This Week in Forensic Science

No one has hours to scour the papers to keep up with the latest news, so we’ve curated the top news stories in the field of Forensic Science for this week. Here’s what you need to know to get out the door!




Michigan Launches National Pilot Program to Help Curb Acts of Mass Violence (Forensic – 8/19/2022)

    • During a critical time in U.S. history, and in a year that has seen more than 350 mass shootings, Michigan State University’s Department of Psychiatry is launching a pilot program – with a $15 million grant from the state of Michigan – to help curb acts of violence and spare families from unthinkable trauma before it’s too late.

      The Center for Targeted Violence Prevention is a collaborative program between the MSU Department of Psychiatry — a shared department in the Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine and Human Medicine at MSU — and the National Policing Institute, or NPI. Beginning this fall in five Michigan regions, the five-year pilot program will establish a research-to-practice hub to provide guidance, training and consultation in the regions, and will also assign intensive support teams to provide case management and mentoring services to high-risk/high-need adolescents and their caregivers. The regions are yet to be determined.


Opinion | In Tulsa, The Movement for Reparations Scores a Historic Victory (The Washington Post – 8/19/2022)

  • In May, a judge allowed a reparations lawsuit brought by the attack’s last living survivors to go forward. Then, this month, the suit was allowed to go to the discovery phase. It’s the first time in U.S. history that a lawsuit filed by Black victims of such historic white terrorism has progressed this far.

    The bad news, though, is that too little attention has been paid to what these milestones mean for racial justice in America. To shed light on these developments, I caught up with Damario Solomon-Simmons, one of the lawyers representing the survivors. Here’s some of our conversation, edited lightly for clarity.


Investigative Genetic Genealogy Leads to Man’s Conviction in 2 Southern California Cold Case Murders (ABC7 – 8/19/2022)

  • A man described by a prosecutor as a sexually motivated serial killer was convicted Thursday of murdering two women in the 1980s, including one in Burbank.

    A downtown Los Angeles jury deliberated for about three hours before convicting 67-year-old Horace Van Vaultz Jr. of first-degree murder for the July 16, 1981, strangulation of Selena Keough, a 21-year-old mother who was killed in San Bernardino County and dumped under bushes in Montclair, and the June 9, 1986, asphyxiation of Mary Duggan, a 22-year-old Reseda resident whose body was found in the trunk of her car in an empty parking lot in Burbank.

    The nine-man, three-woman panel also found true the special- circumstance allegations of multiple murders, murder during a rape involving both women and murder during sodomy involving Keough.

    Vaultz testified in his own defense and denied any involvement in the killings.

    The case marked the first criminal prosecution in Los Angeles County involving investigative genetic genealogy, in which detectives access commercial DNA databases, load DNA material from the crime and find a relative’s match that can point toward a suspect and collect their DNA, then- Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said at the time.


MS Office of the State Medical Examiner and Harrison County Coroner’s Office Team with Othram to Identify 2017 John Doe (DNA Solves – 8/19/2022)

  • In October 2017, the skeletal remains of an unknown man were discovered by a group of boaters near the Tchoutachabouffa River in Biloxi, in an area known as “Hurricane Hole”. The discovery was made hours prior to the landfall of Hurricane Nate. In late 2021, as part of an ongoing collaboration, Othram teamed up with the Office of the State Medical Examiner and the Harrison County Coroner’s Office to use Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing to help generate new leads that might identify the unknown man or his next of kin.


The Democratization of Forensic Genetic Genealogy (Forensic – 8/22/2022)

    • Last week, Verogen and Gene by Gene announced a partnership to accelerate the adoption of forensic investigative genetic genealogy. The meshing of Verogen and Gene by Gene—and the databases of GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA—effectively doubles the number of profiles available for genetic genealogy matching.

      Under the agreement, Gene by Gene will support DNA uploads generated from the Verogen ForenSeq Kintelligence kit, and both organizations will create algorithms and software dedicated to standardizing and lowering the cost of the forensic investigative genetic genealogy workflow. This is all part of Verogen’s vision of a “democratized” genetic genealogy, according to Verogen CEO Brett Williams.

      Listen to the rest of Editor-in-Chief Michelle Taylor’s interview with Williams, where he takes reader-submitted questions and shares his perspective on the future of forensic investigative genetic genealogy.


