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!


DNA on Plastic Fork in Florida Cracks 15-Year-Old Unsolved NYC Homicide, Officials Say (NBCNews – 5/30/2024)

  • The nephew of a man found murdered in his Queens home 15 years ago has been arrested in Florida thanks to a tossed plastic fork, prosecutors say.

    Anthony Scalici was indicted by a grand jury in the death of his 64-year-old uncle, Rosario Prestigiacomo, who was discovered face down in a pool of blood in his own hallway on Feb. 10, 2009. It wasn’t immediately clear if he entered a plea at his arraignment Thursday. Scalici, 41, of Boynton Beach, is accused of second-degree murder in the case.

    It marks the first time a New York City homicide suspect was identified and arrested using public genealogy databases, officials say.

Niagara Regional Police Service Teams with Othram to Identify a 1999 Homicide Suspect (DNASolves – 5/30/2024)

  • In May 1999, the remains of a partially clothed, unidentified woman were discovered in a roadside ditch in Lincoln, Ontario, Canada. Lincoln is a small town just west of Niagara Falls. The Niagara Regional Police Service responded to the scene and determined that the woman was a victim of homicide and was subsequently identified as 26-year-old Nadine Gurczenski of Toronto. DNA evidence was collected from the victim, but it could not be linked to any individual at that time. Despite extensive efforts by law enforcement investigators to identify the suspect, no matches were found, and the case went cold due to a lack of viable leads.

    In 2020, the Niagara Regional Police Service submitted forensic evidence to Othram in the Woodlands, Texas to determine if advanced DNA testing could help identify a suspect. Despite previous other failed attempts to do so, Othram scientists developed a comprehensive genealogical profile for the suspect using Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing®. Upon completion of the process, the profile was transferred to investigators with the Toronto Police Service for the development of new leads via forensic genetic genealogy search.

    Using this new information, a follow-up investigation was conducted leading investigators to potential relatives of the suspect. This investigation led to the positive identification of the suspect, who is now known to be Joseph Archie “Raymond” Brousseau. Brousseau, formerly of New Liskeard, Ontario, was 34 years old at the time of Nadine Gurczenski’s murder in 1999. Brousseau died in 2017. Because he is deceased, no formal charges can be laid, and the matter cannot be litigated at trial. However, based on the investigation and evidence collected, if alive today, Raymond Brousseau would have been arrested and charged with second degree murder. During their investigation, detectives discovered that Raymond Brousseau worked as a truck driver and frequently traveled throughout Canada and the United States for his job; he also had connections to Quebec.

Forensics Identifies Human Remains Found on Mount Elden, Arizona in 2019 (Forensic – 5/31/2024)

  • The Coconino County Sheriff’s Office, in partnership with Intermountain Forensics and the Coconino County Office of the Medical Examiner has identified remains found at the base of Mt. Elden in 2019 as Mark Austin Dunne, a man reported missing from Phoenix in 2017.

    Dunne’s skeletal remains were discovered by a hiker on November 2, 2019, in a heavily wooded area at the base of Mt. Elden. Initial efforts by investigators to identify the remains were unsuccessful.

    In August 2023, CCSO contracted with Intermountain Forensics of Salt Lake City, UT, in an attempt to identify the remains through the Forensic Genetic Genealogy process. A DNA profile was developed and compared with existing profiles in available genealogy databases. Investigators at Intermountain Forensics were able to identify a family line, and by February 2024 had identified Mark Dunne as a potential match.

    A DNA sample collected from the remains was then compared to that of Dunne’s family members. That testing, completed by the University of North Texas, along with additional investigation by detectives indicated the remains were those of Dunne.

    Dunne was reported missing to the Phoenix Police Department in March 2017, after not contacting his family for an extended time. It is not known when Dunne arrived in the Flagstaff area, but the scene investigation suggests he had been camping in the area for an extended period. Dunne’s cause of death could not be determined and remains unknown.

