The true crime boom, DNA sleuths, and giving up on expectations of privacy

Part of the Escape Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

Phil Nichols doesn’t get a lot of unannounced visitors at the long-term sober-living house in Cincinnati where he lives. The two US marshals waiting at the door on a March afternoon in 2018 told Nichols they had information for him. And questions. They wore plainclothes —and smiles — and assured Nichols that he wasn’t in trouble.

He invited them in.

It was all very cordial, very polite, very Midwestern. It was early afternoon, the equivalent of morning for Nichols, who doesn’t wake before noon. Although he was surprised by the visit, Nichols didn’t seem unsettled by it. Then the marshals mentioned an address: 1823 Center Street.

Nichols recognized it immediately. It was his grandmother’s address in New Albany, Indiana. That was where his father was raised, and where Nichols spent time as a child.

It was also the address that Joseph Newton Chandler III, a mysterious dead man that the marshals were investigating, had listed on a rental application in Mentor, Ohio. Only Chandler had listed the city as Columbus, and the resident as Mary R. Wilson, his sister.

Neither the woman nor the address existed — at least not in Columbus.

The marshals then showed Nichols pictures of Chandler and asked whether Nichols recognized the man in the photos.

He did.

In one photo, the man is caught unaware. He wears a wide-brimmed hat and pinstripe suit and stands in front of a cluster of balloons.

“That’s my father,” Nichols said. Except the man in the photo wasn’t Joseph Chandler, he told them. He was Robert Ivan Nichols.

The last time Phil Nichols had seen his father was in the early 1960s. He heard from him once after that, when the elder Nichols sent his teenage son a letter. Inside was a single penny.

That was in 1965. The family reported Robert Nichols missing the same year. They never heard from him again.

Phil thought he also might never find out what happened to his father. Then, more than 50 years later, the marshals turned up at his door and told him a story about a dead boy, a stolen identity, a mysterious man, a suicide — and his father.

In 2002, 76-year-old Joseph Newton Chandler III had been found dead by suicide in his efficiency apartment near Cleveland, Ohio. He had $82,000 in the bank, says US Marshal Pete Elliott, one of the authorities at Phil Nichols’s door that day. In the absence of a will, law enforcement set out to find Chandler’s next of kin. That’s when they discovered the real Chandler had died in 1945 in a traffic accident in Texas on Christmas Day as he and his parents headed to his grandparents’ house in a car loaded with gifts.

Chandler was 8 when he died. Who the Cleveland man was was anyone’s guess.

In 2014, the marshals began comparing the case to unsolved fugitive cases from the 1960s and ’70s. The name change alone was enough for Elliott to suspect the mystery man had committed crimes in addition to identity theft.

“If he’s running away just from his family, typically when we see that, they don’t go to the extent that Joseph Newton — sorry, Robert Nichols — did,” Elliott said in a phone interview.

The dead man in Cleveland had somehow been using Chandler’s identity since 1978. Aside from the familiar street address, which investigators say is not uncommon among impostors, the elder Nichols had done everything he could to erase himself.

Yet there were clues hinting at a darker past, or at least that’s what Elliott believes. Former coworkers in northeast Ohio where the man who went by Joseph Chandler worked on a contract basis as a draftsman and electrical engineer described him as highly intelligent and a loner. They said he kept a suitcase packed and ready to go and would disappear, only to return to work months later. Before he left, he would tell them, “They’re getting close.”

Earlier, in Kentucky and Indiana, when he was still Robert Nichols, he also spoke in code. He told his wife, “I’m leaving you, and one day you’ll know why,” says Elliott. Suspecting something sinister, Elliott dug up cold cases in the area. Nothing matched. The same was true of other cold cases he tried to connect to Nichols. He couldn’t find any evidence, possibly because Nichols knew how to hide it.

“He didn’t want to be found,” says Elliott. “Dead or alive.”

Using genetic genealogy and GEDmatch — the same site used to identify the Golden State Killer in 2018 — the California nonprofit DNA Doe Project finally solved the Nichols mystery. Law enforcement relies on DNA databases that look at only around 20 markers in the genome. The results from databases that get uploaded to GEDmatch (which accepts data from all the various companies creating genetic profiles, such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA) test for 600,000 markers. It’s the difference between being able to identify only siblings and parents and identifying even distant cousins. Genealogists can use the information to build family trees, which is how DNA Doe Project co-founders Colleen Fitzpatrick and Margaret Press located Phil Nichols.

