The Gene catch

For 12 long years, former beauty queen and long-time US actress Eva LaRue was being stalked by a psychopath, who regularly sent letters to her southern California home, threatening to rape and kill her and her young daughter. Sustained efforts by law enforcement agencies to nail the perpetrator failed.
The FBI’s sharp minds then turned to genetic genealogy, a science that can be used to identify remains by tying DNA to a missing person’s family member or to point to the likely identity of a perpetrator. They extracted DNA from the envelopes of the threat letters and ran it through a DNA database, which yielded a list of the suspect’s relatives. The 58-year-old stalker was identified after his DNA was extracted from a discarded straw at a restaurant.

How the stalker finally got caught

US actress Eva LaRue

Threatening letters to US actress Eva LaRue started arriving in March 2007. The letters were sometimes handwritten, sometimes typed — from an unknown sender who called himself ‘Freddie Krueger’ and vowed to rape and kill her and her young daughter. He sent more than three dozen letters that made the CSI: Miami actress (she played a DNA analyst) and her family afraid of stepping outside their home.

Early on, some letters mentioned LaRue’s daughter, then 5. But in 2015, letters began arriving addressed to the child. The stalker also began calling LaRue’s daughter’s school, saying that he was her father and was outside to pick her up.
The FBI collected DNA samples from the envelopes (he licked them to seal them). Using genetic genealogy, detectives built the suspect’s family tree and uploaded it on their DNA database, which led them to a town in Ohio. Even then, they needed the suspect’s DNA sample for a match. They kept him under surveillance and collected his DNA sample from a soda straw he used in a restaurant.

The accused, James David Rogers, was sentenced to 40 months in federal prison.

Can the Indian agencies do an FBI?

In India, where law enforcement agencies are frequently confronted with dead ends in criminal investigations, a lack of such investigative tools and knowledge frequently results in shoddy investigations or, cases being placed in cold storage.
“We have the same technology as the United States when it comes to genetic genealogy. The investigations carried out by agencies such as the FBI can be carried out by the Indian police if we have national and regional DNA databanks for cross-referencing,” says Dr. K Thangaraj, Director of the Centre of DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD). Not only can the science be used in criminal investigations, but it can also be used effectively in cross-border terrorism to determine the nationality of terrorists, says the renowned senior scientist.

Dr Thangaraj

“It all depends on how the Indian law enforcement agencies look at it (using genetic genealogy for crime investigation) and whether they are able to collect material from the crime scene properly and preserve it,” says Dr Thangaraj, known worldwide for his path-breaking work in the field of DNA. Citing CODIS, the acronym for the Combined DNA Index system, a generic term used to describe the FBI’s programme of support for criminal justice DNA databases as well as the software used to run the databases, he says that when a DNA databank becomes available, it will be a shot in the arm for Indian law enforcement agencies.

Nearly 70 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, and Malaysia, have massive DNA databanks that help investigators solve cases and bring the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes to justice. It has become the most valuable method for these agencies to solve old cases.

India, on the other hand, does not yet have a databank of comparable size. There are currently laboratories that preserve a few samples.

IPS officer Avinash Mohanty

DNA testing is done on a very small scale in India. According to estimates, 30-40 DNA experts from 15-18 forensic laboratories work on fewer than 3,000 cases per year. “Use of a science like genetic genealogy in crime investigation will be a boon for us. But how elaborate the DNA databases will need to be for us to match samples needs clarity. For example, if we were to try to match the DNA of an unknown dead body (there are about 40,000 unidentified bodies found in country every year), how many samples will be available for consideration?” wonders senior IPS officer Avinash Mohanty, who during his long stint in the Central Crime Station in Hyderabad police, cracked several high-profile and complex cases.

He says the same goes for an accused who is completely unknown. “I do see genetic genealogy as a tool that will guide us in our future investigations. But again, it depends on how many samples will be collected and preserved in the databank,” explains Mohanty, presently posted as Joint Commissioner of Police (Administration), Cyberabad.


The DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, which is currently being considered by the Centre, is in focus. The Ministry of Science and Technology informed the Rajya Sabha in April this year that the Bill aims to regulate the use and application of DNA technology with the goal of establishing the identity of certain categories of persons, including victims, offenders, suspects, undertrials, missing persons, and unidentified deceased persons. One of the most important aspects of the Bill is the creation of a national DNA databank and regional DNA databanks for each state, or two or more states. The Bill requires DNA laboratories to share DNA data prepared by them with national and regional DNA databanks.

Every databank must maintain the following types of data: (i) crime scene index (ii) a suspects or undertrials index (iii) offenders index (iv) missing persons index and (v) unknown deceased persons index.

“In our country, we are divided into various caste groups, which makes it difficult to generalise the database with just few samples. We need a relatively much bigger databank than USA or UK,” feels Gyaneshwar Chaubey, Professor of Zoology (Molecular Anthropology) at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), who is well-known for his expertise on genomics, genetic analysis and DNA sequencing.
Agreeing with Dr Thangaraj’s view that India has all the required technology, the senior scientist says it is useless in the absence of a strong database. “Training policemen or bringing about awareness among them is another challenge, as is preserving the crime scene,” feels Prof Chaubey, who was a Visiting Scientist to the Sanger Centre, UK, and is known for his in-depth work on several ethnic groups of South Asia.


* A DNA Databank is a secure storage system for an individual’s unique identity for future use. To store an individual’s DNA, a small blood or saliva sample or hair is taken, and DNA is extracted using cutting-edge microbiological tools. This provides an individual’s identity based on his or her unique genetic makeup, which is useful in solving various crimes.

* DNA found at a crime scene is compared to DNA samples taken from suspects by forensic experts. If no match is found, they may be able to rule out the suspect’s involvement, depending on how many samples are saved in the database. However, if there is a match, as in Eva LaRue’s case (see Box), the police can proceed with the investigation quickly.


* The courts used DNA evidence to deliver judgments in the cases of Priyadarshini Mattoo and Nirbhaya.

* Telangana police collected DNA samples from Disha in the gangrape and murder case, which matched with family members.

* The gangrape and murder of a 16-year-old boy in Himachal’s Kotkhai was solved using DNA testing.

* The Supreme Court recently granted bail to an 84-year-old man accused of rape after DNA testing revealed that he was not the father of the rape victim's child.

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