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More funding for reverse family tree technology opens options for solving cold cases in the state

An artistic rendition of DNA
Harvard Health
House Bill 58 sets up a five-year genetic genealogy pilot program that allocates $150,000 to the state’s Division of Criminal Investigation. The program was originally introduced to help address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons crisis throughout the state.

At a press conference in Burlington, Vermont last February, Police Chief Jon Murad addressed a somber room.

“Rita Curran was murdered in Burlington on July 19th or 20th in 1971. That’s 18,844 days ago. She was a teacher and a singer and a giver and she was loved,” he said.

The Curran case remained unsolved for decades. But in 2019, the case was reopened, this time with a new team-oriented approach and new technologies.

A woman smiles at the camera
Burlington Police Department

Burlington Lieutenant James Trieb explained how justice came more than fifty years later – thanks, in part, to a cigarette butt found at the scene of the crime.

“It was a Lark cigarette butt and that’s all they had,” he said. “It was just a brand name, but they collected it anyway, not knowing what DNA would be for another fifteen years. That cigarette butt sat in evidence for forty years.”

In 2014, DNA from the cigarette was extracted and put into CODIS, a database that has DNA profiles from convicted offenders – but it came back without a match.

But in 2019, the department sent samples to the DNA testing company Parabon to use a technology that’s been making waves in the world of cold cases: forensic genetic genealogy (FGG).

“[Parabon] had to re-sequence it to have it entered into an open-source DNA database, FamilyTree and GedMatch,” said Lieutenant Trieb.

The investigators were then able to trace backwards through family trees created by open-source data – and ultimately closed the case.

Now, that same technology will be used to solve more cold cases in Wyoming, thanks to House Bill 58. The five-year pilot program allocates $150,000 for FGG use and will be run by the state’s Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI). The program was originally introduced to help address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) crisis throughout the state.

“Genetic genealogy is a powerful tool and it can really solve some crimes, both criminal and humanitarian. It's an expensive thing to do,” said Scott McWilliams, the deputy director of the division’s state crime lab.

People sit behind a desk and offer testimony into a mic. Others sit in the audience behind them.
Wyoming Legislature
DCI state crime lab deputy director Scott McWilliams (far left) testifies about the benefits of FGG at a Select Committee on Tribal Relations meeting in Fort Washakie in November 2023, alongside DCI Commander Ryan Cox and Director Ronnie Jones.

According to McWilliams, the process can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 per item in a case, so it’s really only used for two types of serious crimes.

“There's the side of finding perpetrators that are associated with crimes and there's the side of identifying persons that are victims that are unidentified,” he said.

According to the Department of Justice’s current policy on FGG, the tool should be used to investigate violent crimes – which they define as homicides or sex crimes. McWilliams said that having more access to funds for FGG will help them use the tool more often.

“Instead of starting with ‘I know who I am, and I want to see my relatives,’ it starts from ‘I don't know who the person is I'm looking for, but I'm going to work backward and find them,’” he said. “With [FGG], you can identify people in your family tree that are removed five times and we can only really identify first degree relatives here in our laboratory,” he said.

Cara Chambers, the director for the state’s Division of Victim Services, said the funding can be used by DCI directly and can also be used for grants for other local law enforcement agencies throughout the state.

“If you build it, they will come. We really don't know how many cases where this could make a difference are out there,” she said.

A woman testifies into a microphone
Wyoming Legislature
Wyoming Division of Victim Services director Cara Chambers speaks about FGG at a House Judiciary Committee meeting in February 2024.

Chambers said the FGG funding bill goes hand-in-hand with House Bill 29, which also passed this session and creates a cold case database for the state.

“It's not just cold case homicides, it's cold case sexual assault. And quite frankly, that is the larger number of cold cases in our state,” she said.

Chambers is also the chair of the state’s MMIP taskforce. She said that although the FGG bill originally came out of the Select Committee on Tribal Relations, the money can’t be used for cases on the Wind River Reservation.

“How this money will be utilized for tribal cases is – in that it's very clearly for cases that occurred within state jurisdiction. I'll just be blunt – off the reservation,” she said.

The Wind River Reservation is home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes – two sovereign nations. So, criminal cases there are investigated by tribal law enforcement and the federal government.

“The feds have resources beyond our little pilot project and so we really hope that there’s a collaboration,” said Chambers.

Anita Roman, who’s the Northern Arapaho tribal liaison for Gov. Gordon, testified while the bill was being debated that it would still help with cases involving Native community members off the reservation.

A woman speaks into a microphone
Wyoming Legislature
Northern Arapaho tribal liaison for Gov. Gordon Anita Roman speaks about the potential for FGG to be used for cases involving Native people off the Wind River Reservation at a House Judiciary Committee meeting in February 2024.

“Of the eight people that I know personally, that I had dinner with that were murdered, I think five of them were actually found in Riverton and in Lander. Not I think, I know,” she said.

Chambers said she’s trying to start saying “long-term open cases” rather than “cold cases” – and she’s hopeful that the new FGG funding and database will help bring closure to families still looking for justice.

“I know we have victims whose parents are now in their eighties and nineties, at a very advanced age. And they care. Sorry, I get choked up because they care. They show up,” she said.

DCI is working with the state’s Attorney General to figure out best practices for the new technology. Both bills will go into effect on July 1st of this year.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.
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