Florida Trucker Arrested for 1996 Rape, Murder of Michigan Woman Case Solved using Forensic Genetic Genealogy (PR Newswire – 8/22/2022)

    • Identifinders International, in conjunction with the Kent County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO), is pleased to announce an arrest in the 1996 rape and murder of Sharon Kay Hammack. Ms. Hammack, 29, was found by a delivery man shortly after she was murdered in South Kent County, MI, on October 3, 1996. Garry Dean Artmen, a truck driver and resident of Florida, was identified as a suspect using forensic genetic genealogy and was arrested in Mississippi by the Mississippi Highway Patrol on Tuesday. He is currently awaiting extradition to Michigan.

Othram Appoints Carla Davis as Chief Genetic Genealogist (CISION – 8/22/2022)

    • Othram, the leading forensic sequencing laboratory for law enforcement, is pleased to announce the appointment of Carla Davis as Chief Genetic Genealogist. Mrs. Davis will lead efforts to scale Othram’s domestic and international genealogical research operations.

      Carla Davis joins Othram after a year-long collaboration in which she led genealogical efforts to restore names to unidentified persons in Virginia, Alabama, and her home state of Mississippi. A member of the Association of Professional Genealogists, Davis has applied autosomal DNA testing to genealogical research, since 2016, to help over 200 people of unknown parentage identify their biological families. Leveraging advanced methods, including Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA testing, her research has led to the identification of familial relationships that extend back to the 1700s.


    • The two friends, along with hundreds of other unrelated look-alikes, participated in a photography project by François Brunelle, a Canadian artist. The picture series, “I’m not a look-alike!,” was inspired by Mr. Brunelle’s discovery of his own look-alike, the English actor Rowan Atkinson.

      The project has been a hit on social media and other parts of the internet, but it’s also drawn the attention of scientists who study genetic relationships. Dr. Manel Esteller, a researcher at the Josep Carreras Leukaemia Research Institute in Barcelona, Spain, had previously studied the physical differences between identical twins, and he wanted to examine the reverse: people who look alike but aren’t related. “What’s the explanation for these people?” he wondered.


Riverside District Attorney’s Office Leverages Othram’s Genetic Testing Platform to Identify a 1991 Jane Doe (DNASolves – 8/23/2022)

    • In January 1991, human remains were found in a wash area at the base of a hill in the area west of Avenue 62 and Madison Street in Thermal. Only skeletal remains were found and they appeared to have been in the desert for a lengthy amount of time. Investigators noted that the remains belonged to a woman with short brown hair, with tones of red and gray. There were few other clues available as only partial remains were recovered. The case was submitted to NamUs as UP71659 and to ViCAP as 1999CMP00412. A subsequent investigation by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department unfortunately produced no leads and the case, believed to be a suspicious death, went cold.

      In early 2022, the Riverside District Attorney’s Office contracted Othram to use advanced DNA testing to produce new leads in the case that might reveal the identity of the homicide victim or at least help find a close family member.


FIU Launches New Program in Veterinary Forensics (FIU News – 8/24/2022)

    • FIU is launching a Professional Science Master’s (PSM) in Forensic Science track in Veterinary Forensic Science starting Fall 2023. In partnership with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the curriculum provides those working in animal services a comprehensive skillset to oversee animal cruelty cases.

      The Global Forensic and Justice Center (GFJC) will offer a 16-month online program, allowing professionals the flexibility to engage with subject matter experts from anywhere in the world.


Bones Found 31 Years Ago Identified as California Woman (AP News – 8/24/2022)

    • Bones found in a Southern California desert more than 31 years ago have been identified as the remains of a Los Angeles County woman.

      The Riverside County Regional Cold Case Homicide Team used forensic genealogy to identify the bones as those of Kathryn Coffey of Baldwin Park, the district attorney’s office said in a press release Wednesday.

      The bones were discovered on Jan. 22, 1991, in the unincorporated Coachella Valley community of Thermal, southwest of the city of Indio.



Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office Seeks Funding to Put Names to Long-Unidentified People (KERA – 8/24/2022)

    • The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office is applying for a federal grant to help them do more forensic genetic genealogical analysis to identify people that remain unidentified, in some cases for years.

      Forensic genetic genealogical analysis is a newer technology that’s gained traction in recent years. Even though the method has been used to find suspects in decades-old cold cases, like the so-called “Golden State Killer” in California, or the killing of Mary Hague Kelly in Dallas, the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office wants to use it to identify human remains that have been in the county’s care for years.