New DNA Links Uncover Surnames of Tulsa Massacre Victims, 103 Years Later (Atlanta Daily World – 6/1/2024)

  • New DNA breakthroughs are linking surnames to the victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre over a century after the mass killings.

    In 2023, an excavation at Oaklawn Cemetery uncovered over 50 unmarked graves potentially linked to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

    On Thursday (May 30), Intermountain Forensics, the company working with the city of Tulsa to identify remains via DNA, gave an update on their efforts, per Public Radio Tulsa.

    “We’ve been able to refine our placement of where the unknown burials could fit into the family trees of their living DNA relatives,” Alison Wilde, director of the company’s genealogy wing, said in a statement.

    Forensic experts are using DNA databases to find potential family members of Tulsa Race Massacre victims.

80 Years After D-Day, a Dedicated Team Works to Bring Missing Airmen Home (CNN – 6/2/2024)

  • Minutes before plunging to their deaths, five airmen successfully dropped 14 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne near their landing mark over Normandy, France from their C-47. It was just after 2:44 a.m. on June 6, 1944. The airmen completed their mission but lost their lives.

    The remains of the pilot and crew chief were recovered days later but the co-pilot, navigator and radio operator were never found – possibly until now.

    Eighty years after the Normandy Invasion known as D-Day, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, operating under the Department of Defense, is looking for the three missing airmen with the hope of finally bringing them home.

    They have found what is believed to be the crash site of the downed C-47, along with the possible remains of the co-pilot, 2nd Lieutenant William Donohue; the radio operator, Staff Sergeant David Madson and the navigator, 2nd Lieutenant Albert Brooks. The remaining three airmen from the 304th Troop Carrier Squadron, 442nd Troop Carrier Group, 50th Troop Carrier Wing were never accounted for but never forgotten.

TrueAllele Solves Uninterpretable DNA in Mother and Daughter Double Homicide (Police1 – 6/3/2024)

  • On February 15, 2023, Allegheny County police found the bodies of Megan Campbell (39) and her 7-year-old daughter Lyla. Barricaded in their Swissvale apartment, the Pennsylvania women had been shot in the head at close range. The detectives saw signs of a struggle.

    Investigators collected evidence: a pistol, two dumbbells (used to barricade the door), an overturned chair, a coat, and a t-shirt. The Medical Examiner’s Office produced DNA data from the items. Fingerprints were found on the weapon, and ballistics matched the firearm.

    On these probative DNA evidence items, the Crime Laboratory reported that “due to the data being uninterpretable, no comparison can be made to the reference samples.” The District Attorney’s Office then contacted Cybergenetics for assistance.

    On the same “uninterpretable” DNA data, TrueAllele got answers. The computer unmixed the mixtures, which contained as many as five contributors. TrueAllele then compared the unmixed evidence with the two victims and suspect Kareef Easington. Some items showed DNA from all three people. TrueAllele found Easington’s DNA on all six evidence items. His strong match statistics ranged from a trillion to two decillion (a 1 followed by 33 zeros).

Osceola County Sheriff’s Office Teams with Othram to Identify a 1997 John Doe (DNASolves – 6/3/2024)

  • In June 1997, the skeletal remains of an unidentified individual were discovered in a grassy area in the unincorporated community of Holopaw, which is located in St. Cloud, Florida. St. Cloud is a city in Osceola County that is situated on East Lake Tohopekaliga, south of Orlando. The remains were discovered by travelers who had stopped on the side of highway 192. The Osceola County Sheriff’s Office responded to the scene. It was determined that the remains were that that of a male, who stood between 5’ 9” and 6’ 1” and weighed between 200 and 225 pounds. The man was between the ages of 50 and 70 years old at the time of his death.

    At the time of the discovery of the man’s remains, the man was wearing size 12 Nike tennis shoes, size 40×32 beige pants, and a dark blue polo shirt. A handgun was also recovered with the remains, and investigators determined that the man died due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Details of the case were entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as UP534. Despite extensive efforts by law enforcement investigators to identify the man, no matches were found, and the case went cold due to a lack of viable leads. The man became known as Holopaw John Doe, named for the community in which his remains were discovered.

