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How genetic genealogy pointed investigators to Sycamore murder suspect

SYCAMORE – Police have had DNA samples of the person they believe was responsible for killing Robert and Patricia Wilson in their rural Sycamore home for years – they just didn’t know whose it was.

The DNA sample they had wasn’t contained in any law enforcement databases. As investigators followed more than 1,300 leads and traveled as far as Washington state in search of suspects, they also turned to a Reston, Virginia-based company called Parabon NanoLabs, which undertook an arduous process of building a family tree for the offender using publicly available DNA databases.

About a week ago, the genetic research pointed them to a former Chicago man, and investigators found phone records and other evidence placing him in the area on Aug. 14, 2016, the night the Wilsons were killed at their home at 16058 Old State Road in rural Sycamore, Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Andy Sullivan said.

Sheriff’s detectives on Monday traveled to Cincinnati, where they arrested Jonathan D. Hurst, 51, at his home. Hurst is charged with first-degree murder.

Parabon’s Chief Genetic Genealogist CeCe Moore, who ran point on the Hurst case with sheriff’s Detective John Holiday, said the breakthrough came just a week ago in the double homicide case.

Parabon’s algorithm works by cross-referencing a DNA sample with public DNA databases such as GEDmatch, where people (often genealogy enthusiasts) voluntarily upload their own DNA to the site. Parabon doesn’t use commercial sites like Ancestry.com or 23andMe because they’re private servers and accessing that information would be a violation of users’ rights, company officials said.

“You’re working with a list of matches,” Moore said. “You have to find how all these people connect. You want to find common ancestors or second, third or fourth cousins. The real breakthrough is when we were able to tie multiple matches together.”

Using genetic genealogy, Parabon and the detectives constructed an intricate web of family trees using DNA from GEDmatch. They then attempted to match the suspect’s DNA with genetic markers that indicate a DNA match. It could be a grandson, a great-great-great-grandparent, or a fourth cousin. The more matches, the more likely they can better narrow down a suspect.

As Moore and Holiday worked, they discovered multiple matches, which led them to construct Hurst’s family tree backward, working their way through at least 20 of his relatives until they settled on him, and identified his own DNA as that of the samples found at the crime scene in the Wilson home.

The work of building a family tree was not the first involvement Parabon had with the case. In 2018, the company used the DNA profile to create scientific approximations of the suspect.

As it turned out, Hurst was older than any of the released images from Parabon, which were meant to approximate an appearance at 18, 25, and 40. But the point of them wasn’t necessarily to help identify a suspect, Parabon spokeswoman Paula Armentrout said.

“That image we produced was just so [police] could rule out certain traits,” Armentrout said. “It’s never going to be 100% match.”

However, the DNA research was only a guide for investigators, she said.

“We just pointed the agency in the right direction,” she said. “We just gave them scientific tips based on the DNA. We didn’t necessarily serve them up the name of the individual. There was a lot of investigative work that had to go into using the information we were able to glean.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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