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!




mtDNA Identifies ‘Pipeline Pete’ 42 Years Later (Forensic – 6/23/2023)

    • Human remains found near Granger, Wyoming in 1982 have been identified as belonging to a man who disappeared in 1981 while traveling back to his home in Missouri after visiting family in California.

      In May 2011, in an ongoing effort to solve a handful of historical cases involving unidentified human remains (including the case of Christine Thornton, 28, of San Antonio, Texas, who was killed by the infamous Dating Game Killer, Rodney Alcala), sheriff’s detectives, with the help of forensic analysts at the state crime lab, submitted biological samples to the University of Northern Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, Texas for possible identification through mitochondrial DNA analysis. In March 2023, they finally received a positive match to Clawson.

      “A final resolution of this case for Mr. Clawson’s family would not have been possible without the incredible technological advancements in forensic analysis and the outstanding teamwork of everyone involved, including our lead detective, Stephanie Cassidy, the University of Wyoming Department of Anthropology, the Wyoming State Crime Lab, and the University of Northern Texas Health Science Center,” said Sheriff John Grossnickle.

Dead Indiana Man who Lived in AZ Identified as ‘Shotgun Bandits’ Member Through DNA (AZ Family – 6/23/2023)

    •  It is a wild case of a double life, a stolen identity, and a gang called “the Shotgun Bandits.” It sounds like a Western novel, but it was a stunning revelation. Genetic genealogy uncovered a “John Doe” in Indiana who had lived undercover in Tucson for decades. Colorado authorities were looking into cold cases and thought a John Doe who died in 2012 might match their suspect. The thing is that the man’s obituary said, “Bill Lee Hull.” The problem is the real Bill Lee Hull is still alive.

      As far as anyone in Salem, Indiana, knew, the sweet and elderly Bill Lee Hull passed away and was buried in 2012. But soon, they learned he was buried with more secrets than anyone knew. “He wasn’t a liar, he was just a robber,” said Kaycee Connelly, a genetic genealogist with Moxxy Forensics.

      So, he became officially known as a John Doe. “There was a lot of speculation of who this guy was,” said Thomas. In March 2023, after Colorado authorities called an Indiana coroner seeking information, Moxxy Forensics got involved, and they exhumed his body, extracting DNA from his femur to see if they could make a genetic genealogy match. And they made one, in just 30 minutes, to a great-niece of a man named Albert Roadhs. “She did not know of his existence,” said Connelly.

      And then it gets even wilder. Who is Albert Roadhs? After research, the forensics team learned he lived a life full of crime for two decades and was part of a gang called the “Shotgun Bandits” that investigators said would commit aggravated robberies in Colorado. He was also known as “Pinky,” a name tattooed on his body.



Union County Prosecutor’s Office Partners with Othram to Identify 2020 Homicide Victim (DNASolves – 6/23/2023)

    • In June 2020, the remains of an unidentified female homicide victim were found in the Union County, New Jersey city of Elizabeth. The unknown woman’s body was located along railroad tracks in the area of the 300 block of Port Avenue. Investigators responded to the scene and transported the woman’s body so that an autopsy could be performed, which determined the woman’s cause of death to be homicide. It was determined that the woman was likely between the ages of 25 and 35 at her time of death. She stood approximately 5’6” to 5’7” tall and weighed 125 to 140 pounds. The unidentified woman had short hair and double piercings in both ears.

      A forensic sketch depicting what the woman may have looked like was created and shared widely with the public, in hopes that someone might recognize her. However, with few leads to work from, investigators were unable to determine the identity of the woman despite exhaustive efforts. Details of the woman’s unidentified person case were entered into the National and Unidentified Missing Persons System (NamUs) as UP74586. The unidentified woman became known as Union County Jane Doe (2020).

