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Ramapo College Investigative Genetic Genealogy Center:

Where Students Become DNA Detectives to Solve Cold Cases

Investigative Genetic Genealogy Online Certificate Program staff and students

By Cairenn Binder, Director, Investigative Genetic Genealogy Certificate Program |  Winter 2023

In December 2022, RCNJ successfully launched its novel Investigative Genetic Genealogy (IGG) Center. The IGG Center is the first of its kind in the world to offer education and research in the field of IGG in addition to pro bono casework. In the Center’s innovative programs, RCNJ students will have the opportunity to help solve real cold cases in New Jersey and around the United States, leveraging the power of IGG to identify suspects in violent crimes, unidentified decedents, and third-party DNA in innocence cases. The IGG Center strongly promotes and incorporates the principles of ethical practice of IGG in curriculum and casework.

Investigative genetic genealogy was famously implemented to identify the Golden State Killer, Joseph DeAngelo, in 2018. The method grabbed headlines again in December 2022 when an arrest was made in the University of Idaho slayings – IGG was used by the FBI to identify the suspect in this crime as well. 

The center is already off to a running start in 2023, having accepted two New Jersey unidentified remains cases:  Palisades Interstate Park Cliff John Doe 2006 and Hudson River Shore John Doe 2011. The center’s goal is to restore the identities of these two decedents using investigative genetic genealogy. These cases came to Ramapo as the result of a partnership with DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the identification of John and Jane Does using investigative genetic genealogy. In addition to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with DNA Doe Project, The IGG Center has signed MOUs with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, Idaho Innocence Project, and Loyola Project for the Innocent.

The investigative genetic genealogy work for the center’s first cases will be performed by students in the inaugural IGG Certificate Program. Twenty students will attend the remotely-delivered certificate program beginning in February of 2023. Over 15 weeks, students in the program will learn applied investigative genetic genealogy skills through a series of online lectures and asynchronous learning content. The final portion of the certificate program is application of their skills to an unsolved case.

Outreach by the IGG Center to agencies around the United States to offer pro bono IGG consultation and casework is ongoing. IGG Center staff will attend the Innocence Network Conference in Phoenix in April to promote the use of investigative genetic genealogy to assist with exonerations of the wrongfully convicted. The IGG team will provide a workshop on IGG at the National Missing and Unidentified Persons Conference in Orlando in May, allowing for interaction directly with agencies who may refer cases to the IGG center.

About Cairenn Binder:

Cairenn Binder headshot

Cairenn Binder, MS, joined Ramapo College in October of 2022 to lead the Investigative Genetic Genealogy Online Certificate Program. She is a founding partner of Coast to Coast Genetic Genealogy Services and is also the Director of Education and Development for the DNA Doe Project. She has used IGG to provide investigative leads in a number of high-profile cases, including the identification of victims of John Wayne Gacy, Gary Ridgeway (the Green River Killer), and Keith Jesperson (the Happy Face Killer), among others. and the center itself is directed by Assistant Professor of Law and Society, David Gurney. In collaboration with Ramapo students and leaders in the field. 

The Ramapo College Investigative Genetic Genealogy Lab in the Peter P. Mercer Learning Commons is slated to open during the Spring 2023 semester, thanks to a generous lead gift from Susan and Nick Vallario, who are longstanding supporters of Ramapo College. It is the first dedicated physical space in the world for IGG teams to practice in-person. The lab will be utilized not only for Ramapo students, but also for original programs to be held over the summer – the IGG Bootcamp, the Ramapo Investigative Genetic Genealogy (RIGG) conference, and more. Assistant Professor of Law and Society David Gurney, Ph.D., JD, is the director of the IGG Center. He holds a Certificate in Genealogical Studies from Boston University and is the president of the Investigative Genetic Genealogy Accreditation Board, which is developing standards for IGG. Additionally, he serves as a board member on the Association of Professional Genealogists Forensic Genealogy Special Interest Group.

There is much to look forward to already in 2023, and we may even see the first cold cases solved by students at the Ramapo College Investigative Genetic Genealogy Center this year!  To follow our journey, learn more about IGG, or inquire about sponsoring our work, visit the IGG website.