The Crime Lady: The Forensic Scientist Who Solves Genealogy Mysteries, Too

(editor’s note: an early draft of this newsletter was sent in error. The corrected version appears below, and also, a day later than intended.)

Dear TCL subscribers:

My recent feature story for Topic on forensic genealogy and how it is being used to solve cold cases — and the work of the private company Parabon NanoLabs in particular — was so full of good material that some of it had to be cut. This included an extended section on Lori Napolitano, Chief of Forensic Services at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, because she appears to be the first person on the state level to spearhead an in-house forensic genealogy unit (there is also one within the FBI.)

I learned of Napolitano’s work from Parabon lead genealogist CeCe Moore, and I knew I had to talk to her. Most of our conversation backed up and confirmed the broader topics that ended up in the original piece, from privacy and ethics concerns to where forensic genealogy might be at a year from now. My intent was to highlight Napolitano’s interest in genealogy and her realization that she could incorporate her hobby into her work at FDLE. Here, now, is that extended section.

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As genetic genealogy attracts more attention from the media, it will also attract more people interested in doing the work. People like Lori Napolitano, the chief of Forensic Sciences for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who parlayed her extracurricular interest in genetic genealogy to create a standalone unit in the FDLE’s investigations department in the fall of 2018.

Napolitano became interested in genetic genealogy in 2016 while searching for information about the biological father of her late father, who had been adopted. But as more of her family members submitted their own DNA samples to private databases and the family tree grew more substantial, Napolitano learned some unsettling secrets about her family—most notably the identity of the biological father of her mother, who had never questioned her paternity.

Discovering hidden truths about her own family spurred Napolitano to aid others in their quests to flesh out their family trees. “I’ve helped a person I didn’t know find his biological parents, a man who was abandoned with a babysitter in the 1940s, thanks to genetic genealogy,” she says, proudly. As a forensic scientist for a large U.S. state’s law enforcement unit, Napolitano also believed genetic genealogy was applicable for policing and criminal justice purposes, “but there was no mechanism for it until the Golden State Killer.”

When the news broke of that killer’s arrest, as well as news about the arrest of April Tinsley’s killer, John Miller, Napolitano pitched her boss at FDLE, where she has been the forensic science chief for the past six years (and with FDLE for nearly three decades), on incorporating genetic genealogy into the department. “My boss had the vision to see that, yes, this is something we can do. They had my knowledge [of genetic genealogy] to start with, which I think most law enforcement agencies, they might have somebody like me working for their agency, but they may not know it.”

Separately, she learned that the Orlando police department was working with Parabon on identifying the perpetrator in the 2001 murder of University of Central Florida student Christine Franke. Napolitano asked to see Parabon’s report, which had narrowed the potential suspect pool some, to see if she could use her own genealogy expertise to narrow the list of suspects even further.

“Many agencies then would not have another choice except to pay Parabon for more genealogy research, which is excellent. But it can get expensive. So I said, ‘Well, how about I give it a try, and we try to work the genealogy from the point they left it?’”

Beginning in September 2018, when her genetic genealogy unit was properly green-lit, Napolitano and her team kept adding to the family tree of the unknown suspect, while also checking CODIS (which Parabon, as a private company, cannot access) to rule people out until, in November, a viable suspect emerged.

That perpetrator, Benjamin Lee Holmes, was arrested that month.

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Because Napolitano is in law enforcement, she is able to use more tools that are specifically available to law enforcement, and not necessarily to private labs like Parabon. One subject I discussed with Parabon personnel, though it also didn’t make it into the final piece, was the difference between using public databases like GEDmatch and doing familial searches with the federal DNA database CODIS — the latter method proving quite controversial over the years. So I asked Napolitano about the differences between both approaches, and the challenges, since the two methods might seem similar to someone not steeped in forensic science:

Public records, which is what I would use on my personal genealogy, they're things like family trees that people make public in different databases online, obituaries, find a grave,” said Napolitano. “There are many websites where you can find out who ancestors are, Google searches. There are subscription services you can pay for that aggregate data with addresses, and ages, and birth dates. So those are all the public record side.

For instance, Parabon may be working a family tree, find maybe some people who, let's say, are the right age, or they're in the right location at the right time. Maybe there's four or five people. They find them through public records, and they research them through public records. If they look like, let's say, they could be potential suspects for our case, on the law enforcement side, I could immediately check them to see if they're in the statewide CODIS database in Florida. If they're there, I know that they're not our suspect, because their DNA profile, from the crime lab, we've been searching CODIS ever since we entered it when the crime occurred, so possibly for 20 years, we've been searching CODIS. So someone in CODIS, which Parabon wouldn't know about, I could rule out immediately.

I can review incident reports. Maybe a person has had some contact with law enforcement. It would be criminal. It could be as a victim, but there's a law enforcement report that exists. As long as we're investigating a crime, we can have access to those. We can possibly learn more about where that person was, or if they have a background, they may not be in CODIS, but they might have a criminal background where they've never had DNA taken that might be in CODIS, but it might be of interest to make them a more likely potential suspect.

Napolitano agreed with everyone I talked to at Parabon about genetic genealogy’s role in crime investigation: “This is a lead like that, where there has to be investigative work done on it. It just depends. Most of [the work] is ruling out suspects. But it's just another lead at this point.”

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Finally, it will come as little surprise that I kept having to update my Topic story with most every breaking development. Parabon was in the news just last week after “Baby Andrew”, unidentified since the newborn’s body was discovered in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in 1981, was finally identified — and his mother arrested — thanks to the company’s genetic genealogy work. There will be many more updates to come, and expect to see more links to such stories as I find them in upcoming TCL dispatches.

Until then, I remain,

The Crime Lady