Attention local crime scene investigators: Want to thaw out some decades-old cold cases and maybe solve a few in the process? Saratoga has just the woman for you: veteran criminalist/forensic scientist and owner of the new company DNA Investigations, Tobi Kirschmann.
What makes her qualified to be our area’s real-life Catherine “CSI” Willows? Kirschmann spent nearly a decade in California’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) unit, working on the notorious Golden State Killer case. Her and countless others’ work eventually ended in the apprehension and life sentencing of Joseph James DeAngelo, a former police officer who admitted to killing 13 people and committing 50 rapes in the ’70s and ’80s. By the time DeAngelo was cuffed in April 2018, however, Kirschmann had already moved eastward to Saratoga, ready to share her expertise with Capital Region law enforcement and citizens alike.
Without, er, splitting hairs, California investigators had used a cutting-edge process called genetic genealogy, which involves comparing forensic evidence collected at a crime scene to the growing public database of DNA information that companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe.com have harvested from people like you and me. Putting the infamous Golden State Killer behind bars made the case’s lead investigator, Paul Holes, a superstar in some circles, and the writer who gave the criminal his moniker, Michelle McNamara, received posthumous fame via her book and HBO miniseries, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. “This field,” Kirschmann says, “is moving forward like wildfire.”
Kirschmann was so intrigued by the new science that she immediately took a genetic genealogy class at Boston University, then wound up doing a year-and-a-half-long stint at the Forensic Investigation Center in Albany—though, at the latter, no one was using anything close to the modern techniques involved in genetic genealogy to solve cold cases. So Kirschmann started a thinktank there on the subject, but when COVID hit, priorities shifted away from it. That was when Kirschmann decided to take matters into her own hands.
Despite genetic genealogy being a potential Rosetta Stone for cold cases across the US, it hasn’t really caught on yet. “No state has this brand-new way of looking at DNA,” notes Kirschmann. This is due to all the usual suspects: governmental red tape, education problems and budgetary constraints. Paradoxically, she says, it’s also the speed with which genetic genealogy helps solve crimes that makes it difficult for states to swallow. Many have long, drawn-out protocols that investigators need to follow in order to close a case, and this is basically the law-and-order equivalent of Monopoly’s “go directly to jail” card. “It’s overwhelming for them,” says Kirschmann. “They’re going to have to build all of the teams to go get these [perpetrators],” she says. And quick, because it would likely take investigators only a few months to track them all down using genetic genealogy.
At press time, Kirschmann was facing an uphill battle; she was still looking for her first private client in Saratoga. (In addition to her potentially enormous contributions to law enforcement, she also does adoption research, background checks and genealogy reports for civilians.) But she’s not sitting around idly waiting for business to hit her inbox: At press time, she had sent out a letter to every county in New York State, pitching her genetic genealogy consultancy, and had already heard back from Saratoga County District Attorney Karen A. Heggen.
What Kirschmann’s trying to sell states on isn’t bunk: Ohio’s Cuyahoga County, for example, recently launched its Genetic Operations Linking DNA (GOLD) unit, which is using genetic genealogy to hunt down its most wanted cold case rapists. In other words, if you’ve been on the run for committing a crime and unwittingly left DNA evidence at the scene of the crime, your days of freedom are numbered, punk. Tobi Kirschmann will see to that.