      The county is asking for about $400,000 from the federal government’s Missing and Unidentified Human Remains Program.

      If the county wins the grant, it will send out DNA samples to private labs that will compare them to publicly available genetic genealogy databases, to find relatives of unidentified people and figure out their identities from within a family tree.



A 150-Year-Old Mystery: Using DNA to ID Remains Found at Maine Construction Site (NBC10 Boston – 8/24/2022)

    • A search is on for the name of a 10-year-old girl who likely lived during the late 1800s.

      A historian and researchers say they are close to successfully concluding the search after the girl’s remains were discovered at a convenience store construction site in 2017.

      “I went to meet the foreman that was working on the site and I let him know there’s a pretty good chance they’re going to find a body or body parts,” said Paul Auger, a historian and teacher at Sanford High School.

      During a Wednesday interview with NECN & NBC10 Boston, Auger explained that the same spot had once been the site of a cemetery.

      After the initial discovery of the remains, he involved students from the high school who did some of the work with the bones, in what became a very real-world learning exercise.



Her Slaying Went Unsolved for 34 Years. Police Say They Identified Her Killer After He Licked an Envelope (CNN – 8/26/2022)

    • After more than three decades of questions and grief, Tamika Reyes finally knows who killed her mother.

      Anna Kane was 26 when her body was found on October 23, 1988, in a wooded area near Reading, Pennsylvania, with baling twine around her neck. An investigation revealed she’d been strangled elsewhere and dumped in the woods.
      A local newspaper, the Reading Eagle, ran a front-page story seeking information on Kane’s death. In February 1990, about 15 months after she was killed, the paper received an anonymous letter from a “concerned citizen” with information that only the killer would know, police said.
      The letter writer also left his DNA when he licked the envelope. The DNA from the saliva matched what was found on Kane’s clothing, authorities said this week.


MS Office of the State Medical Examiner and Jackson Police Department Team with Othram to Identify 2018 John Doe (DNASolves – 8/26/2022)

    • In February 2018, Jackson Fire Department responded to a fire at a rooming house at 1539 W. Capital Street in Jackson, Mississippi. After extinguishing the fire, investigators found the burned remains of an unknown man. Cause of death was determined to be smoke and soot inhalation, however the manner of death is still being investigated. There were no personal effects recovered and no clues at the scene that could provide clues as to who the victim of the fire was. With few leads to pursue, the case eventually went cold.

      In April 2022, as part of an ongoing collaboration, Othram teamed up with the Office of the State Medical Examiner and the Jackson Police Department to use Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing to help generate new leads that might identify the unknown man or his next of kin.


DNA: Remains Match Tennessee Sailor Who Died at Pearl Harbor (U.S. News & World Report – 8/28/2022)

    • A Department of Defense effort that began in 2015 to use science to solve one of our country’s prolonged mysteries has identified the remains of a Navy sailor from Athens, Tennessee, who died in the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor more than eight decades ago.


When Remains are Found in a Suitcase, Forensics Can Learn a Lot from the Insects Trapped Within (The Conversation – 8/29/2022)

    • A crime scene can present itself in any form and size.

      In recent weeks, an Aotearoa New Zealand family who’d purchased abandoned goods from a storage locker made the harrowing discovery of two sets of human remains hidden inside two suitcases.

      Sadly, this is not a unique case – bodies of murder victims are found in suitcases with astonishing regularity. But they present a particular challenge for police investigating the crime, which is where forensic science comes in.


DCI Forensic Examiner Honored for Work Fighting Human Trafficking (South Dakota State News – 8/30/2022)

    • DCI Forensic Examiner Hollie Strand has earned the Freedom Fighter Award for her work combatting human trafficking by the advocacy group Freedom’s Journey.

      Strand has worked in law enforcement for more than 24 years and her career includes a stint as Chief of Police in Martin, S.D. A Rapid City native, she serves today as part of the Division of Criminal Investigations Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. She is based in the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office and handles cases for the Rapid City Police Department, the sheriff’s office as well as the DCI.



DNA Analysis Solves Mystery of Bodies Found at Bottom of Medieval Well (CNN – 8/30/2022)

    • Construction workers breaking ground in 2004 on a shopping mall in Norwich, England, found 17 bodies at the bottom of a 800-year-old well.