The story made headlines for its oddness. Because Nichols had spent time in California, there were theories he could have been the Zodiac Killer. On Reddit, which is teeming with amateur genealogical and true crime forums, the case attracted the attention of web sleuths. Yet despite its intrigue, it was only one of dozens of cold cases in the past two years that have been solved by combining family tree genealogy with DNA database searches.

DNA Doe Project alone has solved many of them, including that of Lavender Doe, a young woman whose charred body was discovered in Kilgore, Texas, in 2006. Investigators noted her perfect teeth and the purple shirt she was wearing when she was found, earning her the nickname Lavender Doe. The project was able to give her back her real name, Dana Lynn Dodd. It also was able to name Buckskin Girl, a young woman whose body was discovered in Troy, Ohio, in 1981 dressed in a deerskin poncho over jeans and a sweater. That woman was Marcia L. King. She was from Arkansas and was 21 when she was killed.

But similar techniques are also being used to help families find members they never knew they had, unearthing secrets of illegitimacy, suicide, and ethnic background.

Now the historical narrative for families and society at large can no longer be shaped by the destruction of documents and the selective telling of stories, Matthew Stallard and Manchester historian Jerome de Groot wrote in the Journal of Family History in March. And finding those who don’t want to be found, like Robert Ivan Nichols, can also be devastating, as painful secrets once thought irretrievable are exposed. Which has ethicists and genealogists wondering: Who exactly has the right to tell our ancestors’ stories, and who has the right to simply disappear?

Genealogy, or the exploring of family history, was once done by lovely, generous, and cooperative people, says de Groot. But it was a bit dry.

Now, archival genetic material is no longer kept in public institutions with historians; it’s in the hands of private organizations aggregating DNA for their customers. The largest of the databases, AncestryDNA, has the genetic material of 20 million people, says de Groot. He estimates that 23andMe has about 10 million people.

“If you add all the big databases together, you would get 50 to 60 million people,” he says. “By extrapolation, you could probably get the entire world.”

That huge amount of data is now being used to build out family trees and solve mysteries, of both the familial and forensic sort. The internet has only added to the genealogists’ role, enabling them to interact and crowdsource in ways they never could before. On sites like Reddit, they work with more general sleuths to solve mysteries.

“You can basically just put people together and match and not really deal with the consequences,” says de Groot.

The Golden State Killer case marked a huge pivot from using the databases for educational or informational purposes to using them to solve crimes, says Benjamin Berkman, a faculty member in the National Institutes of Health Department of Bioethics with a joint appointment in the National Human Genome Research Institute. But their use has only recently begun to raise ethical questions.

“There’s been a long, robust history of thinking about the ethics of genetics in a medical context, but as these new technologies developed, there hasn’t always been, at least at the outset, the same sort of attention,” says Berkman.

But there are ethical dilemmas to consider, such as the tendency of people to not want to know unpleasant things.

“Knowing that your parent had committed a crime a long time ago, for example, would be traumatic for a lot of people,” says Berkman. “So you are imposing a burden on people by digging around and uncovering stuff that they want to keep hidden.”

Indiana veterinarian turned genealogist Michael Lacopo recently wrote a cautionary chapter about uncovering family secrets in the 2019 book Advanced Genetic Genealogy: Techniques and Case Studies. While Lacopo appreciates the thrill of solving a genealogical puzzle, he also worries about the ramifications.

“I think you lose track of the trail you leave behind you and the ripple effect you have in front of you,” he says.

Fake names, as in the case of Robert Nichols, can be even more troubling. If a person has committed a crime and is fleeing it, that is one thing. But if they are innocent and possibly fleeing an unsafe situation, Berkman says he believes that they “would have a right to not have their past dredged up.”