    In 2023, the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office submitted forensic evidence to Othram in the Woodlands, Texas to determine if advanced DNA testing could help identify the man. Othram scientists successfully developed a DNA extract from the forensic evidence, and then used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to build a comprehensive genealogical profile for the man. Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team then used this profile to conduct genetic genealogy research, ultimately providing new investigative leads to law enforcement.

    Using this new information, a follow-up investigation was conducted leading investigators to potential relatives of Holopaw John Doe. Reference DNA samples were collected from the potential relatives and compared to the DNA profile of the unknown man. This investigation led to the positive identification of the man, who is now known to be William Wallace Stabler Jr., born January 23, 1933.

Police Solve ‘Forgotten’ Murder of Elderly Woman (Forensic – 6/4/2024)

  • Police in Pennsylvania have solved a nearly three-decade-old murder of a Lehigh Valley woman using new DNA technology and have made an arrest.

    According to NBC Philadelphia, the Lehigh County District Attorney’s office announced on May 16 the arrest of Michael Breisch, 65. They charged him with burglary and the 1989 murder of 78-year-old Rose Hnath along the 2600 block of 2nd Street North Whitehall Township.

    “Ultimately, the efforts taken to preserve the evidence were rewarded when investigative techniques unavailable in the 20th century helped lead us to the defendant, Michael Breisch, and allowed us to make this arrest in 2024,” a spokesperson for the Lehigh County District Attorney’s Office said in a statement.

    During a press conference announcing the arrest, Lehigh County District Attorney Gavin Holihan said DNA evidence was collected from the scene at the time of the murder and preserved throughout the years.

South African Study Providing Forensic Insight – Using Pig Carcasses (Forensic – 6/4/2024)

  • It was the kind of task any competent seamstress has completed hundreds of times before: altering denim jeans and jerseys. But there was something different about this piece of work. Though our team of scientists were paying for it, we weren’t her ultimate customers – the clothes were to be worn by dead pigs.

    The pigs and their specially tailored outfits were central to research conducted by ourselves, Devin Finaughty and our colleagues from South Africa’s University of Cape Town (UCT), a group of forensic scientists known as taphonomists. We study the environmental forces that drive changes to a body after death. A key aspect is estimating time-since-death, the length of time between death and a body being recovered. Ascertaining this detail can help to identify the person and reconstruct the circumstances around their death.

    Legal and ethical challenges prohibit taphonomic research using donated human remains in most countries. Currently, human taphonomic facilities only exist in the US, the Netherlands, Australia and Canada. These facilities have been proposed in other countries, including the UK and India, but have not overcome legal and public resistance.

    These human facilities are not legal in South Africa, and as a result pigs are used. Pigs, specifically those weighing around 60kg, are useful for human decomposition studies because they have anatomical similarities to humans. They have been used in taphonomic research since the 1980s.

ORISE Is Accepting Applications for FBI Counterterrorism Forensic Science Research Unit Visiting Scientist Program (BusinessWire – 6/5/2024)

  • The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education(ORISE) is currently accepting applications for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Counterterrorism Forensic Science Research Unit (CFSRU) Visiting Scientist Program (VSP). This program is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for early career scientists and recent graduates to participate in forensic science research at the FBI Laboratory, one of the largest and most comprehensive crime labs in the world.

    Participants may be involved in research, including human identification, detection of bio-threat agents, detection of explosives and drugs, characterization and comparison of forensic materials, elemental analysis of trace evidence, mass spectrometry application to chemical and biological analysis, development of instrumental methods, evaluation of field portable instrumentation, advancement of forensic chemistry (specifically in toxicology and trace volatiles), and advancement of techniques for imaging and visualization.

