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!


“John Doe 2000” Identified After 24 Years (Forensic – 6/07/2024)

  • On Feb. 14, 2000, a man was walking his dog in a field near E. 8th St. and WCR 43 when he came upon human remains. Weld County deputies and investigators responded to the scene and investigated and found no evidence of foul play.

    A short time after the male was found, his remains were sent to an anthropologist who determined they were of a white male, aged 35-50 years old, and 5’4″ tall. The male’s body weight could not be determined, and it was believed he had a possible tattoo in the center of his back. There was no indication of trauma, and no cause or manner of death could be determined due to the male’s advanced state of decomposition. WCSO investigators named the unidentified male found on Valentine’s Day of 2000, John Doe 2000.

    In 2022, forensic genetic genealogy was done with DNA from John Doe 2000’s remains which led to relatives in Nevada, who willingly submitted their DNA to help solve this case. In December of 2023, Cold Case Detective, Byron Kastilahn got the break he had been waiting for when the results of the genetic genealogy testing returned, and John Doe 2000 was tentatively identified as, Christopher Scott Case. Further genetic testing was carried out to confirm that the remains were indeed those of Christopher Case, and the test results affirmed this.

A Troubleshooting Guide for Common Issues in STR Analysis (Forensic – 6/07/2024)

  • Short Tandem Repeat (STR) analysis is a foundational piece of forensic DNA profiling, offering robust and reliable genetic information for criminal investigations. However, the intricacies of the STR workflow introduce various challenges, potentially compromising the quality and reliability of the results. Here we introduce the “Perfect” STR profile, then explore the typical pitfalls encountered during STR analysis and offer practical solutions. Our aim is to help forensic scientists navigate these challenges to achieve consistent and accurate outcomes.

Genealogy, Suspect Death Solve 1990 “Grace Doe” Case (Forensic – 6/07/2024)

  • Detectives in the McDonald County (Missouri) Sheriff’s Office have closed a 1990 homicide case based on extensive work on victim ID, plus information gained after a suspect’s death.

    On December 2, 1990, a couple searching for cans discovered a skull on an abandoned farm on Oscar Talley Road near Lanagan, Missouri. Nearby were more bones and several items of female clothing: Lee jeans, a denim jacket, white tennis shoes, white socks, and a white T-shirt. A white towel seemed to have been wrapped around the decedent’s head, and she was tied with six types of bindings made up of ropes, cords, and coax cables. Due to decomposition, the cause and manner of death could not be determined, although it seemed likely to be a homicide.

    The victim had no ID. She appeared to be in her twenties. She had extensive dental work, which suggested that someone had cared for her. The detectives dubbed her “Grace Doe,” because they believed that only “by the grace of God” would they learn her identity.

    Police could only guess when the body had been dumped, based largely on local reports of a woman’s scream and a loud truck in that area on Halloween weekend.

The Impact of Surface Physiochemical Characteristics on Touch DNA (Forensic – 6/11/2024)

  • Touch DNA, which can be found at crime scenes, consists of invisible biological traces deposited through a person’s skin’s contact with an object or another person. Many factors influence touch DNA transfer, including the “destination” substrate’s surface. The latter’s physicochemical characteristics (wettability, roughness, surface energy, etc.) will impact touch DNA deposition and persistence on a substrate. We selected a representative panel of substrates from objects found at crime scenes (glass, polystyrene, tiles, raw wood, etc.) to investigate the impact of these characteristics on touch DNA deposition and detection. These were shown to impact cell deposition, morphology, retention, and subsequent touch DNA genetic analysis. Interestingly, cell-derived fragments found within keratinocyte cells and fingermarks using in vitro touch DNA models could be successfully detected whichever the substrates’ physicochemistry by targeting cellular proteins and carbohydrates for two months, indoors and outdoors. However, swabbing and genetic analyses of such mock traces from different substrates produced informative profiles mainly for substrates with the highest surface free energy and therefore the most hydrophilic. The substrates’ intrinsic characteristics need to be considered to better understand both the transfer and persistence of biological traces, as well as their detection and collection, which require an appropriate methodology and sampling device to get informative genetic profiles.

    At the scene of an offence, investigators are confronted with traces of different kinds on a wide range of substrates. Visible traces such as unwashed blood can be collected and analyzed, but what about invisible traces such as touch DNA?

Benton County Coroner’s Office Teams with Othram to Identify a 1986 Jane Doe (DNASolves – 6/12/2024)

  • In September 1986, the remains of an unidentified individual were discovered in the Columbia River by the Pioneer Memorial Bridge, also known as the Blue Bridge, which connects Pasco, Washington to Kennewick, Washington. After discovery, an autopsy was performed by the Benton County Coroner’s Office’s Office. It was determined that the remains were that of a white female who was between the ages of 28 to 35 years at her time of death. No identifying information for the woman could be determined. Despite extensive efforts by law enforcement investigators to identify the woman, the case went cold due to a lack of viable leads. The woman was buried as a Jane Doe at Resthaven Cemetery in Richland, Washington.