      The identity of the remains of the six adults and 11 children and why they ended up in the medieval well had long vexed archaeologists. Unlike other mass burials where skeletons are uniformly arranged, the bodies were oddly positioned and mixed — likely caused by being thrown head first shortly after their deaths.
      To understand more about how these people died, scientists were recently able to extract detailed genetic material preserved in the bones thanks to recent advances in ancient DNA sequencing. The genomes of six of the individuals showed that four of them were related — including three sisters, the youngest of whom was five to 10 years old. Further analysis of the genetic material suggested that all six were “almost certainly” Ashkenazi Jews.



Othram, Tennessee Investigators ID Child Skeletal Remains Found in 1985 (Forensic – 8/31/2022)

    • In April 1985, skeletal remains were found in the Big Wheel Gap area of Elk Valley in Campbell County. Forensic anthropologists determined that the skeletal remains were those of a white female, likely between the age of 10 and 15. However, investigators could not determine her identity, and she became affectionately known as “Baby Girl”. In 2007, a sample of her remains was submitted to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI) in hopes of identifying the victim. A DNA profile was developed for the victim and entered into CODIS, as well as the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System in hopes she would eventually be identified. She was logged in NamUs as UP1577. In June, Othram provided a possible relative connected to the child, who was living in Indiana. Using that information, a TBI intelligence analyst located potential family members in the Lafayette, Indiana area.

      In August 2022, UNTCHI confirmed that “Baby Girl” was Tracy Sue Walker, born June 2, 1963. Tracy went missing from the Lafayette, Indiana area in 1978. Now, TBI Special Agents hope the public can help provide information that may help determine the circumstances leading to Tracy Sue Walker’s death and how she ended up in Campbell County.



San Diego Police Launch New Portal for Sexual Assault Survivors (Forensic – 8/31/2022)

    • In accordance with State law, the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) has launched a new portal for survivors of sexual assault to securely track and receive updates regarding the status of their sexual assault evidence kit (SAEK).

      Senate Bill 215 amended Section 680.1 of the California Penal Code to require law enforcement agencies to establish a process for survivors to access the information electronically.

      SDPD worked with the Sexual Assault Management System (SAMS) team of the Portland Police Bureau to launch the Victim Portal they developed for use in San Diego. The Portland Police Bureau shares the Victim Portal free of charge with other police agencies in return for travel expenses while working on implementation with the agency.


OSBI Identifies Remains Found Partially Buried Near Lake Thunderbird in 2008 (KRMG – 8/31/2022)

    • The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) has identified the woman found partially buried in 2008 near Lake Thunderbird as Angela Mason.

      “It is a great day when we can give a victim their name back,” said Aungela Spurlock, OSBI Director. “Utilizing Forensic Genetic Genealogy is an investment and is unfortunately not possible to use on every cold case. But for Angela, the investment paid off. Now our team will continue to work to get Angela the justice she deserves.”

      On August 31, 2008, several fishermen found Mason, who was 25 at the time, partially decomposed in a shallow grave at 120th and Alameda, near Lake Thunderbird.

      In August 2021, having exhausted all investigative leads, retiring Director Ricky Adams approved the case for genetic genealogy testing. Criminalists from the OSBI Forensic Science Center sent DNA from Mason’s remains to Parabon Nanolabs in an effort to locate relatives.

      Parabon returned results in March of 2022 identifying a possible relative. The OSBI contacted the relative and asked for a DNA sample to compare to the victim.



DNA Doe Project Working to Identify Body Found in Madison Chimney 33 Years Ago (DDP – 9/02/2022)

    • On September 3, 1989, workers removing a leaky boiler in the basement of the Good ‘n Loud Music store on University Avenue in Madison discovered skeletal remains in the chimney, along with a rotting paisley dress and an iron cross necklace. The case went cold for almost 30 years before the Madison Police Department connected the DNA Doe Project. After years of effort, the work towards an identification officially began in November 2021. Using a grant from the National Institutes of Justice, Astrea Forensics of Santa Cruz, California successfully extracted a DNA sample from rootless hair – one of the most difficult biological samples to get DNA from. This week, the sample has made it through the rest of the lab process pipeline and the DNA Doe Project is launching the investigative genetic genealogy phase of the work to identify this Doe.


      This case, originally referred to the DNA Doe Project in 2019 by the Trans Doe Taskforce, is close to the hearts of many volunteers at the DNA Doe Project due to the mysterious circumstances as well as the belief that the skeleton may belong to a transgender person. Early DNA testing revealed that this Doe was assigned male at birth.