Did CeCe Moore ever think she would be the star of a major television network reality program, solving cold case murders at age 51?
“Definitely not,” she says firmly and with a slight laugh. “I never wanted to get in front of a camera again.”
But here she is, in her fifth decade and not only appearing in but co-producing ABC’s The Genetic Detective, an hour-long docudrama in which Moore uses her singular forensic skills to help law enforcement solve long-abandoned cold cases.
The show, which debuted May 26, has all the necessary hallmarks of a compelling true-crime series: images and evidence from the crime scene; the community response to the lingering horror; the discouraged detectives who do their best but come up empty-handed; the mourning loved ones searching for closure; and, thanks to Moore, the big break that solves the case.
There are six episodes of The Genetic Detective in the first season, and Moore says there are countless more solved cases in the pipeline, with no end in sight, should the network want more. “We’re averaging one [solved case] a week,” she says in a phone call from her home base in southern California. “We’ve solved 109 cases.”
While Moore does her sleuthing on the other side of the country, the investigations actually start in a nondescript building off Wiehle Avenue in Reston. “Do you know where the McTacoHut is?” Dr. Steven Armentrout asks by way of describing a landmark.
Of course we do: Everyone knows the McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut restaurants all rolled into one fast-food building. “Well, we’re in the building basically next to them.”
Armentrout is president and CEO of Parabon NanoLabs, Inc., a 21-year-old technology company that started out developing computer software “but sort of migrated over time into DNA-related technologies,” he says.
DNA has been used in forensic science for decades, most notably for confirming that suspects were at crime scenes. The Department of Defense wanted to know if DNA could be used to determine more characteristics than identity, such as appearance, which would be particularly useful on the battlefield where DNA databases are hard to come by.
“Parabon was very well positioned to tackle that problem because it’s really a matter of computer science and machine learning,” two of the company’s strengths, Armentrout says. In 2010, a contract with the DOD Small Business Innovation Research Program “put us on a path to develop technologies to do new things with DNA,” he says. “And over the course of several years, we introduced those technologies to law enforcement.”
As we’re on the phone, instead of meeting in person during the coronavirus lockdown, we wonder what Parabon NanoLabs looks like. Test tubes and centrifuges? Beakers and Bunsen burners?
“Not at all: It looks like a computer shop,” says Armentrout. The genetic material is delivered to Parabon’s partner genotyping labs for sequencing. That information is sent to Reston in a digital file. What Parabon NanoLabs does next has been called “magic” by law enforcement agencies, and the magician is CeCe Moore.
While Parabon NanoLabs was in Reston pushing the boundaries of DNA use, Moore was in California using DNA clues to find genetic matches in order to solve “family mysteries” as a “genetic genealogist,” she says. DNA is useful, to be sure, but Moore had to develop authentic, research-oriented, evidence-based detective skills in order to build family trees from nothing but genetic code.
Her profile in the genealogy field—she was named 2014’s Genetic Genealogist of the Year by a DNA trade journal—landed her consulting roles on PBS’s Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and ABC’s 20/20, among other programs.
One of the things the DOD wanted from Parabon NanoLabs was a way to identify, for instance, fallen soldiers. To explore how to do that, they would have to recruit families and research families—and there was already a field doing that: genealogy.
Armentrout’s wife and vice president of the firm, Paula, began setting up a table at weekend genealogy conferences, networking with hobbyists and professionals, hoping to recruit help for the study. Since the field is rather small, genealogists tend to know who is doing what, and word of the Parabon NanoLabs study made its way to Moore.
One day Paula’s phone rang in Reston. It was Moore, Steven says. “She said, ‘Your study has come across my desk three times. I know everything that’s going on in genetic genealogy; tell me what this is all about.’”
Once the Armentrouts and Moore understood what they could do for each other, Moore was hired. In the parlance of their business, their DNA was a perfect match.
Parabon NanoLabs signed Moore in 2018 to lead its genetic genealogy unit, which includes genetic genealogy for identifying family members, DNA phenotyping to predict physical appearances and ancestry, and “kinship inference” to determine how family members are related. That last one is key to how Moore solves many of her family reunion mysteries: Not only can she verify two people are from the same family, she can determine which second cousin’s brother is the one they’re looking for.
The idea was floated for her to do a TV show on her family reunions—ABC was amenable—“but I was always reticent to do that,” she says. “When you are opening up Pandora’s box and revealing people’s deepest, darkest secrets, you have to approach these situations sensitively. I didn’t want to put anyone’s family reunion at risk.”
But a true-crime show? “The damage is already done, unfortunately,” she says. Thanks to her relationship with ABC’s 20/20, producers already knew her and what she could do, and The Genetic Detective was born.
Even the COVID-19 lockdown did not slow the pace of crime solving for her and her team of three part-time genetic genealogists. “There are lots more cases that we feel really confident about,” she says, “but we don’t consider them solved until we get confirmation from the detectives that the DNA sample matches our tip.”
