KIYC: Gilgo Beach serial murder case renews attention to field of genetic genealogy
The Gilgo Beach case has brought renewed attention to the field of genetic genealogy. While some advocates say the practice raises privacy concerns, relatives of one of the Gilgo Beach murder victims tell Kane In Your Corner that it helped provide them answers they might otherwise have been unable to get.
For much of her life, Ellen Munning’s younger sister, Pat, suffered from mental illness. “We were a poor family and my parents had 14 children,” she recalls. “And Pat was the one that had problems.”
When Pat had a daughter, Valerie, she was unable to properly care for her. Ellen says she and her other sisters discussed the possibility of taking Valerie in, but their mother advised against it. So Valerie wound up being adopted by the Mack family, who lived in Port Republic in Atlantic County, New Jersey.
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That was the last Ellen knew of her niece, until two years ago, when she says FBI agents showed up at her Ocean County home while she was doing the dishes. “They put their badges up on the window,” she remembers, “and asked if I had any family members that were estranged that maybe I hadn't seen who were around Valerie's age. And they asked if they could do a DNA sample on me.”
She says she got a call two weeks later. Based on Ellen’s DNA, her niece, Valerie Mack, had been identified as “Jane Doe No. 6”, whose body had been found in Manorville, Long Island in 2000. She was one of at least 10 people who police suspect might be a victim of a serial killer, in what’s become known as the Gilgo Beach Murders. Rex Heuermann was arrested this month in connection with the killings but has only been charged with three murders. Valerie’s case remains open and officially unsolved.
Suffolk County police said Valerie was the first crime victim in New York to be identified through genetic genealogy. That’s a process in which police compare DNA from crime scenes with samples provided to genealogy websites, in hopes of building family trees and identifying victims or suspects.
“We keep working on the cases for as long as it takes to solve them,” says Tracie Boyle, an investigative genetic genealogist with the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit which works to identify crime victims. Since its founding in 2018, the DNA Doe Project has provided answers, and in some cases closure, to more than 100 families.
“It's sad, because they're no longer with them. But at least they have that solace that they finally know what happened,” Boyle says.
That’s certainly true for Valerie’s father, Ed Mack. He tells Kane In Your Corner that the investigation is ”still in God’s hands. He did answer our prayers two years ago when her remains were identified.”
Privacy advocates have raised concerns about home DNA kits, in part because the data can sometimes be accessed by police. The DNA Doe Project says Valerie Mack’s case shows that’s not always a bad thing. But the group does advise consumers who are concerned about genetic privacy to read the terms of conditions at genealogy websites carefully before providing samples.