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Toronto Police Chief James Ramer sits next to a screen displaying a photo of Christine Jessop during a news conference at Toronto Police Headquarters, on Oct. 15, 2020.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

By 2019, the investigation into nine-year-old Christine Jessop’s death had become as sprawling as a family tree: hundreds of boxes containing countless names, more than 300 potential suspects examined and ruled out, DNA submissions from dozens of people.

In 36 years, the case had passed through three police agencies and scores of detectives, several of whom tainted the entire effort with a botched Durham Regional Police investigation that led to the wrongful conviction of Guy Paul Morin.

Toronto Police, which took over the case from Durham in 1995, were left with a thicket of leads leading precisely nowhere.

The head of Toronto’s Cold Case Squad, Stacy Gallant, realized last year that the only hope of finding a signal in all that noise was the emerging forensic field known as genetic genealogy, a technique that has been used to crack a number of high-profile cold cases in the United States but remains a rarely used investigative tool in Canada – for now.

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“I’ve always worked a lot in different investigative avenues for DNA,” Mr. Gallant said. “My wife is a forensic biologist. We talk about DNA capabilities. I started hearing about genealogy cases in the States and thought I’d check out how it was done."

One of those American cases was the 2018 identification of the infamous Golden State Killer, a former California police officer who raped and killed dozens of people in the 1970s and 80s. He evaded police for years before investigators matched his DNA profile with DNA profiles uploaded to a genealogy website. Using the online profiles, they were able to create a family tree going back to the 1800s and then work forward through generations to pin down the killer.

In December, 2019, days before his retirement, Mr. Gallant submitted a proposal to use the same technique on semen found on Ms. Jessop’s clothing. The authorization and funding came through quickly and police were able to submit a sample before the end of the year.

By mid-summer, genealogists at Othram, a Texas-based lab, created an elaborate family tree and came back with the name Calvin Hoover as a potential person of interest. Investigators found that he had died by suicide in 2015, but a blood sample had been retained after his autopsy. DNA from the semen and the blood matched.

Mr. Hoover was a close family friend of the Jessops, but he was never considered a person of interest in the case. Despite media reports to the contrary, Toronto Police stated on Friday that investigators never interviewed Mr. Hoover.

“I’m satisfied it worked out,” said Mr. Gallant, now director of consulting services and investigations at GardaWorld. “There’s great potential for this technology.”

That potential depends on police having access to online repositories of DNA data, much of it submitted through saliva by users trying to find long-lost relatives, fill out a family tree or determine ethnic backgrounds.

While the biggest player in online genealogy, Ancestry.com, says it denies all police requests for DNA data submitted by users, other companies give users the option of having their information shared with law enforcement.

One such U.S. company that was crucial in resolving the Jessop case was GEDmatch. It claims to have helped police solve 200 cases in recent years and says its records include 300,000 people who have specifically consented to offer up their DNA data for law-enforcement searches.

Canadians account for about 6 per cent of people in GEDMatch’s databases, but the company doesn’t get many requests directly from Canadian police – yet.

“What I would say to Canadians is that if you’ve taken a 23andme or Ancestry.com or any sort of consumer test, I would encourage them [to upload],” said Brett Williams, chief executive officer of Verogen Inc., which bought the GEDmatch service last year. “To me it’s a civic responsibility that if people feel that way, they want to allow their profiles to be used.”

He added that police never get full access to anyone’s underlying genotype and are merely given leads to run down.

Critics say corporate appeals for citizens to hand over DNA are worrisome.

“That is the perspective of a profiteer, not the public interest,” said Michael Bryant, who heads the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Because this data may never be destroyed, Mr. Bryant said, these people could effectively be helping to build criminal cases against their own relatives – or even, eventually, against their own unborn children.

Parliament needs to start setting some ground rules about such technology, he said. “We need more knowledge of the processes police are going through in Canada to obtain this.”

A spokeswoman for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police said that genetic genealogy is only being used in a select few cases so far.

“It is the CACP’s understanding that there are no limitations on using the technology in Canada due to legislation,” Natalie Wright said. “Having said that, careful consideration must be given to potential civil liberty concerns.”

Other observers wonder why police in Canada don’t use the technology more.

“It must just be a case of inertia,” said Victoria lawyer John Van Cuylenborg.

In 1987, his 18-year-old sister Tanya and her boyfriend were murdered during a day trip to Washington State. The double homicide of the two Canadians went unsolved for more than 30 years. But genetic genealogy – and GEDmatch – helped crack the case. The killer is now sentenced to life in prison.

Given outcomes like the one in his sister’s case, Mr. Van Cuylenborg, asks “why would you not use genetic genealogy?”

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