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High profile arrest led Alabama police genealogy testing

This Saturday, March 16, 2019 booking photo provided by the Dale County Sheriff’s Office, shows Coley McCraney. Al.com reported McCraney, of Dothan, was Saturday arrested and accused of rape and capital murder in the 1999 death of 17-year-olds Tracie Hawlett and J. B. Beasley. Ozark police and Dale County sheriff’s officials are scheduled to hold a press conference about the case on Monday, March 18. The authorities in Alabama said that a DNA match was found through a genealogy website led to the arrest. (Dale County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

OZARK, Ala. – A truck-driving preacher arrested for the murder of two teenage girls from Alabama almost 20 years ago, was found by the same genealogy database techniques used to apprehend the suspect of a “Golden State Killer” last year.

Law enforcement interest in the use of genetic genealogy to crack cold cases has exploded since the controversial arrest of the accused California serial killer who was found by running from the scene of the crime DNA by means of a database, said CeCe Moore, chief of the genetic genealogist with Parabon NanoLabs, which looks in the Alabama case.

On July 31, 1999, Tracie Hawlett and J. B. Beasley, both 17, for a party in the south-east of Alabama. They never returned home. Their bodies were found the next day in the trunk of Beasley’s black Mazda along a road in Ozark, a city of 19,000 people located about 90 miles (145 kilometers) southeast of Montgomery. Each had a gunshot wound to the head.

The case was unsolved for almost two decades.

Ozark police chief Marlos Walker, who said that he always believed that the case could be solved, said the Golden State killer’s arrest inspired them to try something like that. “Let’s try that,’ Walker recalled.

Police on Friday arrested Coley McCraney, 45, Dothan, Alabama after the genetic genealogy steered them in his direction.

Moore said the Alabama crime scene sample has been analysed and uploaded to GEDMatch, a public genetic database repository where more than a million people have uploaded profiles of home origin kits.

“We are looking for a second, third, fourth cousins and then we have to reverse engineer the pedigree based on the people who share DNA with that of the crime sample,” Moore said.

The police chief said that the genetic genealogy work, identified by a family, which means that at least one of McCraney family had uploaded information and kinship testing narrowed the suspect list down to a single person. The police chief said that they obtained DNA from the McCraney — although he did not say how, and the state crime lab matched the DNA of the in 1999 the scene of the crime.

Interest is growing in the technique, and Moore said the company is fielding calls for help in decades-old cases. Since May, the company has helped provide law enforcement with credentials in 43 cases, ” she said.

She said genetic genealogy can help to provide an answer for families who have seen their loved ones’ murders go unsolved for years. “The fact that we finally can offer that is just very important,” Moore said.

While it intrigued the researchers as a means to develop new leads in a time, cold cases, the technology has raised red flags for others.

“There are huge privacy concerns,” said Jennifer Friedman, a public prosecutor in Los Angeles who has been involved in cases involving DNA since the late 1980’s. She said: there are several problems with the tying of people to crimes with the help of family genetic information, including the fact that most people probably don’t want that a relative arrested on the basis of their DNA sample.

Moore said that she only makes use of a database where people have uploaded their information and told it can be used in this way. She said only a small fraction of the estimated 23 million people who have consumer DNA ancestry test in GEDMatch.

David Harrison, McCraney’s lawyer said that he is an excellent member of the community and a married man with children and grandchildren. He is a truck driver and had his own church, where he preached as recently as three weeks ago, Harrison said.

At the press conference for the announcement of the arrest, Carol Roberts, wore a brooch over her heart with a photo of her daughter Tracie Hawlett, her youthful smile forever frozen in time.

As the years slipped by, her parents began to doubt if the matter would be resolved.

“We have been through pure hell the last 20 years,” said Mike Roberts, Hawlett’s stepfather. “DNA don’t lie,” he said.

Tracie, who had planned since she was a little girl to a doctor, would have turned 37 this month, said her mother.

She recalled the last phone conversation with her daughter the night she disappeared when she asked if her friend could sleep and go to church the next day.

“Last words from her lips were,” Mommy, I love you.’ Last words out of my mouth to her, ” I love you.'”

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Associated Press writers Jeff Martin in Atlanta and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama, contributed to this report.

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