In the Nichols case, police were looking for relatives of the man they knew only as Joseph Newton Chandler III when they learned he hadn’t taken the name until 1978, the same year he started working in northeast Ohio. Fingerprints were unattainable, and the dead man seemed to have no friends or family. They did have a tissue sample from an earlier hospitalization, and the mystery man’s DNA profile was uploaded to national databases. When nothing turned up, law enforcement in 2016 contacted Colleen Fitzpatrick, half of the two-person forensic genealogy consulting company IdentiFinders International. She tracked down one match, but it ultimately led her nowhere.

It was around this same time that California genealogist Margaret Press approached Fitzpatrick with an idea. Press wanted to form an organization to help identify Jane and John Does using her years of genealogy experience building family trees combined with DNA databases. It was something she and other genealogists had been doing to help adoptees for some time. Together, the women developed data to generate genetic profiles for forensic cases in the same way companies such as 23andMe create genetic profiles for individuals. They then uploaded those profiles to GEDMatch. What they needed were cases. Fitzpatrick thought of Elliott. He agreed to let her have another crack at the mystery suicide case.

Although Nichols’s DNA was very degraded, the women, using techniques they developed, were able to obtain more genetic information than Fitzpatrick originally found, locating a number of third and fourth cousins. With the help of volunteers, they built family trees, narrowing their search to a single family with four sons. There were death certificates for three, but there was no death certificate for one of them — Robert Ivan Nichols. A volunteer looked up his birth certificate. He recognized the address it listed: 1823 Center Street.

New Albany, Indiana — that’s where it all began for the family. A suburb of Louisville, just across the Ohio River in Kentucky, is where Robert Ivan Nichols returned after fighting in World War II. Robert got a job delivering Coca-Cola, and played standup bass in a “hillbilly” band, Phil Nichols says. Phil’s maternal grandfather was a farmer who called square dances. Robert met Phil’s mother, Laverne Agnus Korty, at a dance.

Robert never talked about the war, but Robert’s mother did. He joined the Navy in 1944, straight out of high school. In May 1945, six Japanese kamikaze planes attacked the ship he was serving on in the South Pacific. He was part of a 16-man team that fed ammunition to one of the ship’s armored guns or turrets. Robert was one of only four men on his turret to survive the attack. In a newspaper account published in the Courier-Journal New Albany Bureau, he describes it as “52 minutes of hell.”

“When it was all over, all I thought about was home,” Robert told the newspaper.

He was 18. The newspaper listed his home address: 1823 Center Street.

When Robert returned to Center Street from the war, Phil’s grandmother told Phil, he put his uniform in the coal bin and burned it. Then Robert got the wooden airplanes he had built as a child and took them outside. He aimed a model machine gun at them.

Rat-a-tat-tat.

The model airplanes were destroyed by the gun’s BBs. That’s what Phil remembers his grandmother telling him. As a child, Phil and his two younger brothers, Charlie and Dave, often spent time with their grandparents. It was one of his brothers who found the newspaper article about their father’s ship. Dave, the youngest, died of cancer in 2015; he was 9 when his father disappeared. Phil was 16 and Charlie was 14.

In 2018, after the marshals identified their mystery suicide as Robert Nichols, media accounts followed. Several accounts described how Robert burned his military uniform after returning from the war. Phil was upset that some commenters misinterpreted that as Robert being unpatriotic.

He wants to make it clear that his father was a patriot, but that after the war, he became a pacifist. Robert returned with a Purple Heart and shrapnel in his back and hip. At home, he was quiet and well mannered, rarely showing either affection or anger.

“Even when he was home, it was like nobody was there,” says Phil.

According to Phil, about a year before he left, Robert began encouraging his wife to get a driver’s license and a job. They separated and filed for divorce. Robert asked Phil if he wanted to come with him. Phil told him he didn’t, but not in quite such polite terms. Instead, Phil enlisted in the military after he graduated from high school. His goal was to be a pilot, but he spent most of his off-duty hours in a bar. He wonders now how his life might have been different had he left with his father.

The last message Phil received was the penny, mailed to him while he was stationed in Mississippi. It arrived in a business-size envelope with a California postmark. But there was no letter offering an explanation, nor a return address.

“There was nothing,” he says.

Robert’s letters to his parents, shared with Vox by Elliott, were more prolific. After leaving Louisville, Robert moved to Dearborn, Michigan. In August 1964, he told his parents about going to church in the hope of meeting “the right kind of people.”

