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!




The Controversial Ethics of Ancient DNA Research (Forensic – 1/13/2023)

    • In October 2021, more than 60 archaeologists, anthropologists, curators and geneticists representing 31 countries proposed five globally applicable guidelines for ethical ancient DNA research in a Nature perspective. The publication of Alpaslan-Roodenberg et al. was met with divisive commentary on both sides.

      Now, a group of 21 Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars from disciplines spanning the sciences, social sciences, and humanities has published a commentary (Kowal et al.) suggesting that Alpaslan-Roodenberg et al. do not sufficiently consider the interests of Indigenous communities.



Connecticut Office of Chief Medical Examiner and Othram Partner to Identify 1998 John Doe (DNASolves – 1/13/2023)

  • In March 1998, fishermen discovered the badly decomposed body of an unidentified man floating in the Connecticut River in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. The unidentified man’s remains were autopsied by an anthropologist and a dental forensics expert. Police determined that the man was White, and possibly Latino, and was estimated to be between 30 and 35 years old at the time of his death. Investigators also estimated that the man stood 5’8” in height, and weighed 200 pounds. However, due to the advanced decomposition that had occurred, investigators were unable to make determinations about the man’s eye color or hair color. Investigators believe that the man had died at least year prior to the discovery of his remains but were unable to determine the cause of death. Police believe that the man’s remains floated down the river to Old Saybrook, and that the condition of the body indicates that he was in a marshy area before high water moved the remains to the river.

    Since the discovery of the unknown man’s remains, law enforcement investigators have diligently pursued all leads about his identity, but none have returned a match for his identity. A facial reconstruction was created by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and his dental records were submitted to the American Dental Association and the Department of Defense’s dental unit. Investigators widely distributed the man’s image, even featuring his case on America’s Most Wanted’s website, and featuring him in the state’s cold case playing card deck, which is given to state prisoners, as the nine of hearts card. Investigators also distributed descriptions of the man’s clothing and the lighter model, and even contacted the National Lighter Museum in Oklahoma because of the unique design on the lighter which was recovered. In May 2008, the case was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as #UP1821. Despite the exhaustive efforts of law enforcement, the man’s identity has remained a mystery. With few leads for investigators to pursue, the case went cold.

    In 2022, the Connecticut Office of Chief Medical Examiner partnered with Othram to determine if advanced forensic DNA testing could help establish an identity for the man or a close relative.



DNA and a Decade of Work Identify B.C. Soldier, 106 Years After Death in France (Vancouver Sun – 1/16/2023)

  • After a decade of work tracing DNA back several generations, the remains of a Vancouver soldier have been identified more than 100 years after he died in France. The remains of Cpl. Percy Howarth, a soldier in the First World War, were discovered during munitions clearing in Vendin-le-Vieil, France, in 2011, but it would take 10 years of experts digging through his family tree to find a living relative from his maternal line before he could be identified.



Body Found in Columbia River in 1998 Identified 24 Years Later Using Forensic Genealogy (FOX12 – 1/17/2023)

  •  A body that was found in the Columbia River 24 years ago has been identified thanks to forensic genealogy, the Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office announced Tuesday.

    The body of an unidentified man was found on Oct. 26, 1998 in the Columbia River near Lower River Road in Vancouver.

    A DNA sample from the remains was submitted to a laboratory in Virginia, which then used the DNA to predict the unidentified person’s ancestry and compared it to individuals in online genealogy databases that allow searches of unidentified persons. A forensic genealogist at the lab found an ancestral link to a family from California.


Supreme Court Sides with Death Row Inmate, DA in Light of Faulty DNA Evidence (Forensic – 1/18/2023)

    • Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a Texas death row inmate who is trying to overturn his conviction due to possibly faulty DNA evidence. In a rare situation, the inmate received the support of the prosecuting district attorney. The ruling puts the case back in the hands of the Texas Court of Appeals for reconsideration—the same court that affirmed the conviction two years earlier.


Despite Adoption, DNA Doe Project Tracks Family Tree to ID 2019 John Doe (Fornesic – 1/18/2023)

    • The DNA Doe Project and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation have identified a homicide victim found on the shore of Douglas Lake in 2019 as Earl Pizzoferrato of Knoxville.

      On March 10, 2019 a homeowner walking the shoreline of Douglas Lake in Dandridge, Tennessee reported to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office a suspicious bag on the lakeshore. Jefferson County deputies determined the bag, a golf bag, contained human remains and requested the assistance of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Investigators were unable to determine the John Doe’s race, age, or even how long he had been dead. After exhausting all leads, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation brought the case to the DNA Doe Project in 2020, hopeful that the use of investigative genetic genealogy could provide an ID.

      Once a workable DNA profile was developed, the DNA Doe Project’s talented team of investigative genetic genealogists began tracing the John Doe’s relatives.


