work in an absurdly short amount of time compared to what it traditionally takes to sort through genetic samples.
Instead of weeks or months, “it’s less than two hours,” Selden, the company’s chief scientific officer, said in a recent interview.
But his confidence was shaken as he sat in a window seat on the commercial flight to Sacramento. He opened his laptop and began perusing photos of human remains he’d received from officials in California — turning the screen toward the window so other passengers couldn’t see — and he feared his efforts might be in vain.
The Camp Fire burned at temperatures of 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit or more, the kind of heat that could vaporize the genetic clues he’d need to make identifications. Most of the human remains in Paradise were in such bad shape, Selden realized it would be extremely difficult to extract a lot of usable DNA.
“I was actually pretty disheartened,” Selden said. “I thought the tissue was too badly degraded.
“I kept moving through the photos hoping the next one would look good — but it never did.”
His mood didn’t improve when he landed in Sacramento, where smoke from the Camp Fire was beginning to foul the air. Nevertheless, he and a small crew of employees went right to work.
One employee was dispatched to Chico with a DNA machine to analyze cheek swabs that were being taken from relatives of missing persons. Three more machines stayed in Sacramento, where they were installed in a rented RV that was parked right outside the county morgue.
Tissue and muscle samples from the Camp Fire, which were accumulating in Gin’s morgue, were fed into the DNA machines, where the samples were quickly analyzed and turned into data files.
In cases where only bones had been found, the crews placed them in a plastic bag and partially pulverized them with a hammer, “right in Kim’s morgue, on a little table she set up for us,” Selden said. The bits were bathed in a chemical that left a liquid solution swimming with genetic material. That was put into the DNA machines as well.
The ANDE team soon realized that most of the human remains, despite the intense heat, were producing useful DNA evidence after all. Within a week, Selden said his team was able to extract solid data from more than three-quarters of the remains.
Working off a laptop in the coroner’s conference room, Selden began cross-matching the DNA data from the morgue with the cheek swab DNA from Chico.
The company’s proprietary software sniffed out a match the first day.
“When they got their first hit, it was amazing,” Gin said.
Some Camp Fire victims have been identified by dental records, fingerprints or other means. But the DNA analysis carried much of the load.
The team went at it 16 hours a day. ANDE employees rotated in and out from headquarters. As the sheriff repeated his public appeals for cheek swabs, more data files arrived from Chico. Gin didn’t want the ANDE people to have to learn her computer system, so she arranged for handwritten progress reports — one for each set of remains — to be posted on oversized sheets of paper on the walls. Officials were able to identify 64 people by the second week in January.
The work was physically and emotionally taxing. Selden was so busy, he never got to see Paradise before heading back to Boston at the end of November. But he did get a first-hand look at the toll the tragedy was taking. Strolling into his hotel in Sacramento one day, he noticed a forlorn couple watching their children play in the lobby. A hotel receptionist confirmed his suspicion: This was a family of Camp Fire evacuees.
Wearing a set of surgical scrubs, and a Sacramento County Coroner’s Office badge around his neck, he watched the family but didn’t approach the parents.
“I didn’t feel like it was my place,” he said.
‘Nobody has come forward’
Of the 85 who died in the Camp Fire, 78 have been identified and their families notified. Another five have been tentatively notified, but their names haven’t been released and the investigations are continuing.
Only two are completely unidentified. Almost nothing is known about them. Around the Sacramento coroner’s office, they are known by the case numbers assigned by Gin: B18-00053 and B18-00109.
Gin said a team of forensic anthropologists — scientists who are skilled at finding clues from skeletal remains — was able to conclude, by the size of the bones, that one of the victims was a man. Searchers also found a couple of his teeth, but no skull. With the other victim, the anthropologists weren’t able to determine gender despite repeated inspections of the bones.
“They’ve all looked at them over and over again,” Gin said.
She wouldn’t disclose where in Paradise the two were found, other than to say they were in separate locations. Butte County officials wouldn’t discuss the two cases, refusing a Public Records Act request for any records in the matter. Honea, the Butte sheriff and coroner, declined to be interviewed.
Kim said the likelihood that these two victims were from out of town became a severe impediment in using DNA identification. Unlike most of the other victims, where close relatives were contributing cheek swabs, “nobody has come forward” to help identify these two, she said.
In dozens of other Camp Fire cases, there were close relatives contributing cheek swabs, enabling the crew from ANDE to make quick DNA matches. By contrast, Kim said the likelihood that these two were from out of town meant there were no matches.
“You can run DNA all day long ... but if you don’t have anybody to compare it to, it’s useless,” the coroner said. “It’s our job to identify people. When we cannot make an identification, it’s disheartening.”
Which is where forensic genealogy comes in.
In January, Selden said his team sent several genetic samples from the two victims to a group of DNA laboratories for advanced genomic sequencing. It’s a more rigorous process than the two-hour analysis carried out by ANDE’s machines, and is expected to produce a richer file of DNA data.
It’s a slow go. The DNA from these remains is in such rough shape that, months later, the DNA sequencing is still under way, Selden said.
He wouldn’t identify the laboratories, saying those details and others will be disclosed when ANDE officials write a report on their Camp Fire work for a scientific journal.
Sequencing the two victims’ DNA is just the start of it. When the data files are done, they’ll be turned over to Press and her fellow volunteers at the DNA Doe Project.
Press will hand the data off to an engineer in Billerica, Mass., named Gregory Magoon, a specialist in bioinformatics — the science of massaging DNA files for maximum efficiency. All humans are about 99.9 percent identical in their DNA; Magoon’s job will be to winnow the files down, eliminating millions of bits of data and leaving the roughly 500,000 to 1 million genetic “markers” that would prove useful in finding a match for the Camp Fire victims.
“We select for those specific markers ... that differentiate people,” Magoon said.
When the files are ready, they’ll be uploaded to GEDmatch and other public genealogy databases to see if any matches can be found.
“We call it fishing in every pond,” Press said.
Finding the fish won’t be easy. Close relatives make for simple DNA analysis: If there’s a 50 percent match, you’ve almost certainly found someone’s sibling, parent or child. A 25 percent match links a grandparent with a grandchild, or an aunt or uncle with a niece or nephew or half sibling.
But with the public databases, where there’s a limited pool of DNA files, those easy catches are almost unheard of. The matches are much smaller.
“You’re finding second, third, fourth cousins,” Selden said.
Once a match is found, the genealogists then try to find relatives, combing through birth records, the homemade family trees posted by customers on commercial sites like Ancestry.com, and so on.
It’s difficult work — Press said online family trees are notoriously unreliable — but not impossible. Sometime after New Year’s, Press and her group at DNA Doe were able to identify one of the Camp Fire victims: Christopher Maltby, 69.
It turns out that Gin had already made the identification, tracing Maltby through a surgical implant in one of his shoulders, and his name was released in February. But Press wasn’t discouraged. Just the opposite: The Maltby identification was further validation that forensic genealogy — which still has its skeptics in the law enforcement community — can work.
“There is some science behind what we do, not just witchcraft, which is what some detectives say in some of our Doe cases,” Press said.
Last month, with the help of the DNA Doe Project, police in Reno identified a woman who was shot to death in the Sheep’s Flat area near Incline Village in 1982. The woman, Mary Silvani, had been known to investigators for decades simply as “Sheep’s Flat Jane Doe.” The same methods enabled detectives to identify a suspect, a confessed murderer who’d committed suicide in the Santa Clara County jail in San Jose in early 1983.
Press hopes to provide a much quicker turnaround for the Camp Fire victims.
“It’s still very raw,” Press said. “These families are waiting to bury their loved ones.”