Police in Florida have made an arrest in a 14-year-old sexual assault case with the help of genetic data gathered from a consumer family tree research website.
Jared Vaughn was officially charged with sexual battery earlier this month following an alleged incident 14 years ago, according to a recent press conference held by police in Tampa, streamed by ABC Action News.
The incident occurred when a student at the University of Tampa was walking back to her dorm after the annual Gasparilla Pirate Festival in January 2007 and the suspect, a man she had never met before, offered to help her home. Once back at the victim’s room, the suspect allegedly proceeded to sexually assault her. Police managed to obtain the suspect’s DNA from the crime scene, but couldn’t find any matches, leaving the case unsolved for over a decade.
In March 2020, police took another look at the case and started to search for clues on genealogy testing databases, such as GEDmatch and FamilyTree. By sifting through the genealogy databases, detectives managed to find relatives of the suspect.
Further investigation, including interviews and surveillance, led them to Jared Vaughn, a 44-year-old man in West Virginia. His DNA was obtained through a search warrant and came back a positive match to the genetic material gathered after the sexual assault. Vaughn surrendered and was officially charged with sexual battery on June 16, 2021.
“The victim now can have some closure in her life,” Ruben Delgado, assistant police chief, said at the press conference.
Some outlets have reported that the suspect was tracked after he submitted his own DNA to the public genealogy database, but March Brutnell, Special Agent at Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said the lead was made through the suspect's "relatives found on public genealogy databases."
Customers use genealogy services to track their family history and, in doing so, also submit their genetic data to their company. 23andMe, Helix, and Ancestry have kept their genetic databases closed to law enforcement without a warrant. However, other genealogy websites do allow police to use their public databases if customers have opted in for law enforcement matching.
Recent years have seen a number of criminal cases brought to justice with the help of consumer genealogy websites, most notably the identification and arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, better known as the Golden State Killer. As another example, a Swedish man was convicted in 2020 for killing a child and a woman in an unprovoked stabbing attack back in 2004.
Although genealogy databases have proved to be an invaluable tool for investigators looking at cold cases where leads have dried up, there have been some concerns about whether they infringe personal privacy. Just recently, both Maryland and Montana have made it tougher for forensic methods to be used in criminal cases in order to safeguard peoples’ genetic privacy. Police are still allowed to use the debates, but will be required to obtain search warrants beforehand.