This Forensic DNA Lab is Using New Tech to Solve Cold Cases (Utah Business – 1/18/2023)

    • Intermountain Forensics has set its sights on a lofty goal: identifying the remains of unknown bodies and reducing the backlog of sexual assault cases across the globe.

      “We like to call ourselves the island of misfit cases,” says Danny Hellwig, director of laboratory development at Intermountain Forensics. “The worst of the worst come to our island.”

      His organization is unusual because it’s structured as a nonprofit—most other laboratories are either privately funded or funded by states. Hellwig says there’s only one other nonprofit forensic laboratory that he knows of in the country. He hopes opening the organization up to public support through donations will help them focus on cases they want to make progress in.



Opelika PD Leverages Othram’s Genetic Testing Platform to Identify Opelika Jane Doe (DNASolves – 1/19/2023)

    • In January 2012, Opelika Police responded to Brookhaven Trailer Park, located at 1775 Hurst Street in Opelika, Alabama, in reference to skeletal remains being found. A skull was located in the yard of a residence while the majority of the bones were located only a few feet into the wood line behind a trailer and the adjacent lot. During the search of the area, a pink child’s shirt and a small bundle of curly hair were also recovered. The remains were sent to the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, where a medical examination was performed. The report stated that the remains were of a black female likely between 4-7 years of age who became affectionately known to the community as Baby Jane Doe. An autopsy was performed and notated fractures to her skull, arms, legs, shoulders, and ribs; totaling more than 15 individual fractures that were attributed to blunt force trauma. These injuries all had evidence of healing and occurred sometime prior to her death. In addition, the Medical Examiner suggested that Jane Doe may have been malnourished and blind in her left eye due to a fracture in her eye socket. Jane Doe’s death was determined to be a homicide and believed to have occurred between the summer of 2010 to 2011. Since the discovery of Jane Doe’s remains detectives have reviewed over 15,000 case files from the Alabama Department of Public Health and investigated thousands of tips.

      The Opelika Police Department had previously attempted to develop a DNA profile for Jane Doe however, they were unsuccessful due to the condition of the remains. In January 2022, Opelika Jane Doe’s remains were sent to Othram’s laboratory in the The Woodlands, Texas. Othram scientists successfully developed a DNA extract from the remains and built a comprehensive genealogical profile. Finally, Othram uploaded the profile to a genealogical database to enable a search for genetic relatives. For the genetic genealogy research, Opelika Police Department retained Barbara Rae-Venter, famed genetic genealogist, biologist, and retired patent attorney, known for helping police investigators identify the Golden State Killer. Barbara and her team, Firebird Forensics Group, produced investigative leads which were returned to Opelika Police Department.

      In October 2022, Jane Doe’s father was identified as 50-year-old Lamar Vickerstaff Jr. Mr. Vickerstaff was born and raised in Opelika, Ala. before enlisting in the U.S. Navy. During his lengthy Navy career, he resided in Norfolk, Va., Honolulu, Hawaii and Jacksonville, Fla. In December of 2022, Opelika Detectives traveled to the Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Fla. where Mr. Vickerstaff is currently stationed, to notify him of his daughter’s death. During the meeting Mr. Vickerstaff did not provide investigators with any information on the identity of Jane Doe. Detectives then met with Mr. Vickerstaff’s wife, Ruth Vickerstaff. Mrs. Vickerstaff, who has been married to Lamar since May of 2006, advised detectives she did not know his daughter or who may be the mother of Jane Doe.

      Dr. Rae-Venter was able to determine several possible matches for Jane Doe’s mother and detectives were able to narrow the results down to a woman residing in Maryland. In December of 2022, Detectives met with 37-year-old Sherry Wiggins who confirmed she was the biological mother of Jane Doe. Ms. Wiggins is a native of Norfolk, Va. and stated she gave birth to a baby girl named Amore Joveah Wiggins in January of 2006. Ms. Wiggins provided documentation showing that Lamar and Ruth Vickerstaff obtained legal and physical custody of her daughter in 2009, at which time her visitation with Amore was suspended. Ms. Wiggins also provided documents indicating that she has continuously paid child support to Lamar Vickerstaff since 2009. Follow up DNA testing at Othram, using KinSNP® familial relationship testing, supported the parent-child relationship of both Sherry Wiggins and Lamar Vickerstaff to the DNA profile that Othram developed from the remains of the little girl.

      Detectives reached out to the school boards and pediatric clinics in several states where Lamar and Ruth Vickerstaff resided and determined that Amore was never enrolled in school nor was, she reported as a missing person. With this information, Opelika detectives met with the Lee County District Attorney’s Office to determine charges related to the death of Amore Wiggins. On January 17, 2023, Lamar and Ruth Vickerstaff were arrested in Jacksonville, Florida. Lamar Vickerstaff was charged with Felony Murder and Ruth was arrested for Failure to Report a Missing Child. They are currently being held at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office pending extradition to Lee County, Alabama.