“I thaught (sic) it would be a good time to start again since my moving up here was sort of a new beginning,” he wrote.

A year later, he sent them a letter from California.

“I will write as often as I can and let you know how I am doing,” he said. It was his last letter.

Other correspondence came instead — letters from all the organizations Robert’s mother contacted asking for help locating him. A woman named Pauline at the Salvation Army was sympathetic but firm in her 1966 reply, explaining that the organization could not help when the person does not want to be found.

“It’s so hard to understand why so many leave home and neglect to keep in touch …” she wrote.

There were many of those, especially at the turn of the 20th century, says Franchesca Werden, DNA Doe Project’s media director. Before the internet and DNA, it was relatively common and easy for people to disappear. That happened a lot, says Werden. A man could move four towns over and change his name, or not change his name, and just lead another life. In the 19th century, taking on an alias was relatively simple, wrote Beverly Schwartzberg in the Journal of Social History in 2004. Schwartzberg cited a song popular among California miners, the refrain of which is: “Oh, what was your name in the States?”

That doesn’t mean it did not have a profound effect on the families left behind. In her genealogical research, Werden has found that what happened generations ago is woven into the tapestry of a family’s story. A father who walked out in 1939 to buy a pack of cigarettes and never came back has an impact on his grandchildren. How exactly this plays out differs from family to family. It’s “sort of Tolstoy,” with each family suffering a unique sort of grief, says Margaret Press, the DNA Doe co-founder, who happens to write her own true crime and mystery books.

Before co-founding the DNA Doe Project with Fitzpatrick in 2017, Press worked on finding parentage in adoption cases. (Fitzpatrick left in June to spend more time on IdentiFinders.) Both in adoption and in Jane and John Doe searches, the ethical questions are the same, says Press, including “whose rights trumps whose.” In the case of adoption, the primary question is whether an adoptee’s right to know their history trumps a birth parent’s right to privacy. Press believes it does. Although she finds it “sad” that sperm donors and birth parents may have been promised that they would never be named, she says she believes “anonymity is not a right.”

There are times she is less sure of herself. She acknowledges “there’s conflicting moral rights,” and that without the benefit of a law, the DNA Doe Project has to make its own ethical decisions. Press is firm in her belief that families have the right to know and authorities have the right to close cases, but she points out that the Doe Project only makes recommendations based on its findings and leaves it to law enforcement to decide about notifying families. Yet the project often contacts distant family members to narrow down their search. Press recalls accidentally contacting a first instead of third cousin.

“And I kind of stepped on a snake, if you will,” she says. “I overturned a bucket I didn’t expect to overturn.”

Press also cites the case of an African American man who discovered his birth father was a white man who had a wife, two grown children, and a country club membership. After the father rebuffed his son, Press wondered if she should tell the half-siblings about their half-brother. Someone else asked whether the father had the right not to know.

“And I thought that was an interesting semantic twist,” says Press. “Do people have a right not to know? And how do we make that decision for them?”

In some ways, it is easier to make decisions in Doe cases because the person at the center of the mystery is dead. In other ways, it is more complicated. In the 30 cases the project has solved, Press says mental illness and family estrangement are common. In many cases, the families never declared the Does missing, says Fitzpatrick. It could be because of the estrangement, or lack of support from police, or even lack of power to conduct a national search, which was true when some of these cases occurred more than 30 years ago. Law enforcement officials were limited by technology and their own biases, and some families might not have seen any reason to involve them, says Press. While online sleuths sometimes fault families for not reporting the member missing, she sees it differently.

“Yes, there were families where the mother was in jail or didn’t care or didn’t seem to care. We don’t know how they really feel,” she says.

Yet she and others doing this sort of work generally operate under the assumption that the family must want to know. It gets more complicated when suicide and fake names are involved. Fitzpatrick remembers one case involving a woman who appeared to have fled her original family. The woman, who went by the name Lori Erica Ruff, killed herself in Texas in 2010. Afterward, it was discovered that she had been using an alias. Her true identity was revealed in 2016. She left home in Philadelphia in 1986 at 17 because she did not get along with her stepfather. Did she have an obligation to let the family know when she apparently didn’t want to be found? Fitzpatrick wonders. In some ways the question is moot; DNA and genealogists are already in play.

