HUDSON, Wis. — A local genealogist was part of a team that worked to identify the remains of a woman found in Oregon more than two decades ago. The investigation was documented in “The Jane Doe Murders,” a two-hour special airing Sunday, Jan. 3, on the Oxygen Network.
Charles McGee, a certified genealogist in Hudson, served as the lead forensic genealogist for the show. It was led by former crime investigator Yolanda McClary, who also appeared on the true crime show “Cold Justice.”
Jane and John Doe are placeholder names used by law enforcement and others when the name of a crime victim is unknown or intentionally kept secret.
The Star-Observer interviewed McGee via email to ask him about the process of forensic genealogy and what viewers can expect on Sunday.
Star-Observer: In layman's terms, what is forensic genealogy?
Charles McGee: When it comes to identifying missing persons, or working with law enforcement, it’s basically combining traditional genealogical research with DNA evidence in cases with legal implications. There are other forms of forensic genealogy though, such as researching adoption cases, military repatriation and heir searching in probate cases, among others. In our Polk County, Oregon, case for "The Jane Doe Murders," our assignment was to identify who Doe was based on her DNA profile.
SO: How was it used in the Oregon "Jane Doe" case featured on the show?
CM: First, DNA was extracted from the unidentified person, our Jane Doe. That DNA was then given to DNA Solutions, a genetic testing company, who prepared it in their forensic lab for upload to a website called GEDmatch. Anybody who has taken a DNA test through one of the major direct-to-consumer testing agencies, like AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA or MyHeritage, can upload their raw DNA to that website, which they often do when trying to connect with unknown relatives for various reasons. Using GEDmatch’s tools, a comparison is made between our Jane Doe and everyone else in the website’s database to see if they share DNA. A list of matches is then generated, and we work from that list to try and identify our Doe.
Forensic Genealogy might sound easier than it really is, but most of the genetic matches in cases we work on share small amounts of DNA with our subject. In this case we were lucky with our top match sharing 261 centimorgans (cM) with our Doe. But the other matches shared from the low 100s down to less than 50 cM with her. That means they were Doe’s 2nd and 3rd cousins at best. The more cM of DNA you share with someone, the closer you are related to them. For example, parents and their children would share about 3,500 cM, while 3rd cousins only share about 70 cM.
Once we identify our Doe’s matches, we begin to build out their family trees in an attempt to identify where in that match’s tree our Doe might belong. Building out family trees for multiple matches, and seeing where those trees cross, allows us to narrow down who our Doe might be. It’s a process called Triangulation and can result in several trees containing thousands of people. When we have a good idea of who our Doe’s close relatives might be, law enforcement steps in and contacts those relatives to see if they would be willing to take a DNA test to confirm their relationship to our Doe.
SO: Was this your first time being involved with a murder case, what drew you to this line of work?
CM: Well, the company I work for is the first one to ask me to investigate cases involving foul play. But the Polk County case is not the first one my team and I have solved. Unfortunately, I can’t discuss those due to ongoing investigations.
Forensic genealogy is my passion, and probably has something to do with my background. I served in the U.S. Army as a military policeman for a few years, then when I got out I planned on pursuing a law enforcement career. I received my degree but decided on a different course and spent 25 years working for Vic and Bertha Fenner at Dibbo’s in downtown Hudson. It’s a decision I’m very happy I made. It’s where I met my wife Vanda Fenner.
SO: How else is forensic genealogy used?
CM: Forensic genealogy is an exciting field that is very new. Using DNA evidence and genealogy to assist law enforcement has only been around for a few years, and it’s exciting to get into it early. It’s constantly changing as new research methods and advancements are made. But it’s not just about murder investigations. I’ve worked on several adoption and repatriation cases that have had very satisfying outcomes, both for the families and for me.