‘Google for DNA’ Indexes 10% of World’s Known Genetic Sequences (Science – 6/5/2024)

  • A tool that functions like a Google for DNA has demonstrated its promise for making all of the world’s biological sequence data cheaply and easily searchable, according to the Swiss team that developed it. In a proof of principle study, the researchers say they successfully indexed 10% of the world’s known DNA, RNA, and protein sequences—and the same method could be used to do the rest.

    The advance, posted last month on bioRxiv, used a computational tool the group recently developed called MetaGraph to organize and compress publicly available sequence data into a searchable format—much as internet search engines do for web pages and their content. The resulting indexes, available for download and via a web portal, allow users to scan sequences comprising trillions of base pairs and billions of amino acids.

    The research “represents a massive achievement and a landmark in our ongoing pursuit of the grand challenge of indexing all publicly available sequencing data,” says Rob Patro, a computational biologist at the University of Maryland who wasn’t involved in the pilot effort. Such a resource could aid myriad areas of research, from identifying novel viruses to revealing disease-associated RNA sequences. Although MetaGraph isn’t the only project aiming for this goal, the team has created some of the largest indexes so far and calculates that its tool will be relatively inexpensive to use.

Scientists are Fixing Flawed Forensics that Can Lead to Wrongful Convictions (ScienceNews – 6/6/2024)

  • In 2013, Texas became the first state to introduce a “junk science” law allowing the courts to reexamine cases when new science warranted it. Sween has submitted hundreds of pages of arguments to get a judge to consider this new slant on memory science. So far, the Texas authorities have remained unconvinced.

    “Our criminal justice system is generally slow to respond to any kind of science-based innovation,” laments Tom Albright, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif.

    But researchers are pushing ahead to improve the science that enters the courtroom. The fundamental question for all forms of evidence is simple, Albright says. “How do you know what is right?” Science can’t provide 100 percent certainty that, say, a witness’s memory is correct or one fingerprint matches another. But it can help improve the likelihood that evidence is tested fairly or evaluate the likelihood that it’s correct.

Suffolk County Police Department & FBI Leverage Othram’s Forensic Sequencing Platform to Identify a 2015 Jane Doe (DNASolves – 6/6/2024)

  • In March 2015, the skeletal remains of an unidentified individual were discovered by a hiker off of a bicycle path in Setauket, New York. Setauket is a community on the North Shore of Long Island. Investigators responded to the scene where they determined the remains had been there for about a year before the discovery was made. The Suffolk County Police Department transported the remains to the Medical Examiner, where it was determined that the remains were that of a white female who was 5’3” and 5’9” tall with poor dentition. The woman was between the ages of 30 and 50 years old.

    At the time of the woman’s discovery, she was wearing a large broken purple hair clip that had come loose, holding together strands of her disheveled brown hair. She had on pink and black flip flops, incongruous with the rest of her attire. A gray and black scarf was draped around her neck, partially hidden by a black overcoat that offered little warmth against the chill. Beneath the coat, she wore a brown shirt layered under a blue sweater vest, and an additional black and purple checkered cloth segment wrapped around her midsection. Her lower half was clad in brown and black sweatpants, complementing a brown and black T-shirt, with knee-high pantyhose.

    Details of the case were entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as UP13776. A composite sketch was developed and released to the public in hopes that it would generate new leads about the woman’s identity. Despite extensive efforts by law enforcement investigators to identify the woman, no matches were found, and the case went cold due to a lack of viable leads.

    In February 2021, the Suffolk County Police Department, in collaboration with the FBI, submitted forensic evidence to Othram in The Woodlands, Texas in hopes that advanced DNA testing could help to identify the woman. Othram scientists used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to build a comprehensive DNA profile for the woman. After successfully completing the process, the DNA profile was delivered to the FBI’s forensic genetic genealogy team and the FBI team performed the necessary work to generate new investigative leads in the case.

    Using this new information, a follow-up investigation was conducted leading investigators to potential relatives of the woman, who is now known to be Lucie Van Heeckeren, born July 1953. Van Heeckeren was last known to be in a hospital in Westchester County, New York. While Van Heeckeren’s cause of death could not be determined, foul play has not been ruled out.