    In September 2023, the Benton County Coroner’s Office exhumed Jane Doe’s remains in hopes that advanced DNA testing could help to identify the woman. After completing the exhumation process, skeletal evidence was prepared for transport to Othram by the Benton County Coroner’s Office. Upon receipt of the evidence at Othram in the Woodlands, Texas, Othram scientists developed a DNA extract from the evidence, then used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to build a comprehensive DNA profile for the unknown woman. Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team then used this profile to conduct 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 the woman. Reference DNA samples were collected from a potential relative and compared to the DNA profile of the unknown woman. This investigation led to the positive identification of the woman, who is now known to be Patricia Kay Ereth, born December 12, 1949. Ereth was known to be missing from the Yakima, Washington area since the early 1980’s.

    At the scene of an offence, investigators are confronted with traces of different kinds on a wide range of substrates. Visible traces such as unwashed blood can be collected and analyzed, but what about invisible traces such as touch DNA?

DNA Reveals Ritual of Sacrificing Boys, Including Twins, in Ancient Mayan City, Scientists Say (CBS News – 6/12/2024)

  • In-depth research focusing on genetic material found at an ancient Mayan temple points to a pattern of sacrificing twin boys and other close relatives, according to a new study conducted by an international team of experts.

    The city of Chichén Itzá, built on what is now Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, has been investigated by archaeologists for over 100 years, according to a news release from the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, an independent association of German research institutes. Multiple researchers associated with the Max Planck Institutes were part of the multi-part analysis backing the new study. The city is “perhaps best known for its extensive evidence of ritual killing,” a news release announcing the findings noted.

    Previous archaeologists have found physical remains of people who were sacrificed, the news release said, and dredging of the city’s Sacred Cenote, a large sinkhole in the city, revealed the remains of hundreds of human sacrifices.

Clemson Researcher Changes Forensic Science Landscape With App to Provide Near-Instant Time of Death Estimations (Clemson News – 6/12/2024)

  • In 2020, Katherine Weisensee, forensic consultant, professor and chair of the Clemson University Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice, developed geoFOR, an app to capture complex body decomposition data globally. Four years later, the app has a reference data set of more than 3,000 individuals and provides a near-instant estimated postmortem interval (PMI), or time since death, with 80 percent confidence.

Fairfax County Police Department Teams with Othram to Identify a Serial Sex Offender (DNASolves – 6/13/2024)

  • In September 1998, a 48-year-old woman was jogging on a bike path in the Fair Lakes area of Fairfax County, Virginia when she was sexually assaulted by an unknown man who implied he had a knife. After assaulting the woman, the man fled from the area on foot. Two years later in August 2000, at approximately 11:00pm, the unknown man forced his way into a home on Parkside Drive in Fairfax, Virginia where he attacked and assaulted a 66-year-old woman. The woman was asleep when she awoke to the man assaulting her. She was able to fight the suspect and escaped from him by jumping from a second story balcony and running away. In December 2004, the unknown man was observed exposing himself outside of a woman’s home in Burke, Virginia. The woman spotted the man through a sliding glass door located in her basement. The woman yelled and the man ran away.

    In each of these cases, DNA evidence was collected from the crime scenes. Traditional DNA testing was conducted and an STR profile for the unknown male suspect in each case was developed and entered into CODIS. The STR profile from each scene matched to a single unknown male. Despite extensive efforts by law enforcement to identify the man responsible, no known matches were found, and the cases went cold due to a lack of viable leads. In an attempt to finally identify the man responsible for these sex crimes, the Fairfax County Police Department teamed with Othram to determine if advanced DNA testing could help identify the man responsible.

    In 2023, the Fairfax County Police Department submitted forensic evidence to Othram in the Woodlands, Texas. Othram scientists used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to build a comprehensive DNA profile for the unknown man. Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team then used this profile to conduct extensive genetic genealogy research, ultimately providing new investigative leads to law enforcement. Using this new information, a follow-up investigation was conducted by law enforcement, leading to the identification of a possible suspect.

    A DNA sample was collected from the potential suspect and compared to the forensic evidence from the crime scenes. This led to the positive identification of the man responsible, who is now known to be 58-year-old Edward Eugene Pottmyer of Chantilly, Virginia. Following the confirmation of his identity, the Fairfax County Police Department obtained warrants for Pottmyer’s arrest on charges of Forcible Sodomy and Abduction with the Intent to Defile. On Wednesday June 5, 2024, with the assistance of the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, Pottymer was taken into custody and booked at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center where he is being held on no bond.