In October of 2016, the remains of three murder victims, dead for three decades, were laid to rest in Newton County, a rural corner of Indiana.
Two were young men, likely teenagers, the victims of a serial killer in 1983. The third was a woman found dead in 1988 on the bank of a creek. She had been shot in the head, covered with car tires and lit on fire.
Their bones, stored in tattered cardboard boxes and black trash bags, had been passed down from one county coroner to the next. When Scott McCord took the job in 2009, he gave the remains names: Adam, Brad and Charlene. He ordered anthropological and dental analyses, facial sketches and DNA tests in an effort to find their true identities.
Nothing panned out. So Mr. McCord gave Newton County, a community of about 14,000, a chance to mourn their “kids,” as he called them. He paid for three small coffins, and a local florist donated flowers. Nineteen high school students volunteered to be pallbearers. After a ceremony at a county building, the teens piled into a yellow school bus and Mr. McCord, a part-time bus driver, followed three hearses, each donated from a different funeral home, to the cemetery.
“I didn’t think we’d ever see resolution to any of the cases,” Mr. McCord said.
As it turned out, he was wrong.
In late 2019, Mr. McCord, his deputy and a county prosecutor decided to try a complicated forensic technique that had nabbed the infamous Golden State Killer a year earlier. The effort turned into a yearlong crash course in a niche area of science: using genetic markers to build multigenerational family trees. It would require a million-dollar DNA sequencing machine, a custom-built computer in Texas and the utmost patience of volunteer genealogy buffs.
Mr. McCord and his team are among a growing number of investigators that have joined the scientific vanguard to revive cold cases. Hundreds of cases, of both victims and perpetrators, have likely been solved. Some have involved extracting DNA from decades-old bones, hair or minute traces of skin cells. Others have benefited from the most comprehensive and expensive type of DNA testing, known as whole-genome sequencing. In turn, a cottage industry has emerged to help.
Critics worry that the widening use of this investigational method could lead to what is essentially a national DNA database for law enforcement, giving police access to highly personal information from a wide swath of the public without their explicit consent. The only significant limit is the cost — typically several thousand dollars per case — and that is dropping rapidly, as demand surges.
“My county was more than happy to pay,” Mr. McCord said.
Everyone and their grandmother
Genetic genealogy debuted more than 20 years ago as a pastime for ancestry enthusiasts. The customer sent a saliva sample to a company like FamilyTreeDNA and could then log in to a website showing how closely their genetic markers matched with those of other people — long-lost relatives — in the company’s databases.
Margaret Press, a software developer and mystery writer, had used the method for years to help adoptees find their biological parents. In 2017, while reading a novel based on an unsolved murder, she realized that her skills might be equally useful to law enforcement. “It just hit me,” she said. “The same technique that we were using for adoptee searches and finding unknown parents was adaptable to bones and unidentified remains.”
She co-founded a nonprofit, called the DNA Doe Project, to try to match unidentified remains with genetic profiles that had been uploaded to an open-source genealogy database called GEDMatch. A set of unknown remains might match to a distant, known cousin, for example. An investigator could then build out a large family tree, first identifying the ancestors the two cousins have in common, such as great- or great-great-grandparents, and then investigating individual branches from those ancestors. Only some of…