Investigative journalist James Renner, who reported on the Chandler case and even wrote a novel loosely based on it, believes Ruff and those like her who are running from something terrible should be able to disappear.

“What right do we have to open up those doors?” he asks.

He makes an exception for rape and murder, and he is not the only one who believes the Nichols case may have involved both. Because of Robert Nichols’s various eccentricities and the time he spent in California in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the Zodiac Killer was active there, some web sleuths and even members of law enforcement — like Elliott, who says he can’t rule it out — suspect Nichols could be the killer. Phil is less sure.

“I find it hard to imagine because he was always such a gentle person,” he says.

Instead, he thinks his father was running from responsibility, in particular paying child support. When reporters come asking about the case, he is polite and open yet protective of other family members. He has the introspection and patience of a man who has spent years in Alcoholics Anonymous. He is reluctant to criticize or dwell on what he cannot change. But he does ask what the family gets out of it. The press gets a story, law enforcement gets to close a case, the Doe Project gets congratulations, but what does the family get?

His dad is still missing, in ways. All Phil knows now is how he died. Little was left in his apartment aside from the gun he used to kill himself. Elliott offered it to Phil and his brother. They told him to keep it. Of the press conference where his father’s identity was announced, Phil says, “I was just a minor part of it.” He is one of the few family members who have spoken publicly. While Press doesn’t think Does have a right to privacy, she believes their families do. Yet the work she does can lead to their exposure.

Without guidelines and rules, genetic genealogy is a sort of a Wild West, says Renner.

“Not that DNA databases are new,” adds de Groot. “It’s just that suddenly there’s this enormous ability for amateurs to get involved, and that opens up all kinds of ethical issues.”

Fitzpatrick wants to try to address some of those issues through a think tank that will bring together prosecutors, law enforcement, genealogists, missing persons experts, database engineers, and family members. (GEDMatch changed its policy earlier this year so users now have to opt in to allow law enforcement access to their data.)

“We are past the ‘oh, my god’ era,” says Fitzpatrick.

Now, she says, we have to address where we are going with it.

The Nichols case was one of the first “oh, my god” tales. If it were a Hollywood script, it might end with Robert being the Zodiac Killer, says Renner. But Robert also could have been a Don Draper, who on the television show Mad Men lives a double life after being traumatized by war.

“So, which is it?” asks Renner.

Elliott, the US marshal, says he is still trying to figure it out. Phil may never know. He is 72 and haunted by his own ghosts. After he was discharged from the military, Phil held a series of jobs: in printing, driving trucks, with various temp agencies. He’s been married four times and has five children. The women and children are not really part of his life anymore, aside from one daughter who lives in Louisville. Over the years, he’s moved many times. Somewhere along the way, he lost his father’s Purple Heart. He also lost any pictures he had of them together.

In the single room where he lives in Cincinnati, about 100 miles northeast of Louisville, he keeps several pictures of his father on his computer. Some are labeled “Dad as Joseph Newton Chandler,” and others are from when his father was Robert Nichols. There are a coffeepot and microwave in the room and a deck where he can smoke. He has lived in long-term sober living homes for almost two decades. His earlier life was spent largely in the haze of alcohol and drug addiction.

The $82,000 his father left behind would have been useful. Some of the money was spent on private investigators, and some went to the coworker who served as executor. All of it is gone. Before he killed himself, Robert Nichols had been diagnosed with colon cancer and was undergoing treatment. He was nearing the end of his life and, living in the Midwest again, he had almost come home. His last stop was Cleveland, a city just four hours from where his eldest son was living and a little over five from his original home on Center Street in Indiana.

Phil never got to tell his father he forgives him for leaving — and for not really being there in the first place. He has never visited the graveyard in Cleveland where his father’s ashes are interred. He doesn’t believe that’s where his father is. Not his soul, at least.

In a way, he is right. The name on the wall where his father’s remains rest is that of another man: Joseph Newton Chandler III.

Katya Cengel has written for the New York Times Magazine and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications, and is the author of three nonfiction books. Her most recent book, From Chernobyl with Love: Reporting from the Ruins of the Soviet Union was awarded an Independent Publisher Book Award and a Foreword INDIES.

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