When Eric Schubert was a boy, he endured bouts with asthma that made him prone to pneumonia.
Pneumonia’s yearly return would keep him confined to home for days on end. When he was in fourth grade and stuck at home, his mother suggested he busy himself on the genealogical site Ancestry.com.
He delved into his family’s genealogy, often with a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream to help make him feel better. Always Breyers, where his grandfather worked.
Schubert’s health eventually improved to the point that the annual pneumonia quarantine was unneeded. But he didn’t leave genealogy behind.
Around age 15 and needing a job, he started ES Genealogy, even creating the website himself, and began helping people piece together their family tree or, in the case of people who were adopted, their birth parents.
In one of his early adoption cases, he learned the client’s parents died in a murder-suicide.
“From what I remember, they took it pretty well,” he said, noting that when adoptees are in their 50s and 60s and looking into their family history, they are not necessarily expecting to find living parents.
A detective at a police department in Montgomery County, just outside Philadelphia, read the Inquirer article and contacted him.
It was the week Schubert graduated high school. He was having dinner with a friend when he checked his phone and saw an email, asking him if he could help solve a cold case.
Schubert was skeptical and didn’t respond for a few days.
“I was barely 18,” Schubert said. But he thought to himself: “You know what? This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. How about I become the youngest person, at age 18, to solve a cold case through (genetic) genealogy?”
Schubert said he helped solve the case, but he’s not at liberty to discuss it because an arrest hasn’t been made yet.
He’s now helping about a half-dozen departments on cold cases that fall into two categories: homicide and sexual assault.
He explained the process this way:
“I usually get some sort of report or a genetic match list that gives me DNA matches of suspects and I use those matches to trace things out and see where things connect and where the family trees align,” he said.
“I might trace out 100 male descendants. Fifty are from Pennsylvania. OK, focus on them. I know their eye color. OK, 10. Then, how many have criminal records? Maybe one or two,” he said.
It’s the same process that investigators here used to solve the 1992 sexual assault and murder of schoolteacher Christy Mirack. In 2018, Genetic Genealogy led detectives to Raymond Rowe, known professionally as “DJ Freez.”
Rowe pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, rape, forced intercourse and burglary. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for murder, plus 60 to 120 years for the other crimes.
One might expect that Schubert plans to make a career of his genealogical work, but he said he doesn’t. He’s majoring in political science and history and has an internship with the U.S. State Department.
He’s not exactly sure what he wants to do for a career but said he plans to continue with genealogical work as a side business.
Schubert said he never expected that a hobby he embraced to pass the time when he was a child would ultimately turn into a business, but his parents weren’t surprised at all.
“My parents thought it would be pretty obvious — maybe not from the start, but that I would go pretty crazy with it,” he said. “But once I’m in, I’m all in.”