‘It could blow this case open’
That’s where things stood in late 2018, when Wilkowitz’s son asked if she’d heard the story of the Golden State Killer.
She hadn’t, so he told her how earlier that year authorities charged a former police officer with a series of rapes and murders committed in California between 1974 and 1986.
That case, the first to use investigative genetic genealogy to solve a violent crime, sparked a wave of interest in the technique. Parabon, which did not work on the Golden State Killer case, has since helped police solve dozens of murders and rapes, led by the company’s in-house genetic genealogist, CeCe Moore.
Wilkowitz’s son suggested she contact Moore. She took the advice, asking Moore in a Facebook message to consider researching Eve’s killing. Moore responded that she wanted to help but could not, because New York wouldn’t allow it. She promised to look into the case if Parabon was granted its permit.
Wilkowitz emailed a top official at the New York Department of Health, who confirmed what Moore told her.
New York “regulates private companies performing DNA forensic testing to ensure that all testing is scientifically sound and performed with the appropriate controls in place,” Anne Walsh, the head of the department’s Forensic Identity Section, wrote to Wilkowitz.
Before doing the DNA work required for investigative genetic genealogy, a company must obtain a “forensic identity” permit from the New York State Department of Health. The agency requires the permit from all private laboratories looking to “test materials derived from the human body for the purpose of forensic identification,” to ensure that the testing is done properly, according to Jonah Bruno, an agency spokesman. Permits are issued for a variety of testing methods. The process of obtaining the permit is rigorous, requiring regular training, inspections and proficiency testing and the hiring of a qualified lab director.
Parabon began seeking a permit after the company got a warning in 2017 from the Department of Health for helping the New York City Police Department use a DNA analysis similar to what’s used in genetic genealogy to develop leads on a murder suspect and the identity of a dead woman.
The company has been trying to meet the permit requirements for more than a year, according to Parabon CEO Steven Armentrout. “I think we’re close,” Armentrout said in an October email.
The delay has frustrated law enforcement authorities and some elected officials, including New York State Sen. Phil Boyle, a Republican who represents parts of Suffolk County and wants to eliminate bureaucratic obstacles to the use of investigative genetic genealogy.
“It works, but for some reason the Department of Health is slow to get off the mark and we’re the only state that doesn’t allow it,” Boyle said.
Defense lawyers and privacy advocates said they are thankful for the restrictions in New York.
Genetic genealogy relies on the same kind of analysis used by direct-to-consumer DNA tests, revealing a lot about people’s lineage ─ including adoptions and out-of-wedlock births ─ and their predispositions to certain health conditions. Critics worry about the government misusing that information.
Critics also worry that people who have shared their profiles on public databases don’t understand that they can be used to arrest a relative. And they worry about abuse of the technology by people who are unqualified or unscrupulous.
“It’s easy to be like, this is terrible, New Yorkers don’t have access to justice ─ and victims feel that way,” said Erin Murphy, an NYU law professor who researches the expanding use of DNA testing in the criminal justice system. But the system is “playing with fire” by treating genetic genealogy “like it’s no big deal,” she added.
“There are private companies and government agencies getting access to our genomic material, and we are moving blindly ahead. I understand the urgency, but we do need to pause,” Murphy said.
Moore, of Parabon, said she was “itching” to work on the Wilkowitz case — assuming there was enough DNA available from the suspect for the advanced analysis. She also said she understood the need for regulations. “However, for a new technology like this, there has to be a way to get it expedited for approval so families aren’t waiting,” Moore said. “And it’s a matter of public safety.”
Beyrer said that if investigative genetic genealogy became an option, the Wilkowitz case would be one of the first unsolved murders he’d want to submit. It is the only cold case whose files he keeps in his office. “Genetic genealogy is a huge advance and it could blow this case open,” he said.
Wilkowitz is newly divorced, and her children have left Long Island. She recently moved to Rhode Island, where she works at a child-care center. The experience forced her to pare her possessions. In her temporary living space, at a friend’s home, she keeps a framed photograph of her and Eve standing at their doorstep in Oakdale, one of their last pictures together.
In a storage box, there is a portrait of her family long before the murder. There are snapshots of Eve at various ages, up until soon before she was killed. There is a baggie full of clothing tags with Eve’s name stitched on them, saved by their mother when they were young children.
These are the only keepsakes of her sister.