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!
In October 1984, the remains of an unidentified individual were located by hunters on the bank of the West Pearl River in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana near the Louisiana/Mississippi state line. An analysis performed by the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office’s DNA Lab was completed in 2019 and uploaded to the national CODIS database but there was no match. At that time, an anthropological examination confirmed the subject was male, possibly of mixed race, and between the ages of 18 and 40 years at the time of his death.
In 2023, the LSU Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services (FACES) Laboratory a forensic sketch depicting how the man may have looked during his life was developed and released to the public. Details of the case were entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as #UP82978 with the “date body found” entered as the date that the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office requested an anthropological analysis. Despite investigators work to identify the decedent, his identity remains a decades old mystery.
In June 2023, Othram assisted the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office in the identification of Mr. Joseph Lee Muniz, a homicide victim whose remains were discovered in 1993. Now, the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office has teamed with Othram to identify St. Tammany Parish John Doe (1984) using advanced DNA testing and forensic genetic genealogy. Anyone with information that could assist in this investigation is encouraged to contact the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office at 985-781-1150, referencing case number STPCO 2048-19.
In May 1982, Kevin McBride, who was 47 at the time, was the victim of a homicide and died by multiple stab wounds inside his apartment at 311-5600 Sheppard Ave East. Officers were originally asked to attend Kevin’s residence by concerned friends who had dinner plans with him and were unable to reach him. Kevin McBride lived alone and was not associated with any criminality. He was last seen on May 15, 1982, two days prior to his body being located. A thorough investigation was conducted in 1982 and investigators were able to determine that the decedent’s vehicle, a credit card, and other effects had been stolen and used between May 15 and May 17, 1982, suggesting the date of the murder was May 15, 1982.
The case remained unsolved and was revisited in 2016 by Toronto Police Homicide Cold Case investigators. The primary focus of the ensuing investigation was to re-test exhibits and seized items from the original investigation to determine if advancements in forensic testing and a DNA database creation could determine any further leads. Testing of evidence found at the crime scene revealed a male profile, not of the deceased. However, the identity of the individual who left behind this male profile was could not be determined.
In 2022, the Toronto Police Service once again teamed with Othram to determine if advanced DNA testing could help to identify the unknown man. Toronto Police Services previously teamed with Othram to solve the 1983 murders of Susan Tice and Erin Gilmour as well as the abduction and murder of Christine Jessop. Forensic evidence was sent to Othram’s laboratory in The Woodlands, Texas. Othram scientists used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to build a comprehensive DNA profile. The profile was delivered to the Toronto Police Service investigators, who then used forensic genetic genealogy to generate investigative leads.
Toronto Police Service investigators developed leads based on the forensic genetic genealogy search and the suspect William Taylor was identified. William Taylor passed away in May 2023. DNA testing revealed that Mr. Taylor, who was 34 at the time of the homicide, was the source of the unknown DNA left at the crime scene. If William Taylor was alive today, he would be arrested and charged with First Degree Murder in the death of Kevin McBride.
When every binary digit of evidence holds the potential to shape justice, there exists a hidden digital treasure chest capable of unravelling the most intricate of mysteries—it’s called the full file system (FFS).
Why the FFS Matters
Picture the pursuit of truth in high-profile cases like the Long Island Gilgo Beach serial killer or the ongoing Idaho murders—an instrumental element in connecting the dots, establishing timelines and uncovering crucial evidence is the full file system. It’s not merely a component; it’s the cornerstone that holds the potential to lead investigations toward conviction or exoneration.
Moreover, consider the time-sensitive aspect of every investigation. Deleted data is like a fleeting whisper in the digital realm. The full file system stands as the only means to capture these whispers before they vanish, potentially altering the trajectory of an investigation.
Renay Lynch was exonerated Friday in Buffalo, New York nearly 26 years after she was wrongly convicted for the 1995 murder and robbery of her landlord. Her exoneration comes after post-conviction re-examination of crime scene fingerprint evidence, which law enforcement had previously withheld from the defense, pointed to another tenant of the victim as an alternative suspect.
Released from prison in January 2022, Lynch is now the 250th person to be freed by the Innocence Project since its founding in 1992.
