July 2023

I Know Who You Are

By Barbara Rae-Venter
Review by
Some retirees quilt; others fish. And then there’s Barbara Rae-Venter, who identified the Golden State Killer using investigative genetic genealogy and sparked a forensic revolution.
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Some retirees quilt; others fish. And then there’s Northern California resident Barbara Rae-Venter, who, with “both feet planted firmly in retirement,” sparked a forensic revolution. How in the world did a retiree sitting alone at her computer looking at family trees manage to crack a horrific criminal case that had been eluding investigators for 40 years? 

Sixty-three days after loading a crime scene DNA profile to a service called GEDmatch, Rae-Venter and others in a group who call themselves Team Justice were able to identify a suspect: a police officer-turned-truck mechanic named Joseph James DeAngelo who eventually admitted responsibility for at least 13 murders and 50 rapes in the 1970s and ’80s in California. She tells the story the world has been waiting to hear in her mesmerizing memoir, I Know Who You Are: How an Amateur DNA Sleuth Unmasked the Golden State Killer and Changed Crime Fighting Forever

“All my life, mysteries have called out to me to be solved,” Rae-Venter writes. As a child growing up in New Zealand, she had what her mother called a “grasshopper mind,” meaning that Rae-Venter tended to circle a topic, coming at it from odd angles before zeroing in on an insight. She came to the United States at age 20, eventually earning a Ph.D. in biology and becoming a patent lawyer specializing in biotechnology innovations. In retirement, she started researching her own family history, then became a volunteer genealogist at a not-for-profit organization called DNAAdoption that teaches adoptees how to identify biological relatives using autosomal DNA. In 2015, Rae-Venter became involved in a cold case pertaining to an adoptee named Lisa Jensen, who at age 5 was abandoned by a man who claimed to be her father but wasn’t. The now-grown Jensen had no idea who her birth parents were until Rae-Venter solved this family mystery, and what turned out to be a mind-blowing criminal case, using investigative genetic genealogy (IGG). 

In addition to Jensen and the Golden State Killer, Rae-Venter describes a number of additional intriguing cases she’s worked on, along with the chilling details of actually being present at DeAngelo’s sentencing. She also discusses the ethical issues that IGG poses to the privacy of individuals’ DNA profiles, explains the complicated process of IGG in layman’s terms and includes a helpful glossary.

After unmasking the Golden State Killer, Rae-Venter planned to be identified only as an anonymous geneticist, but her son finally convinced her to go public. “If my story can inspire a budding young scientist somewhere to pursue her dreams, then my story is a story worth telling,” she writes. Indeed it is, and true crime lovers everywhere will agree.

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I Know Who You Are

I Know Who You Are

By Barbara Rae-Venter
ISBN 9780593358894

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