It was December of 2014, and Michael Usry had no idea why a pair of Louisiana State police officers showed up at his New Orleans home, asking him to accompany them to the precinct for questioning.
He was even more confused when an FBI agent asked to swab his cheek for DNA.
“They wouldn’t tell me anything,” Usry, now 43, tells The Post. “I was like, ‘Am I being accused of a crime? Do I need a lawyer?’ ”
It was only later that Usry, a low-budget filmmaker, learned he was a suspect in the 1996 murder of 18-year-old Angie Dodge. There were a few things that pointed to him: He’d visited Idaho Falls, Idaho, where the victim was killed, during the same time frame of the murder. He had directed a 2010 film called “Murderabilia,” which — according to the search warrant — “dealt with some sort of homicide or killings.”
But the main reason cops showed up on Usry’s doorstep was his DNA. When genetic evidence from the crime scene didn’t match anything in the national law-enforcement database, the police ran a familial DNA search on Ancestry.com, the world’s largest for-profit genealogy company.
They found a close match between semen found at the murder scene and the DNA of Usry’s dad, who had donated his saliva to Ancestry as part of a genealogy project with his church. When the elder Usry was deemed too old to be a suspect, it led detectives to his son. Although the younger Usry had never used Ancestry or any other genealogy service, his dad’s DNA was enough for a judge to issue a warrant.
Even after Usry’s DNA was tested and his name cleared — which took weeks — he didn’t rest easy.
“I know that my personal genetic information is still in the FBI criminal database,” he said. “They’re not going to just throw it away because of their mistake. But what are they doing with it?”
Use of direct-to-consumer DNA tests have exploded over the past decade, with an estimated 100 million people worldwide sharing their genetic information with companies like AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and FamilyTreeDNA. All that DNA has been a boon to law-enforcement agencies, who’ve discovered that “investigative genetic genealogy” is far more effective if searches aren’t restricted to DNA left at a crime scene.
By just uploading the genetic profile of a suspect to a genealogy website, where thousands of users have freely shared their DNA information to find out more about their ancestry, detectives are able to map out a criminal’s entire family tree and zero in on their identity.
A number of success stories have emerged from this tactic, most famously Joseph James DeAngelo — the so-called “Golden State Killer,” a serial killer and rapist who terrorized California during the late ’70s and early ’80s — who was finally caught in 2018 when crime scene DNA was partially matched to the murderer’s great-great-great-grandparents with online genealogy database GEDmatch. More recently, these public databases helped solve the 60-year-old murder of a Girl Scout in Colorado, a 1975 stabbing in Lancaster, Pa., and uncovered the identities of both a killer and his victim from 1988.
Americans are mostly in favor of this new crime-solving tool, with 48% saying it’s fine for DNA companies to share customers’ genetic data with police, and just a third objecting to the idea, according to a Pew Research study from June 2020.
Mitch Morrissey, a former District Attorney in Denver, Colo., thinks the public is right not to be alarmed. At the moment, he said, only two commercial DNA databases can be accessed by law enforcement: GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA. And their privacy policies require users to opt out if they’re uncomfortable with their information being used. “It’s a 100% voluntary system,” Morrissey said. (Meanwhile, after Ancestry was used by police to find Usry’s father, the free searchable database was discontinued because, according to the company, it’d “been used for purposes other than that [for] which it was intended.”)
But others, like Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, find these database searches “not just invasive but unconstitutional.”
Recent controversies back him up. Earlier this year, the San Francisco police department got caught using DNA collected from sexual assault victims to identify them as suspects in unrelated property crimes. And detectives have used blood collected from newborns to investigate criminal cases everywhere from California to New Jersey.
And those are just the cases we know about. “It’s the Wild West,” said Cahn. “We have no idea how these tools are being used.”
Brandy Jennings of Vancouver, Wash., wasn’t sure what to think when, in early 2019, she started getting Facebook messages from strangers, congratulating her on helping to solve a murder from four decades earlier.
“My first emotion was confusion,” she told The Post. “I was happy but confused.”
The murder, she soon learned, was a brutal stabbing of an 18-year-old girl in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, back in 1979. The case remained unsolved until investigators matched Jennings’ DNA — which she’d uploaded to GEDmatch a few years earlier, to learn more about her late father’s family — to DNA evidence found at the crime scene.
This genetic paper trail led them to the killer, 65-year-old small business owner Jerry Lynn Burns from Manchester, Iowa, and a distant second cousin to Jennings that she’d never met or even knew existed.
At least in hindsight, Jennings, a 40-something home health-care assistant, says it “feels like an invasion of privacy” that police used her genetic information without her knowledge, but “I figured I just didn’t read the terms and conditions of the site and it was my own doing.”
She’s more concerned that she wasn’t eligible for the $10,000 reward offered by the victim’s family for information leading to an arrest. “I could really have used that $10,000,” she said.
