For the first time, the Canadian police have confirmed that they are using the same genetic technique that finally seized the suspected Golden State Killer in order to resolve their case.
Police in Vancouver hired US-based Parabon NanoLabs to search all available genealogical records hoping to find any connection to the DNA of a suspected killer. The sample was collected at a flat in West End, where the body of Edgar Leonard was found in 2003.
Parabon searches for public genealogical locations such as GEDmatch and FamiliTreeDNA, which allow the police to access their databases. Most other well-known DNA testing companies do not cooperate with police without a search warrant.
The goal is to find the perfect connection or identify the relatives who could lead the detectives to the killer.
It is the same method that led to dozens of recent cold-sum arrests south of the border, including the arrest of a suspected Golden State Killer, whom the police say is responsible for the burglary, rapes and killings terrorized by several districts in California between 1974 and 1986.
Joseph James DeAngelo, 73, was arrested in April 2018 and charged with 13 murders. There are also at least 50 sexual assaults suspected.
Vancouver detective Sgt. Mike Heard recently spoke to CBC Nevs in front of a residential building in which 36-year-old Edgar "Iggi" Leonardo was found dead 16 years ago.
"I'm thinking about what the original investigator saw in 2003 and looking at the land, and I'm wondering, you know how the suspect went," Heard said on the sidewalk, next to an older building in a densely populated part of the city.
The original investigator retreated several years ago, leaving Heard to pick up the killer's track.
The police think Leonardo met someone in a gang in Vancouver late in the night on August 23, 2003, and brought him home.
"And then he was killed here," Hard said, pointing at the seven-storey building. The police are not publishing details of how Leonardo was killed or exactly where his body was found in his apartment.
He heard that the police had good DNA evidence but did not answer anything in the Canadian law enforcement database, which included only DNA records of convicted criminals.
But he is optimistic that recent discoveries using genetic genealogy will soon find their suspects.
Solving some of the toughest cold cases
The police investigating the Golden State Killer case also had DNA evidence, but as detectives from Vancouver, they could not find a direct match with law enforcement banks.
In 2018, they tried a new technique. Instead of seeking a 100 percent match in criminal databases, they searched outside the police records of any relatives, no matter how far they are.
They started by comparing their genetic-tagged samples that were placed at GEDmatch, an open source site that cooperates with the police and holds DNA profiles of around 1,000,000 people.
GEDmatch began in 2010 to help genders and amateurs enter deeper into their history and help link adopters with their biological relatives. When you transfer your genetic profile to a site, you are asked to accept that this can be shared with law enforcement authorities.
Using GEDmatch, the police succeeded in identifying more than a dozen people with genetic markers linking them to a suspected killer.
Genealogist Barbara Rae-Venter worked with investigators to build a family tree. The traditional work of the police has helped to fill up some missing branches.
After the search narrowed down to two possible suspects, the police followed DeAngela and got their DNA from the door handle of the car. This corresponded to their sample site of the crime, which led to DeAngel's arrest in his home near Sacramento on April 24, 2018.
DeAngelo worked as a police officer in northern California for six years, beginning in 1973. Investigators believe that the knowledge he gained at work helped him avoid arrest for so long.
A Canadian couple killed in the state of Washington
Similar investigative techniques have led to the arrest in a cold case involving a young Canadian couple who was killed in the state of Washington in 1987.
Tania Van Cuilenborg, 18, and Jai Cook, 20, were on a fast trip to Seattle, but they never returned home to Victoria.
The body of Van Cuilenborg was found in a ditch near Bellingham, and Cook's remains were found at a distance of about 100 kilometers, near the Snokualmie River in the Snohomish district.
Tani's brother, John Van Cuilenborg, for years knew that the police had a sample of what they thought was a DNA killer but could not find a match.
"It's always been taken away because it was certainly not right that someone was not responsible, that it would not be solved," he said in a recent CBC interview at his home in Victoria.