As of mid-May, Moore had solved 109 cold cases using her genetic sleuthing skills, helping to put fugitives from the law behind bars and providing that all-important closure for families and loved ones, and it’s the emotional response by the victims and the victims’ survivors that mean the most to her.
A lingering memory from the series, she says, is the press conference in Idaho for the Angie Dodge case, in which evidence developed by Moore was instrumental in solving, 23 years later, a rape/murder case involving 18-year-old Dodge.
“Being at that press conference with all the people that my work had the most impact on, and the people who’d been invested in this case for decades for different reasons, that was a really unique experience for me because I’m typically working from home on my laptop,” she says. “I don’t always have face-to-face interaction with the people involved in these cases. So that’s probably the moment that sticks out the most.”
While most of the cases she works on are cold cases shelved by authorities, sometimes for decades, Moore, on occasion, becomes involved in active cases. The last episode of the series details the investigation by St. George, Utah, police who solved a brutal 2018 rape and robbery of a 79-year-old woman, Carla Brooks, with evidence provided by Moore and the Parabon NanoLabs team. Police arrested 32-year-old Spencer Glen Monnett, who confessed to the crime.
Moore says meeting Brooks was a powerful moment for her.
She also met one of the six victims of a serial rapist in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Darold Wayne Bowden was identified as the “Ramsey Street Rapist,” who attacked women in the same neighborhood over a two-year period, from 2006 to 2008. While the rapes terrified the city, the police were unable to find a suspect.
In 2017, Parabon NanoLabs produced four composites of what the suspect would look like, but the trail remained cold. It was Moore’s genetic genealogic evidence—DNA, open source records and family trees—two years later that enabled detectives to “triangulate and figure out a strong person of interest,” said Lt. John Somerindyke at a press conference announcing the arrest.
“They did their magic with it,” Somerindyke said of Parabon NanoLab’s evidence. “We were able to obtain his DNA, get it off to the state crime lab, and we got a match yesterday. We got the guy.”
Yes, capturing rapists and murderers is rewarding, but for Moore, it’s about the victims, not the suspects.
“Seeing the bravery of these women,” she says of Brooks and the Fayetteville rape victim, “for them to be willing to discuss [the crimes] in public and come forward without shame, I think that will be important for other victims to see and hopefully get some healing.”
It’s not a coincidence that many of the victims of cold cases are women, Moore says, and she believes the popularity of the burgeoning true-crime genre of reality television and podcasts is because women are tuning in.
“I think, from what I’ve seen, probably the bulk of the true-crime audience are women,” she says. “I think women in our society feel vulnerable throughout their lives to becoming victims of violent crimes. I think that that’s part of it.”
She relates, she says, because “I was single for a lot of years and personally, knowing what could have happened [as a single woman] is very sobering. I think a lot of women face those fears day in and day out. So there is an interest in seeing those types of crimes resolved and having people brought to justice that have victimized so many vulnerable members of our society—children, women, elderly people. We do work cases where it’s a male victim, but the vast majority of the cases are women and children.”
Watching a woman on television using creative insight and modern technology doggedly hunting those who would harm women and children is cathartic, particularly when the suspect is apprehended, she says.
“Maybe it’s a way of people facing their fears,” she suggests, “and in our series there’s actually a resolution. That’s not always true in true-crime, but I think people will get a lot of satisfaction from seeing some of these decades-old cases resolved.”
Moore, who is married and has a 15-year-old son, already had a career in show businesses before The Genetic Detective. She dabbled in musical theater and “did a lot of commercials and bit parts, and a lot of training videos—just a lot of ‘working actor’ type things. Not ever anything big, but enough to make a living.”
Which is why having a network television show now is so surprising to her. “You know, I was on camera in my 20s and early 30s and I would have loved to have gotten a TV show back then,” she says. “That was really the goal, right? And I really was not aspiring to have one in my 50s. But you just never know what life is going to bring.”
Like, for instance, having a successful career in genetic genealogy?
“And that brings up an important point,” she says. “I didn’t find this career, I had to create this career in my 40s. There was no such thing as a professional genetic genealogist when I started, so you couldn’t even imagine that you could aspire to become one. I had to pretty much create my own occupation to be where I am.”
And that, she says, is one of the driving forces for her work.
“I think people need to be optimistic. It’s a really hard time right now and maybe a lot of people are losing their jobs and maybe it’s a good time for people to focus on the things they really love to do, that they’re really passionate about. I don’t even have a science degree—I mean, I’m certainly an unlikely person to be in this position, and it really only happened because I was just so committed. And so I would hope that that’s inspirational to others, particularly other women who might be reentering the workforce after having a family, having children, maybe staying home or staying in a career in which they’re not fulfilled.”
She takes a breath. “I never could have imagined I would be doing what I’m doing and that I would be involved in such a fulfilling career. There’s always hope for us despite when people think, ‘Oh, it’s too late.’ I know I had a lot of career regrets in the past but it’s amazing how it all ended up working out,” she says. “If people follow their passion and they’re really committed to doing what they love, they absolutely can make a career out of it.”