Family History is a hobby…but DNA is serious business

The news is blowing up today about how the “Golden State Killer” was tracked down, at least partially, due to the authorities using publicly available genealogy DNA sites to identify the relatives of whomever left DNA evidence behind at crime scenes. Assuming that the DNA was left by the suspected criminal, they were able to create a DNA profile, upload it, and narrow down a suspect that matched the criminal’s age and location.

My first reaction was not at all shock or fear that the authorities had somehow overstepped some boundary. My first reaction was that any serious genealogist and/or serious family historian that’s using DNA should know this is a risk, and that lives can be changed/destroyed by these tests. My second reaction was that I’d be fine with any of the DNA kits we manage leading to a close relative being arrested for a serious crime.

We published a post about some of the risks of DNA testing a while back (Dangers of DNA Testing), to highlight that this tool isn’t just about nice charts and cool stories about the geographic location of your ancestors 1000 years ago. And while we didn’t raise criminal charges of relatives as one of the risks (but I thought about adding that, honestly) DNA hobbyists need to understand this: Testing your relatives could lead to very serious, negative consequences to your loved ones…and the more successful you are in using these tests, the higher the risk becomes.

About two years ago Felice’s test led to our first brick wall broken down by DNA. Her great-grandmother was Ella Aldridge, born in 1911 in Arkansas, and that she died young of cancer in 1958. Through GEDmatch, we met a shared relative that connected through Ella, and he was descended from Henry Washington “Wash” Aldridge, Sr. He was related to Wash’s daughter Charlotte, and it looks very much like Ella was the daughter of Henry Washington “Cap” Aldridge, Jr. This researcher had evidence of another out-of-wedlock birth for Cap in 1910 by a different woman, and with evidence listing Cap as Ella’s father, we were pretty confident we had a match. We received a trove of great information on this wing of the family, and confirmed with Ella’s granddaughter (Felice’s grandmother) some of the details matched some of the speculation over the years.

Excited for this new breakthrough, we went to the next match on the list, and explained our findings and the strength of our DNA matches. The response shook us, but not nearly as much as our original email had shook him and his family. Frederick Smith (all names have been changed on this line, for obvious reasons) is in college and had picked up family history as his hobby. He is the son of Sarah (Jones) Smith, who was the daughter of Mary and Frederick Jones. The Frederick we’d reached out to was named after his grandfather.

Frederick took an AncestryDNA test, and at first the results were straight forward. He was able to identify some close cousins, and it largely matched his know family history going back a couple of generations. Past that, however, things got strange on his mother’s side. There were a series of matches that he could not build lines to, and that didn’t match his known tree. He had talked to his mother about how it seemed strange that the matches on her father’s side didn’t make much sense, and she didn’t seem overly concerned but did ask him to keep his research private. They had a suspicion that something might be up, but 5 days later, they received our email, and it confirmed a truth they hadn’t full considered: Frederick Jones was not Sarah’s biological father.

Frederick had considered that Aldridge was a name appearing enough in his mom’s results that there might be a link, so when we laid out what we knew and why it was likely that his mother was a child of Cap Aldridge it had a strong ring of truth. Frederick didn’t reply for about 2 weeks after we reached out, and when we followed up he explained the impact of that first email. He was named after his grandfather, who he now knew was not his grandfather. His mother had never suspected that her parents had any secrets, and was completely devastated. Her father was not her father, and her mother had lied and kept this secret her entire life.

Sarah asked Frederick to delete the test information, stop digging into family history, and to never talk to anyone about this ever. He was torn, but for as long as she’s alive he decided to dropped everything and stop working on his family history. We exchanged a couple of emails, and he’s since gone completely quiet.

The joy and rush of breaking down our first brick wall using DNA was replaced by regret and sorrow in just a few short weeks. There are two people out there that had their lives changed forever, who’ve had their birthright taken away in many ways, because of this hobby, and because my wife took a test. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, and Sarah will never think of her mother, or father, the same way again.

DNA is a wonderful tool, and it’s literally changing the notion of genealogical research forever, but do not think that these tests are either simple or easy. You can change lives with your research, you can do damage with your research, and once you start you largely will lose control of how your research affects your relatives.