Lynch’s wrongful conviction is the result of three common contributing factors: a coerced false confession; the fabricated testimony of an incentivized informant; and police misconduct – specifically withholding key crime scene evidence from the defense.
“Today is bittersweet. Lynch lost the last 26 years of her life to a wrongful conviction because of systemic flaws that continue to exist in the criminal legal system,” said Susan Friedman, Lynch’s Innocence Project attorney. “Today, she finally has some semblance of justice, but she should have never been convicted in the first place. I’d like to thank the Erie County District Attorney’s Office for their collaboration and cooperation in this case. Today’s outcome demonstrates why Conviction Integrity Units are critical.”
“I have waited 26 years for this day to come,” said Lynch. “That’s days without seeing my children grow up, days without holding my grandchildren, days that I will never get back. I’m grateful to finally have this weight lifted.”’
A woman’s headless body, missing its thumbs and drained of blood, was identified through DNA analysis as 64-year-old Ada Beth Kaplan nearly 13 years after deputies found the body in a California vineyard.
Officials first made the gruesome discovery of Kaplan’s partially decomposed, unclothed body in March 2011 in Arvin, California, a town about 15 miles southeast of Bakersfield, according to the Kern County Sheriff’s Office.
Although investigators determined the body belonged to a Caucasian woman 45 to 55 years old who was the victim of homicide, they found few clues to her identity.
The case went cold for nine years until investigators brought on the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit dedicated to solving cases using DNA analysis.
A group of volunteer investigative genetic genealogists with the project spent three years piecing together Kaplan’s family tree after they hit on a DNA match to several of her distant cousins, according to a news release.
In March 1989, the remains of a white male were found in a heavily weeded area behind a bake shop on North Palafox Street in Pensacola, Florida. Law enforcement responded to the scene and discovered the remains of a white male between the ages of 25 and 45 years. The man stood approximately 5’9” tall and had medium-length black hair and a reddish/light brown beard. It was estimated that the man was deceased for two to four months prior to the discovery of his remains.
The man was wearing a red pull-over shirt, blue jeans, black socks, brown shoes, and fishnet-style underwear. The man wore a shirt that was pulled up to his neck, revealing two tattoos. In the center of his upper chest was a cross with three dots in a semi-circle above it and on the lower chest/upper abdomen was the profile view of a lion laying down with its head up. The man had other tattoos including the words, “Ex-con” near his left calf and an illegible tattoo on the right forearm.
Despite investigators exhaustive efforts, the man could not be identified, and he was classified as John Doe. In 2023, details of the case were entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as #UP103127. Law enforcement is now seeking to utilize advanced DNA technology in hopes of providing new leads about the man’s identity.
In 2024, the District One Medical Examiner’s Office (D1MEO) once again teamed with Othram to leverage advanced DNA testing and genetic genealogy. In 2023, Othram assisted the D1MEO in the identification of Suzanne Kjellenberg, a homicide victim whose remains were discovered in Holt, Florida in 1994. Anyone with information that could aid in this investigation is encouraged to contact the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office at 850-436-9630 and reference case number 89-512387.
In May 1968, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) received a letter in the mail indicating a human skull had been found near Berry Summit, California. Several detectives followed by Sheriff Gene Cox responded to the scene. It was reported that two teenagers were playing in a pile of rocks when they found a skull on the east side of Berry Summit. The scene was searched and additional remains were located. Detectives learned that the area where the skull was located had been used by Granite Construction in 1965 for storage of debris from a flood that occurred in 1964.
The skeletal remains were sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, DC and examined at the Smithsonian Institute. The remains were later returned to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office and buried on June 26th, 1968, at Ocean View Cemetery. Not much was known about the remains other that they were that of a male individual who was between the ages of 45 and 60 years at the time of his death.
On December 28th, 2010, the unknown individual’s remains were exhumed and samples were taken for DNA testing based on a California Department of Justice requirement issued in 2002 necessitating that all unidentified human remains undergo DNA testing. The STR DNA profile were entered into both the California Missing Person DNA Database and National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) DNA Index. Details of the case were entered as NamUs case number UP55806. The DNA profile was routinely searched against profiles from both missing person and other human remains in CODIS, but no match was ever made.