The US Department of Justice tried to set guidelines for investigative genetic genealogy in 2019, requiring “informed consent” from non-suspects before their DNA can be collected. But the policy mainly covers cases involving federal authorities like the FBI.
“FBI agents may only ask for matches from companies that tell their consumers they allow law enforcement access, which narrows down the available databases considerably,” said Christopher Slobogin, director of Vanderbilt Law School’s criminal justice program, who’s studied the Fourth Amendment and privacy issues for 30 years.
But on a state level, well, it depends. “As the Golden State Killer case demonstrated, if police are otherwise at a dead end, they will certainly be tempted to resort to whatever the law allows them to do with DNA samples,” said Slobogin.
While the federal policy requires that third-party reference samples should be “promptly destroy(ed)” after an investigation, whether they actually do depends on who you ask.
“When it comes to police use of our DNA, my policy is to distrust, but verify,” said Cahn. “Sadly, many departments lack any meaningful verification of their compliance with DNA rules. Even worse, some departments, like the NYPD, openly flout the law, creating their own databases.”
Earlier this summer, New Jersey State Police came under fire for using blood taken from a baby — part of a mandatory newborn testing program, to identify new and rare diseases — to perform DNA analysis linking and eventually convicting the child’s father of a sex assault he committed in 1996.
Jennifer Sellitti, an attorney with the Office of the New Jersey Public Defender, who’s representing the father in a lawsuit, told The Post that under New Jersey law, “the police cannot obtain a blood sample from a person without applying for a warrant and going before a judge,” neither of which happened with her client.
“The statute is clear that the blood is only to be used to identify diseases,” she added. “That begs the question — why is the lab giving it up to law enforcement and why are they keeping the data for so long?”
There is no uniformity across state lines regarding how long DNA and related data can be kept, said Sonia Suter, a George Washington University Law School professor. In fact, Suter said, some states “require active efforts on the part of the person proven innocent in order to expunge the records and destroy the DNA.”
Because DNA investigations have been so successful and there’s so little regulation, police are increasingly using and keeping DNA information “from people who have not been convicted of, or even arrested for, a crime,” said Suter. “If we care about limiting government surveillance, we should be very concerned about this.”
Today, CeCe Moore is the chief genetic genealogist at Parabon NanoLabs in Reston, Va., and one of the most successful genetic genealogists working with law enforcement in the country. Her work has helped solve more than 230 violent crimes. But 10 years ago, when she began approaching commercial DNA companies about sharing their data with police, she was torn on whether it was the right thing to do.
“I did and do believe it is for the greater good and the best use of this incredible tool,” she told The Post.
On the one hand, she said, “everyone should have the right to decide how they wish their own personal DNA to be used.” But, she also believes that using public DNA database helps to “efficiently and quickly eliminate the vast majority of the population from being suspected of a crime. This will lead to less wrongful convictions and much more efficient law enforcement investigations.”
Bennett Greenspan, president of FamilyTreeDNA — the first commercial site to share DNA data with authorities without a subpoena or warrant — apologized for not being more transparent in a 2018 email to users, but also defended their position.
“I am genuinely sorry for not having handled our communications with you as we should have,” he wrote, but added that many of their customers saw it as “an opportunity for honest, law-abiding citizens to help catch bad guys.”
Last year, Maryland and Montana became the first (and so far only) states to impose restrictions on how law enforcement can access genetic genealogy, requiring a warrant and limiting its use to crimes like murder, kidnapping and human trafficking. Other states, like Utah and Washington, are considering similar bills.
But Cahn said it might be too late to put the brakes on. “Sadly, given the number of Americans who have already been tested, the vast majority of us are already at risk,” he says. “If a sibling or just a couple cousins get their DNA tested, our own DNA can be extrapolated.”
For those caught up in a genetic genealogy investigation, the effects can linger even long after the case is closed. It’s been almost eight years since Usry was exonerated in the murder of Angie Dodge. The actual killer was caught thanks to DNA left on a discarded cigarette, and was sentenced to life in prison in 2021. But it’s not something Usry can ever put behind him.
“On the Internet, my name is always going to be associated with this murder, even though I was completely innocent and had nothing to do with it,” he says. “It’s affected me professionally probably in ways that I don’t even know about.”
He’s now working on a documentary about the Angie Dodge case. He said Angie’s mother, Carol Dodge, has become not just a collaborator on the project but a friend. “I have almost a decade of footage,” he says. “Hopefully I’ll finally be able to release it.”
Working on the movie helped give Usry a clearer perspective of what happened to him — and the implications.
“Right now, DNA is being used to catch old killers and stuff, and that’s great. But how long before cops get too carried away with it?” he asks. “What happens if somebody gets killed on your street, and police are like, ‘Let’s just bring in everybody in the neighborhood and swab their DNA?’ Then we’re all guilty till our DNA proves our innocence.”
Usry laughs at his own paranoia.
“I probably read too much science fiction. But man, it’s a scary thing, isn’t it?”