Ancestry customer says he is glad his DNA on GEDmatch led to unknown cousin's arrest for murder

Despite cold cases solved, cops' access to DNA databases remains controversial

By Nicole Perez - Anchor/Reporter, Andrea Torres - Digital Reporter/Producer

ORLANDO, Fla. - When John Hogan was researching his family tree, he never imagined that paying for a DNA kit from Ancestry could one day help detectives to solve a cold case. The murder suspect turned out to be a second cousin he had never even met. 

In 2001, Christine Franke was shot in the head, after working her shift as a server at a bar near the Universal Studios Theme Park Resort in Orlando. The 25-year-old University of Central Florida student's killer left semen on her body and stole about $300, police said.

About 17 years later, Parabon NanoLabs, which provides forensics services to law enforcement organizations, linked the preserved DNA evidence to Hogan's great-grandparents. Orlando Police Department detectives collected more DNA from Hogan's relatives to close the case. 

"I honestly never thought they would find him," Tina Franke said after officers arrested the suspected long-elusive killer. 

Hogan, a former deputy coroner who lives in Georgia, didn't know about the case until about a month ago. He had used private companies, Ancestry and GEDmatch, to learn more about his family tree. Solving the case was possible, because despite privacy concerns the companies give the government access to DNA data to help solve violent crimes.

"When you told me that my DNA helped solve a 17-year-old cold case murder, I just couldn't believe it," Hogan told WKMG-TV in Orlando, adding that he has always been interested in learning more about his heritage. 

"We have a huge, huge family," Hogan said. "I've got like 650 fourth cousins and a bunch of second and third cousins."

Hogan's great grandparents, Charlie and Mary Burgman, led detectives to Holmes' mother, Eleanor Holmes, who willingly provided her DNA to detectives Oct. 21. With her DNA profile, detectives narrowed down the list of suspects to him and his brother, Reginal Holmes, who lived in Orlando. 

Officers started with surveillance. An undercover officer gave a bottle of Gatorade to Reginal Holmes. Officers retrieved it and learned he wasn't the killer. Detectives followed Benjamin Holmes and collected several of his smoked cigars. They had evidence to arrest him Nov. 2.

"I never in a million years would have thought I would be a part of something like this," Hogan said.

During the announcement of Benjamin Holmes' arrest, Tina Franke said she was "overwhelmingly grateful" that he had been caught. Hogan had never heard of Christine Franke's murder, and he had never met the accused killer, but he said he was glad he had a part in solving the case. 

"They really did great police work," Hogan said. "Great investigation work." 

Although Hogan said he didn't feel like his personal privacy was violated when his Ancestry DNA testing kit opened the door to the arrest, there are legal experts who believe that the companies are violating fundamental civil rights by helping cops to generate new leads.  

There are several legal dilemmas that arise from the use of genetic genealogy, the forensic technique that allows investigators to link DNA from a crime scene with DNA from biological relatives.

The companies entrusted with the data that is gathered through direct-to-consumer genetic testing are siding with the social benefit of solving cold cases, even though they are being done through unwarranted government searches.

In the case of Christine Franke's murder, Benjamin Holmes was identified through a familial search in GEDmatch, which updated its terms of service in May to include more criminal offenses that qualify law enforcement to get access to the data.

Law enforcement already has access to databases that help the government track registered convicted offenders' relapse into criminal behavior. Congress authorized the FBI to create a government database in 1994.

The Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, was activated as the National DNA Index System, or NDIS, four years later. The laws for DNA collection vary from state to state.

In Florida, DNA sample collection includes juvenile felons and it happens during bookings, just like fingerprinting and photographing. The FBI reports NDIS now has DNA profiles for more than a million offenders, about 330,000 arrestees and about 82,100 forensic profiles from Florida. 

While the national NDIS database has more than 13 million DNA profiles, the commercial databases are the biggest players in the DNA data world. Ancestry alone claims to have 15 million profiles in the AncestryDNA database and claims to have 10 million. 

Consumers' expectation of online and biometric privacy has been diminishing, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center. And there is still ambiguity about whether or not the protection against warrantless searches applies to DNA data.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a landmark case saying the search of cellphone location records without a warrant is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. And although Supreme Court rulings have treated DNA like fingerprints, the premise that the data a person voluntarily shares with a third party is protected could apply to DNA data.

GEDmatch's terms of service since May warn users that by uploading the data they agree to allow law enforcement to use it to find a suspect of "a violent crime" defined as "murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, aggravated rape, robbery or aggravated assault." Users can now opt out of sharing their DNA data. 

Hogan said he is glad his DNA was easily accessible to authorities and that Franke's family can find some closure. 

"There's pros and cons. There's good and bad to everything," Hogan said. "In this case, it worked out for the greater good."

 

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