Nathan Dylan Goodwin's Reviews > I Know Who You Are: How an Amateur DNA Sleuth Unmasked the Golden State Killer and Changed Crime Fighting Forever

I Know Who You Are by Barbara Rae-Venter
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it was amazing

I Know Who You Are chronicles Barbara Rae-Venter’s extraordinary journey from being a retired patent attorney, who began volunteering as a search angel for adoptees in 2014, to being named by Nature journal as one of ‘Ten People Who Mattered in Science in 2018’ and the Time 100 list of the most influential people of the same year. What earned her these prestigious titles was her ground-breaking work in identifying the Golden State Killer, using investigative genetic genealogy.
This book is Rae-Venter’s personal account of the twists and turns that her life has taken her from childhood in New Zealand through to beyond her identification of one of the United States’ most notorious, unsolved, serial killer cases. The route to solving this case, along with several others documented in the book, was by no means inevitable, although Rae-Venter’s innate inquisitiveness and desire to find solutions to difficult problems was on display from a very young age, something her mother referred to as her ‘grasshopper mind’. Ever since being a young girl, Rae-Venter admitted that she had ‘a tendency to examine issues from seemingly strange angles until I found a novel way to resolve them.’ It was this tenacity and unique view on seemingly unresolvable problems that ultimately led to her cracking her first criminal case, that of finding the real identity of a woman who had been kidnapped as a young girl and recovered around the age of five.
In 2015, Rae-Venter was approached by an investigator, named Detective Headley, who had spent several years working on the case of Lisa Jensen, a girl molested and tortured by her abductor and who had ostensibly been left a ‘Living Jane Doe.’ Rae-Venter set about using the investigative genetic genealogy skills that she had acquired as a search angel helping adoptees to find their biological parents. Working pro-bono and often having to purchase her own DNA kits for the case, Rae-Venter and her small team put what she estimated to have been twenty thousand hours into identifying who Lisa Jensen really was. DNA revealed the answer, just as Rae-Venter knew that it would. ‘With enough time and skill, I began to believe, any case with available DNA evidence could be solved.’ In 2016, after many years of searching, Lisa Jensen finally learned her name, date of birth and who her biological family really were.
Although the case was closed, Detective Headley was not finished with Rae-Venter’s redoubtable services and asked her to apply investigative genetic genealogy to help identify the ‘Allenstown Four’ or the ‘Bear Brook Park quadruple-murder’ as it was also known. This case started out complicated because the DNA for the four victims—who had been dismembered, wrapped in plastic and interred in metal barrels—had significantly degraded. Prior to her agreeing to take on the case, no usable DNA samples had been collected, despite repeated attempts. Once again, Rae-Venter’s ability to view a seemingly unresolvable problem from a unique angle was called into play. Having heard of a ground-breaking new technique of extracting DNA from a rootless hair follicle, which had previously been considered impossible, Rae-Venter approached Professor Green, the scientist behind the discovery, and asked if he could generate a DNA profile for the four victims. After a lot of experimentation and trials, Rae-Venter was able to upload a useable profile to GEDmatch and Family Tree DNA.
Once again, after many hours of dedicated work, Rae-Venter and her team came to a partial resolution of the case: three out of the four victims were identified, allowing for them to be buried properly under their own names. But this resolution came with a shocking connection to the Lisa Jensen case.
Rae-Venter’s string of successes began to generate excited chatter among cold-case detectives around the country, who began to see the potential of investigative genetic genealogy as a major game-changer in solving cases which were thought to be unsolvable. One of the detectives who came to learn of this new technique was one Paul Holes who had spent twenty-two years trying to crack one of the most notorious cold cases in the United States: the Golden State Killer. Responsible for at least thirteen murders, fifty rapes and one hundred burglaries over twelve years, the Golden State Killer had gone undetected since his last known victim in 1986. As Rae-Venter said of his inhumanity, ‘The monster destroyed all that was good and decent and normal. And, of course, he ended lives in cruel and godless ways.’
Without needing much persuasion, in March 2017, she agreed to join ‘Team Justice’ and set about training the small group of investigators in the application and methodology of investigative genetic genealogy. But the path to identification was not an easy one: when she joined the team, all of the Golden State Killer’s accessible DNA samples had been fruitlessly used up in successive scientific testing advancements over the years; and Rae-Venter also suffered with some serious health issues of her own that initially kept her away from the case. Eventually, a usable DNA sample was found and, in February 2018, a profile was uploaded to GEDmatch and Family Tree DNA, which produced the killer’s admixture, phenotype and a match list of cousins which Rae-Venter and the rest of Team Justice could begin to use to build the Golden State Killer’s family tree. The task was long and arduous but eventually, following a high DNA match at MyHeritage (prior to the terms of service amendments), the team had whittled the suspect list down to just six men. Some of the suspects appeared on paper more likely to be the killer than others but, as Rae-Venter says, ‘You must always ask: What is the DNA telling me?’ The DNA was telling her that the killer’s phenotype was a definite match for one man on the suspect list: Joseph James DeAngelo. But the DNA still had more work to do to prove this unequivocally.
Investigators took two samples of surreptitious DNA from DeAngelo and compared it to the crime-scene DNA. The results were conclusive: ‘Beyond any shred of doubt, scientific or otherwise, Joseph James DeAngelo was the Golden State Killer.’
Rae-Venter goes on to describe the aftermath of the case, including the trial and sentencing, both of which she was invited to attend. The book also deals with the psychological impact of this case and others on her understanding of human nature. She confesses that it has been challenged and ultimately changed. But her passion for helping people through her own unique view of the world remains unbroken. ‘Whenever I start work on a new case, I always have the same thought: I want to solve this case. I want to solve all cases. Give me enough time, and I will solve them all.’
This book by Barbara Rae-Venter is highly recommended. The complexities of investigative genetic genealogy are masterfully explained through a series of case studies. Her dedication and commitment to providing identities to nameless victims, to reunite biological families and to solve rape and murder cases decades cold is matched by her undoubted and unswerving compassion. In her words, and I feel exactly the same, investigative genetic genealogy ‘is about helping people.’
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Reading Progress

January 22, 2023 – Started Reading
January 22, 2023 – Shelved
January 22, 2023 – Finished Reading

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