'A Killer in the Family': Former Denver DA co-founds familial DNA search company

Posted at 9:52 PM, Sep 27, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-28 00:33:55-04

DENVER -- In 2015, Allison Feldman was brutally raped and murdered in her Scottsdale, Arizona home. Despite having a suspect’s DNA profile, after three years of investigating, police had exhausted every lead.

"In three years, it was going nowhere,” said Harley Feldman, her father, who was desperate for answers and pushing for a controversial crime-solving tool Arizona wasn’t using: a familial DNA search.

Familial DNA screening is a controversial tool used by only 12 states, including Colorado. The idea: when DNA from a crime scene doesn’t have a perfect match in the federal database, investigators can search for a near-match — a potential parent or a sibling.

"We can completely revolutionize the DNA database in this country,” said Mitch Morrissey, who co-founded United Data Connect, Inc., which sells familial DNA screening software.

The former Denver District Attorney has long been at the forefront of familial DNA screening. In 2009, when he was DA, he got a conviction on some car break-ins, after connecting the crime scene DNA to a relative already behind bars. That eventually led to the suspect.

“It showed that it worked,” said Morrissey, “ that was primarily what we were doing.”

While the U.K. has been using familial DNA screening for years, the most famous success story in the United States was The Grim Sleeper. A serial killer targeting women in South Central Los Angeles eluded police for years, even though they had his DNA. In 2010, police did a familial DNA search and found a link to his son, which eventually led to his arrest.

"These are generally cold cases. These are cases where all investigative leads have been exhausted,” said Katie Fetherstone, assistant director of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

Colorado has used familial DNA software for about a decade, with no major cases solved yet, Fetherstone said, cautioning that the science can rank a list of possible relatives, but it is up to investigators to do the legwork.

Not everyone believes the state should be casting a wider net.

"Using DNA and relying on that as the silver bullet is wrongheaded,” said Denise Macs, ACLU Colorado’s director of Public Policy, who is concerned these searches would disproportionately affect communities of color with larger families and create privacy issues. "The guardrails around protecting your privacy and mine are moving at a much slower pace than the technology that's out there to invade your privacy and mine." 

Opponents also point to reports of false-positives, in which police have identified a possible relative who was later determined not to be related. And some police have even used private genealogy databases to try to find relatives of criminals.

But back to the Arizona cold case and the lack of clues on Allison Feldman’s killer.

"It was the first case they used our software on,” said Morrissey, who said Arizona quickly found a familial DNA hit and were able to make an arrest for first-degree murder. The suspect is waiting to stand trial.

Morrissey said the family and police waited three long years for justice in a case that could have been cracked in an instant using familial DNA.

"That's why familial searching is so important. It saves you time. It saves you money, and it protects other people from being the victim of these predators,” he said.

Morrissey said his software has also helped catch two serial rapists and solve two murders, and it is soon to be put on the cloud, so investigators anywhere can do a search and get results.

For Harley Feldman, the arrest brings justice, the same justice he wants for other families waiting for answers.

"The familial search just narrowed right in, or I'm not sure it would have ever been solved,” said Feldman.