The Insight, Episode 19: Roberta Estes, the Golden State Killer, and forensic genetics


Last week Spencer & I took a break from The Insight. We’re at 71 iTunes ratings. I would appreciate it if readers of this weblog could help us make it to 100 (then I’ll stop pestering you). Also, we only have 5 reviews on Stitcher.

This week we’re talking to Roberta Estes about the arrest of the suspect in the “Golden State Killings”. We kind put this together really quickly since it seemed relevant, and Roberta, Spencer and I have some competency in this area (we’ve all been talking to science journalists). The biggest takeaway from our conversation is that we were a little surprised that it took this long to apply 21st century genomics to forensics.

When I first heard about the arrest I told my wife that it probably was due to a relative match on something like GEDMatch. After the media reported that it was a “new method” I dismissed my supposition because relative matches aren’t a new or novel thing. Well, it turned out that’s exactly what they were talking about!

A lot of the story here is how law enforcement snapped a bunch of pieces together that were out there. The horse has left the barn, and everyone is trying to figure out how to deal with it.

10 thoughts on “The Insight, Episode 19: Roberta Estes, the Golden State Killer, and forensic genetics

  1. It’s only surprising if you’re not related to any cops or have some awareness of the institutional culture of law enforcement. Most police departments were still working with the same forensic toolkits developed in the 19th century well up until the late 70s, early 80s, and even then they had huge problems with contamination.

    Police are hidebound and conservative when it comes to taking up new methods. Something is adopted as a method or practice not when it’s developed, but when all the old dogs who refuse to learn new tricks retire out.

  2. Spike:
    Aye, hence the transition to civilian handling of those affairs.

    When one thinks of the infamous supposed iq limit on police officers, we shudder at the potential bungling

    I think it may be a grave error to limit police intelligence if true. They have to be able to catch the criminals, and have the confidence to confront connected white collar criminals.

  3. I think we can’t know where the technological progress might lead us to, because it will depend on the political framework in which it will happen in. Trying to tell how this framework will look like in, lets say 50 years from now, is an impossible task and mere conjecture.
    However, people might end up in a much more totalitarian state or structures, completely controlled by multinational corporations, which might be largely the same in the end. People will be tested if the rulers want it and force them to, or they will be tested if it is for their own advantage in the system. So if it gets really important for the individual freedom and well-being, it doesnt really matter whether you have done it now, when everything was still a work a progress, I guess.

    I would recommend that you speak more slowly and clearly at times. At the beginning you were harder to understand and it got better afterwards.

  4. Being a scientist, it still amazes me the how little most intelligent people know about DNA.

    For example, I can read the comments at the Washington Post, and usually assume that the people who comment there are reasonable. But yesterday they had an opinion piece on GMOs, and the comments might as well be political comments on Fox News.

    When a new distant relative shows up on my 23andme, I can usually find the exact last common ancestors in a few hours. After years of this, I can usually just look at the common relatives and have a pretty good idea, but sometimes I need to consult the old relative spreadsheet or do a bit of digging on the ancestry site.

    Law enforcement should have been all over this a long time ago.

  5. @Rick:”When a new distant relative shows up on my 23andme, I can usually find the exact last common ancestors in a few hours.”

    Seriously? I have paper trails for some of my ancestors back to the 17th century and still, even if its about 3rd-5th cousins coming from that line, I can’t pin down the common ancestor. The main reason is that its rare both of us have data from the common line going back more than 2 generations.
    So how will you find a concrete common ancestor if the other side has not done deep genealogical research? Or is it that in your region the genealogical databases are so great, that you can find everything? Or are all your ancestors from a very close knit, small community?

  6. @Obs

    Ok, it matters on how much info they share, and yes, most of my ancestors have been in the US for generations.

    If they have provided a couple of surnames and a location or two, then I start by making a (private) family tree for them on ancestry with the info that I have, and then start doing the census and record search. Usually a few generations back I already have a general idea based on the location, or you find someone else’s tree that fills in a lot of the data.

    Anyway, I have probably hundreds of these trees for relatives, and you can see how the relatives cluster together on the DNA sites.

  7. Well, the USA seems to be really ahead in those things…
    Its much, much more complicated in Euruope, even if its a lot easier than 15, 10 or even 5 years ago.

  8. I am aware of the situation in many other countries, because I try to help construct ancestry trees for lots of distant relatives.

    Sometimes it is simple (I have relatives in The Netherlands with accurate trees going back over 300 years), but other times it is very hard (I have Jewish relatives from Eastern Europe, and they didn’t even have last names before the mid-1800s).

    Also, because of the laws in different countries, DNA testing can be unavailable, or very difficult and expensive.

  9. Excellent podcast, btw. Getting Roberta Estes on turned out to be an inspired choice. Hit all of the salient points, for me. 5*

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