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Dodge Co. cold case solved using new DNA technology sparks privacy concerns

A bioethics professor with the University of Maryland says people don’t always know what they’re signing up for when they submit DNA samples to genealogy websites.
"Baby Theresa" sketch
"Baby Theresa" sketch(Dodge County Sheriff's Office)
Published: May. 23, 2022 at 9:52 PM CDT|Updated: May. 23, 2022 at 10:36 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - How much personal information are you willing to give the government? Would that answer change if your unique data could help solve a crime? Millions of people don’t get to make that choice for themselves if they use certain online genealogy kits without reading the fine print.

These questions sparked from a Dodge County criminal complaint NBC15 Investigates obtained back in March, the case of Baby Theresa, an infant found lifeless in a bag on farmland. New technology helped the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office solve the 13-year-old mystery of who put the baby there. But a top researcher in the country on genealogy kits has concerns. She says people don’t always know what they’re signing up for when they submit their DNA samples.

Twenty-one years in law enforcement, seven as the Dodge County sheriff, Dale Schmidt has helped solve countless crimes. But earlier this year, he had a career first and a first for the department. An infant known only as Baby Theresa after the village she was found in was discovered and laid to rest 13 years ago. The lifeless body was found abandoned on farmland.

“For a long time, we didn’t have any real substantial leads,” says Schmidt.

It turns out this old case would need new crime solving techniques to crack. Ten years after her remains were found, the Dodge County Medical Examiner’s Office brought an idea to the Sheriff’s desk which may have seemed like a long shot.

“They said ‘hey, we want to go into this DNA analysis and see what we can come up with.’ There have been significant advances to see if we can find some next of kin. The Medical Examiner’s Office had some funds to do that. And I said yes, whatever we need to do, let’s get that done. And they’ve been working hard ever since going through the genealogy of the DNA to find out who the family members were,” explains Schmidt.

Investigators used DNA collected at the crime scene and sent it to Family Tree DNA, a DNA testing site allowing people to learn more about their family history and heritage.

“It was an intense process working with the company that helped us out with this, working through the different DNA,” says Schmidt.

The site then matched Dodge County investigators with dozens of names of potential family members to Baby Theresa.

“We identified people across the country who were potential close matches. And we were able to identify the mother being really next door in Milwaukee.”

It was there on the site the last name Luttinen appeared according to the criminal complaint, and police found a Karin in Milwaukee. Karin willingly gave investigators a new DNA swab. It was a match. After further interviews, Karin was named the sole suspect even though she never entered DNA into the genealogy website.

“Nearly all of the individuals who have been arrested in these criminal law enforcement cases are not individuals who have used one of these kits themselves. They were identified by their genetic relatives,” says Maryland law professor and bioethics scholar Natalie Ram.

Ram is one of the leading researchers in the country in DNA use through genealogy companies like Family Tree DNA. Ram says it’s not always clear what some companies do with your information.

“That can include licensing deals for access by pharmaceutical companies to develop new therapeutics. It can include law enforcement access to the data to use in trying to find criminal perpetrators,” explains Ram.

Ram says third party use depends on where you buy your genealogy kit. She says Ancestry and 23 and Me do not share information with law enforcement. But with Family Tree DNA, Ram says they openly cooperate.

“There are ways in which their site can lead an unsuspecting or new user not to fully grasp how their data might be used,” says Ram.

If a user scrolls down on Family Tree DNA’s homepage, there is a disclaimer saying “We won’t share your DNA. We will never sell your DNA to third parties.”

“Their homepage does not say they do not cooperate with law enforcement. They do say they won’t sell your data or send it out of the company,” says Ram.

Ram says users need to read the fine print. In Family Tree DNA’s privacy policy, it says they can use your genetic information to help law enforcement “identify the remains of a deceased individual or to identify the perpetrator of a homicide or sexual assault.” There are ways to opt out of these third party uses, but it takes a bit more searching.

“All United States-based users of that site are opted in by default to having their data available for law enforcement use. By default you’re a part of those searches,” says Ram.

Consumers should also know when submitting DNA online, Ram says your own information can identify up to 300 relatives who haven’t used the site like in the Baby Theresa case.

“There’s a zone of privacy that people hope to keep vis-à-vis the government that we want to have a private space that the government doesn’t peer into or intrude into,” Ram said. “And our highly sensitive genetic information is one of those zones of data that we tend to think of as private. And so I think the lack of transparency of the reach of the technique that it effectively scoops all of us in being findable, this you know, the ability to identify many, many people who haven’t used one of these services that that’s an intrusion on privacy for all of us whether or not we’ve made an affirmative decision to participate in one of these services.”

Sheriff Schmidt says he’s proud of how the Baby Theresa cold case was solved.

“There are a lot of different various ways of obtaining information on individuals from technology,” says Schmidt. “I don’t want people to be afraid. I want criminals to be afraid.”

He says there is a balance between privacy and public safety.

“We don’t use these types of technology and tools to violate their constitutional rights, but they are available when we have probable cause that we believe someone has committed a crime, and we are going to use them to hold people accountable,” says Schmidt.

When it comes to nationwide regulations for genealogy websites, this year, Ram led a push to enact state law in Maryland that regulates consumer genetic data by law enforcement. The new law permits this technique to be used in certain crimes like homicides and sexual assaults if users of these sites give their consent to have their information used.

In Montana there’s a statute that requires a warrant for consumer genetic data to be used by law enforcement. And Utah is working to enact genetic disclosure laws so consumers know more about what’s being done with their DNA.

As for Karin Luttinen, Baby Theresa’s mother, she pleaded guilty to concealing the death of a child and she faces up to three years in prison. She is not charged with killing the child. The Medical Examiner’s Office says it’s likely the baby was not born alive.

NBC15 Investigates has reached out to Luttinen’s lawyer for a statement. He says Luttinen does not wish to make a statement at this time. Her sentencing hearing is in August 2022.

Millions of people don’t get to make that choice for themselves if they use certain online genealogy kits without reading the fine print.

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