In December 2022, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office and California Department of Justice once again partnered with Othram to determine if advanced forensic DNA testing could help establish an identity for the unidentified man or a close relative. HCSO and CA DOJ previously partnered with Othram to identify Denise Gail Cruz, whose remains were discovered in Trinidad, California in 1980. Using funding provided by the Roads to Justice program, the California Department of Justice submitted forensic evidence to Othram in The Woodlands, Texas. Othram scientists used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to build a comprehensive DNA profile for the man. Once the profile was built, Othram’s in-house genealogy team used forensic genetic genealogy to produce new investigative leads.
In August of 2023 the HCSO received the report from Othram indicating the unidentified man may be William Melvin Toller, who was born in 1927. The report included several genetic relatives including a possible child named Anona from Louisiana. HCSO Investigators were able to contact Anona who confirmed she had a father named William Toller, who the family lost contact with when she was 8 years old. A DNA sample was obtained from Anona and compared to the DNA from unidentified male. The DNA proved to be a genetic match and confirmed that the John Doe is William Toller.
As investigators in Orange County, CA, Lauren Felix and Robert Taft have applied what they’ve learned as part of the University of New Haven’s Forensic Investigative Genetic Genealogy online graduate certificate program, solving two cold cases and providing the families of the victims with answers after more than four decades.
The City of Hampton Police Division, City of Hampton Commonwealth’s Attorney, Isle of Wight County Commonwealth’s Attorney, Virginia State Police and FBI Norfolk Field Office announced a significant breakthrough in three unsolved homicides that occurred in the late 1980s in Isle of Wight County and the City of Hampton.
In addition to resolving the 1987 Isle of Wight County murders of David L. Knobling, 20, and Robin M. Edwards, 14, DNA evidence also confirms the same suspect is responsible for the 1989 murder of Teresa Lynn Spaw Howell, 29, in the City of Hampton.
The suspect, Alan W. Wilmer Sr., died in December 2017 in Lancaster County, Va., at the age of 63. Both the Isle of Wight County and City of Hampton Commonwealth’s Attorneys confirm that if not for Wilmer’s death, charges would be filed against him in connection with the three homicides.
Wilmer had no felonies on his criminal record, so his DNA had never been obtained until it was necessary for identification purposes following his death. The Virginia Department of Forensic Science in 2023 issued a “Certificate of Analysis” confirming a genetic match to Wilmer based on evidence collected from the Isle of Wight County and City of Hampton homicide victims.
Wilmer was 5’5 in height, muscular and weighed approximately 165 pounds. He had sandy-brown hair, blue eyes and would sport a close-cropped beard. Wilmer drove a distinctive, blue 1966 Dodge Fargo pickup truck with the Virginia license plate “EM-RAW.” The Dodge was just one of several pickup trucks Wilmer was known to drive in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Wilmer also had a small commercial fishing boat, named the Denni Wade. It was a 1976 custom-built, wooden boat. He would dock at marinas in the counties of Gloucester and Middlesex, and around the Northern Neck. His trade during the 1980s was as a fisherman, farming mainly clams and oysters. He also ran a business called Better Tree Service. He was an avid hunter and belonged to at least one hunt club located in the Middle Peninsula region.
Anyone who may have worked with Alan W. Wilmer Sr. or hunted with him, farmed oysters and clams with him, docked next to him at marinas in the Northern Neck, Hampton Roads or Middle Peninsula areas, or hung out with him is encouraged to contact the FBI by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI or submitting a tip online at www.tips.fbi.gov. Anyone with information can also reach out to the Virginia State Police by email at email@example.com or the Peninsula Crime Line.
Over the past several decades, most people have come to understand what DNA is – generally, it’s defined as the carrier of a person’s distinct genetic information. Since DNA was first used in forensic science in the late 1980s, it has opened doors for criminal investigators and genealogists to solve cases that have been cold for decades. For the U.S. military, it’s been essential in carrying out the age-old motto, “no one left behind.”
Today, the identification of fallen and missing service members comes down to DNA. The Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, which is part of the Defense Health Agency’s Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, is the DOD’s only human remains testing laboratory. It performs DNA tests on service members who’ve died in current operations, as well as those who have been missing for decades. The lab works in tandem with the Armed Forces Repository of Specimen Samples for the Identification of Remains, which maintains millions of blood samples from folks who’ve served over the past 32 years.
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