The Conversation on DNA advancements: Two West Texans share their stories of success and concerns

KAMC News

Lubbock, TX- For many people, DNA is just a series of information, bottled up in the body, never to be thought of again. But over the last few years, discussing the benefits and risks of DNA technology advancements has become more central to the conversation. 

Debbi Domingo McMullen is a big advocate for the benefits of advanced DNA technology and the fact that it’s becoming a more public and accessible science. 

She said she believes more people should test their DNA and then put it into an online public database like GEDMatch.com, a site that helped lead to her mother’s killer finally being arrested. 

“For so many years, all I knew was that some stranger had broken into our home, tied up my mother and beaten her to death,” McMullen said. “It’s just hard to go 20 almost 30 years of not thinking it was possible to get an answer.”

DNA was the key in eventually getting those answers. 

In 2018, a man was finally arrested for nearly 50 rapes and 13 murders, which included McMullen’s mother’s case. The Golden State Killer was finally behind bars. 

“The investigators decided to get really creative and thought we can’t get into the ancestry.com and can’t get into 23andMe.com,” McMullen said. “But they came across what they call a public access database.”

That database helped investigators find a distant relative of the suspect, which they used to track through his family tree to eventually find the right suspect, looking through hundreds of possibilities. Eventually, investigators were able to arrest Joseph DeAngelo in connection to the spree or murders and rapes across a dozen California counties. 

After McMullen finally found her mom’s killer, she said her journey hasn’t stopped, just shifted to new goals. Her new mission is to get more people to put their DNA information publicly online, she said. 

“The fact is we live in an age that’s public anyways, so if it’s already out there why wouldn’t we use it to better society, to improve people’s lives, to provide answers and closure and truth,” McMullen said.

But, not everyone is so confident that DNA would become more beneficial as it becomes more public. 

Over the past five years, the popularity of private DNA testing companies has grown. The data inputted on these websites is private. But, as more people submit their DNA online, the conversation gets more complicated on how the information could be used in the future. 

“This is new so I’m a little cautious,” said Kris Burdis. “It’s all cool or neat now, but what might happen 10, 20, 30 years from now with this?”

Kris Burdis started his search for his birth parents in January. And although excited for what answers he might find, he said he was concerned when he decided to do an online DNA test. He was specifically nervous about the possibilities of the websites being hacked or the impact DNA results could have on health insurance systems in the future. 

“The state knows more about me than I do,” Burdis said. 

Burdis was adopted in the 1970’s and his records have been sealed ever since, he said. He eventually tested his DNA this past January and traced his family tree all the way back to his biological mom. 

“To me, the rewards kind of outweigh the risks,” Burdis said. “But who know, I might regret it all 10 or 20 years down the line. The websites offer that you can delete the information, but who knows.”

“Every advance that is made, every change that’s made to the way we do things, it’s all part of a slippery slope,” McMullen said. “You’re at a risk for great benefits and at a risk for great loss.”

Here in Lubbock, police have solved two cold cases by resubmitting old evidence found at the initial crime scene to the DPS crime labs. 

RELATED: Lubbock Police name suspect, announce “new developments” in 1993 murder case

RELATED: Police name husband as suspect in Kuykendall cold-case murder

DPS is the one testing the DNA, but not a part of the investigation process. Currently, LPD is not tracing family DNA on public database sites. 

“I just honestly believe the truth is the most important thing,” McMullen said. 

And she’s still seeking the truth. Right now, the hearing for DeAngelo is still in the pre-trial phases and no one has been convicted yet in any of the crimes. 

McMullen, along with other victims’ families and survivors, are hoping to travel to California to watch the court case unfold if DeAngelo lives long enough to see his day in court. Victim services will help pay for some lodging travel costs, but will not reimburse lost wages or rent/mortgage payments. 

For this, friends of McMullen set up a GoFundMe page to help her be able to travel to California and finally see justice for her mom. If the trial doesn’t go through, the money will be donated to non-profits. 

If you’d like to donate to the GoFundMe, you can find the link HERE.

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