A previously retired, hobby genetic genealogist helps catch a serial killer. Though it sounds like a procedural on TNT, for Barbara Rae-Venter it’s a true story. And unlikely, cross-disciplinary, post-career reinvention stories are exactly what Dent is all about.
Barbara Rae-Venter helped catch the Golden State Killer. At the 2019 Dent conference, she told us the (binge-worthy) story.
And she’ll be back attending Dent 2020, in Santa Fe, March 22nd-25th 2020.
Barbara had gotten a Ph.d in Biology early in her life, but then went on to become a patent lawyer, specializing in biotech. When she retired, she expected to be“working on [her] tennis game” and dabbling in some genealogy research. After successfully volunteering to help an adoptee find their birth parent, she began to get approached by law enforcement asking for her help, including Paul Holes, the detective working on the Golden State Killer case.
After creating a profile of the perpetrator (blue eyes, likely balding, etc) Barbara cross-referenced DNA from the crime scene with DNA uploaded to an online service to construct a family tree. By looking for ancestors of the perpetrator, she was able to narrow the field to a few suspects. And abracadabra, only one had blue eyes: Joseph James DeAngelo. In 2019, He was arrested and charged with eight counts of first-degree murder.
Through this work, Barbara created a new field: Investigative Genetic Genealogy. Since then, Barbara has been featured as one of Nature’s 10, Time’s 100 Most Influential People, and a profile in The New York Times. She’s gone on to help solve more cases, including the recently solved “Clearfield Rapist” case.
In addition to speaking at Dent 2019, Barbara is a Dent Passport member (learn more about Dent Passport here.) Every quarter, we send Passport members a book. This quarter, we all read Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. In Range, David J. Epstein describes“slow bakers” or“late specializers:” people who dabble and experiment in a variety of practices before becoming “elite.” Though there is a fetishization of prodigies and hyper-specificity, (Gladwell’s 10,000 hours for example) Epstein’s research reveals that generalism can triumph.
The theme of Dent 2020 is “Reinvention.” Too many cultural myths tell us that“dents in the universe”are the dominion of the young, the myopic, and the prodigies. Barbara’s journey is a powerful counter-narrative: Broad curiosity, hobbies, and dabbling pays off. It’s never too late to make a new dent in the universe.