Tanjin's best friend, May Robson, was destroyed when she learned that her friends had been killed.
"My world just shook. I mean, we were young, we started to live, and the knowledge that the evil in the world was shocking."
Arrest – 31 years later
Then, last year, 31 years after the killing, Villiam Earl Talbott, a 59-year-old truck driver, was found and charged with two counts of murder.
Robson was delighted. "I simply could not believe it. And the more I learned about the technology that was used, it was just that, it was a miracle."
In Tablot's case, it was a wonder to find relatives with similar genetic markers, who ultimately helped investigators to Talbot be the main suspect.
And as with the Golden State Killer case, Parabon NanoLabs has done most of the work using GEDmatch.
The police say they confirmed that Talbot was their suspect by following him and eventually collected a DNA sample from a cup of coffee he used.
DNA testing matches the traditional family tree
At the British Columbia Institute of Technology in Burnaby, Steen Hartsen demonstrated how DNA was collected from a discarded paper cup that was pulled out of garbage.
"I'm going to wipe out a glass outside, where his lips touched his glass," he said, rubbing the white outline on the perimeter and then depositing the top into the test bottle.
Hartsen, who teaches forensic science, says the new DNA test is capable of comparing thousands of genetic markers, while older technology could only examine a few.
"You are able to create these family trees in which you will be able to connect people who share only pra-pra-pra-grandpa, while older technology simply could not do it."
Combined with the increasing popularity of DNA databases, genetic genealogy provides a powerful tool for cross-comparison of police samples and establishing links.
More than 26 million people have provided DNA samples to companies such as AncestriDNA and 23andMe. According to MIT Technologies Reviev, by 2021, it could reach 100 million.
Although GEDmatch and some other DNA databases openly cooperate with the police, others do not.
The use of all these databases by police investigators has raised legal issues that the courts have not yet responded to in Canada or the US.
Although there have been arrests and charges, judges, lawyers and prosecutors are discussing the issues raised by this new technique. The first full trial will be Talbot, which will begin in Washington next month.
Advanced legal issues
Vancouver criminal defense lawyer Tony Paisana says it's only a matter of time before this kind of evidence will become the focus of the trial in a Canadian courtroom.
He thinks that the key issue will be: whose rights are possibly breached – the rights of the accused, or the rights of relatives whose DNA was used?
This is cunning, he says, because these wider searches of DNA databases usually lead investigators to distant relatives of the person they are actually dealing with.
"It creates an interesting question as to whether the trial person has an interest in privacy in the DNA profile of anyone else, regardless of whether it is a brother or sister, or whoever it is that their sample is given to the police."
The police, genetic genealogy, is a potential unpredictability that could reduce the number of suspects to a few, at which point traditional investigative techniques can be downloaded.
However, at this time, the only law in Canada dealing with DNA evidence is the 1998 DNA Law Identification Act, which created a national database and gave judges the authority to order criminals to submit samples.
He does not deal with the issues raised by this new investigative technique.
With the suspect finally in detention for three decades after his sister's death, John Van Cuilenborg calls on the federal government to clarify the rules for the police.
"If this requires some changes or amendments in legislation, let it be so," he said. "I would be disappointed in Canadian society if we decided not to use this exploration tool."
Resolving a cold case in Vancouver
The police are cautious about potential legal issues, and many police forces in this country were not willing to comment when the CBC approached them to discuss the issue.
After several weeks, the Canadian National Police, RCMP, told CBC Nevs that he was interested in this new investigative technique, but would not say if it was used in any of his investigations.
A spokesman wrote: "When it comes to public databases (i.e. ancestri.ca), RCMP is aware that some Canadian police agencies are currently investigating the use of genetic genealogy in criminal investigations. This includes RCMP.
Back to Vancouver, Sgt. Mike Heard is convinced that genetic genealogy will help solve the case of Cold Leonard, as well as many other unresolved crimes across the country.
"I firmly believe," he said.
After all, only one match with a distant cousin lasts.