What helped identify Joseph Augustus Zarelli? His mother’s family dabbles in genetic genealogy.
It’s the ultimate rabbit hole of hobbies: genetic genealogy.
There are legions of self-taught ancestry hounds uploading their DNA to multiple databases looking for relatives who would do the same, filling in gaps in their family tree.
Joseph Augusto ZarelliHis birth mother had third and fourth cousins who did just that. They had uploaded her DNA to GED match — a database that law enforcement and forensic scientists can access to help solve cold cases.
It was those cousins who planted the first seeds that led Misty Gillis, a forensic genetic genealogist and cold case liaison with Identifinders International, to grow branches that led to Zarelli’s birth mother, Gillis said, thus naming the “Boy of the Box”.
“On the maternal side, I used a bunch of third and fourth cousins that I was able to build their gene trees and see where they married,” Gillis said by phone this week. “And so I built those trees down and down, painstakingly. It took me about two months until I was able to identify who the birth mother was.”
” READ MORE: Waves of speculation followed the release of the Joseph A. Zarelli name.
Gillis’ identification in early 2021 of Joseph’s mother, whose identity police continue to monitor closely, was a breakthrough in the nearly 65-year-old case, one of the Philadelphia Police Department’s longest active homicide investigations. . Armed with the mother’s name, detectives obtained a court order to obtain the child’s birth certificate.
Joseph Augustus Zarelli was born on January 13, 1953, to a woman who was not married to Joseph’s father during an era when out-of-wedlock births had a tinge of shame. Although the father’s name appeared on the birth certificate, the name alone was not proof that he was Joseph’s biological father, Gillis said. That would require more DNA digs.
“We already had the mom, so we had to work on the dad’s side,” Gillis said. “So I had to call relatives on the father’s side and see if they would upload his DNA.”
Gillis said her first call was to justin thomaswho she believed to be a relative of Joseph’s from Zarelli’s side.
“You could be compatible with a cold case in Philadelphia,” Gillis said, telling Thomas during a phone call that took place more than a year ago. In an interview last week, Thomas said he had taken a DNA test with Ancestry.com for fun in 2017 and that Gillis had called him “out of the blue” and said he was a match in a Philadelphia cold case. .
In an interview this week, Gillis said Thomas had “misremembered” a bit of what happened. She said she was unable to access his DNA through Ancestry.com, which restricts law enforcement use.
“I thought he was a match and so I reached out to him to ask if his family would consider getting tested,” Gillis said. “I want to be clear that I did not use Ancestry. It’s been over a year, so he probably doesn’t remember how things happened and is probably dealing with some shock as well.”
Gillis said he never revealed Joseph’s name, and outside of a small circle of investigators working directly on the case, Thomas, along with the world, lobtained the boy’s identity during last week’s press conference at Police Headquarters on North Broad Street. Police had found Joseph’s battered and malnourished body inside a cardboard box in a weedy lot in the Fox Chase section of town in February 1957. He had just turned 4 years old.
However, both Gillis and Thomas agree that Thomas put Gillis in touch with his mother, who is believed to be the boy’s first cousin. She agreed to upload her DNA to GEDmatch, the same database used by law enforcement in 2018 to determine the identity of the golden state killer.
Thomas’s mother matched the boy’s DNA. But first cousins share an average of 12.5% of the so-called “autosomal DNA”, which makes up most of the genome: 22 of the 23 pairs of chromosomes. While the average is 12.5%, the range is quite wide: between 4% and 23%, according to 23andMe, a popular ancestry site.
” READ MORE: The boy’s body was exhumed twice to extract DNA, in 1998 and 2019.
Gillis said investigators are “100% sure” that the people listed on Joseph’s birth certificate were his biological parents, both of whom are deceased. She declined to provide additional details, saying only: “We had other sources of DNA [besides Thomas’ mother] that they were able to verify it.”
Law enforcement authorities have said that Joseph has living half-siblings on both his maternal and paternal sides. Investigators declined to name the boy’s parents or his half-siblings during the news conference.
Gillis, who is 34 and works from home in Chicago, became enthralled with genealogy as a teenager. When she was in her early 20s, as genetic testing evolved, she had her father take a DNA test and used it to identify her grandfather’s father. “Once I did that, I was absolutely hooked,” she said.
Gillis said he thought of Joseph, then unidentified, as his own son. When she identified his identity in the fall of 2021, she burst into tears.
“I cried for about three days straight because I felt like I could finally make him cry,” said Gillis, who has three children of her own, ages 10, 7 and 5. “When I work on these cases, it’s like you’re walking next to the person in silence. … It was really emotional for me, but it was closure in a sense. I take these children as my surrogate children. I feel that I am [Joseph’s] mom in a sense and I have to bring him home.”
During her nearly four years working as an independent contractor with Identifinders International, founded by forensic scientist Colleen Fitzpatrick, Gillis said she helped solve 17 cases. Law enforcement agencies across the country hire Fitzpatrick’s company to work on old murder cases. Perhaps one of Gillis’s best known solutions was The Case of “Baby Holly” out of Texas. The baby and her parents disappeared in 1980. The bodies of two adults were found in a wooded area in Houston in 1981, but their names are unknown. Last year, Gillis identified the murdered couple as Tina Gail Linn Clouse and Harold Dean Clouse Jr.
“We called the family and they said, ‘What about your daughter, Holly?’” Gillis recalled. “It turns out that she was adopted and she was located and reunited with her family.”
Fitzpatrick and other forensic scientists took years to “knit” Joseph’s DNA back together.
“DNA is a big molecule,” Fitzpatrick said last week after the news conference. “It just completely breaks. Breaks. It is exposed to humidity, to the acid of the soil, to the rain, to the temperature, to the heat. When we got the DNA, it was basically just confetti.”
In the spring of 2021, Fitzpatrick and his colleagues finally stitched together the degraded DNA into a usable form. They uploaded the boy’s genetic profile to GEDmatch, Fitzpatrick said. That was how Gillis found matches to third and fourth cousins on Joseph’s mother’s side.
So why would those cousins, or anyone else, upload their DNA to GEDmatch? Gillis explained that people who are curious about their genealogy often submit their DNA to databases, such as Ancestry or 23andMe. The truly passionate will take the extra step of uploading their DNA to GEDmatch.
“Many genealogists who have had DNA tests know about GEDmatch because GEDmatch can be used to get better results on their own DNA tests,” Gillis said. “It’s not just for law enforcement. It’s for fans.”
Staff writers William Bender and Tom Avril contributed to this article.