      In March 2022, three years after the discovery of the woman’s remains, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office partnered with Othram to determine if advanced DNA testing could help provide an identity for the woman or a close relative. The Union County Prosecutor’s Office Forensic Laboratory submitted forensic evidence to Othram’s laboratory in The Woodlands, Texas. Othram scientists used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to build a comprehensive DNA profile for the murdered woman. Othram’s in-house genetic genealogy team used the DNA profile in a genealogical search to produce investigative leads that were returned to investigators.

      Using these leads, detectives were able to narrow down the search and identify the victim as Jasmine Featherstone of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Featherstone was twenty-three years old at her time of death and previously lived in Middletown, Connecticut.



DNA Doe Project Identifies Redondo Jane Doe 2001 as Catherine Parker Johnson of Memphis, TN (DNA Doe Project – 6/26/2023)

  • The Redondo Jane Doe 2001 case, a long-standing unidentified person investigation, has finally been resolved with the identification of the victim as Catherine Parker Johnson of Memphis, Tennessee. Catherine, who was 23 years old at the time of her death, went missing in 1981.

    In August, 2001, construction workers on a new home site uncovered a plastic bag in the back yard containing a headless skeleton. Authorities believed she died sometime between 1974 and 200. Lacking any evidence to indicate her identity, the case went cold until 2019 when investigators engaged the DNA Doe Project.

    One of the first things researchers found when a DNA profile was developed from the remains was that she was actually of Sub-Saharan African descent.

    Through the utilization of innovative investigative genetic genealogy techniques, the DNA Doe Project was able to analyze relationships among the Jane Doe’s DNA relatives to find crucial clues about the victim’s identity. Since African-Americans are underrepresented in the databases that can be used to investigate forensic cases, the research was hard and slow-going until the team was able to narrow the family tree. Relatives who provided DNA profiles for comparison allowed investigators to further zero in on the correct branch of the family tree and they located Catherine Parker Johnson.


Border Communities Turn to Texas State Forensic Program to ID Deceased Migrants (Texas Standard – 6/26/2023)

  • Every year, thousands of migrants cross into the U.S. through the Texas-Mexico border. Their journey takes them across remote stretches of Texas with little access to water and constant exposure to the elements.

    Some will never complete their journey. When this happens, local communities become responsible for the identification and internment of the bodies. With resources stretched thin, this is often a challenge.

    Instead, communities can send these bodies to Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Center where Dr. Kate Spradley and her small team, along with student volunteers, work to identify and repatriate deceased migrants as part of the Operation Identification program.

    Operation Identification began in 2012 following an influx of undocumented migrants to assist one community – Brooks County.



DNA Re-Examination Leads Mounties to Christmas Day Killer (Forensic – 6/26/2023)

  • The Edmonton Police Service (EPS) has charged a man in the 1996 murder of Joanne Ghostkeeper.

    On Dec. 25, 1996, police were called to 24-year-old Joanne Ghostkeeper’s apartment after her family had been unable to reach her and became concerned. She was found deceased inside the apartment. A Dec. 26, 1996 autopsy determined her cause of death was strangulation, and the manner of death was homicide.

    While numerous exhibits were tested forensically over the years, a confirmed match to a suspect could not be made. On Oct. 22, 2022, the RCMP forensic laboratory re-examined the exhibits and a male DNA profile was generated.

    This DNA profile was linked to Brayan Boucher. On June 14, 2023, Boucher was arrested and charged with first degree murder. Boucher, who was 22 at the time of the murder, was known to Ghostkeeper.



Woman Found Dead on Riverside County Freeway Nearly 30 Years Ago ID’d through Genetic Genealogy (KTLA5 – 6/26/2023)

    • A woman who was found dead along the 60 Freeway near Moreno Valley 27 years ago was finally identified using genetic genealogy, the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office said Monday.

      Juana Rosas-Zagal was 41 years old when her body was found along the freeway east of Gilman Springs Road on Jan. 27, 1996.

      The Los Angeles resident was the victim of a homicide, though no further information was given about how she died, and the case remains unsolved.Last December, however, the Riverside County Regional Cold Case Homicide Team was able to identify Rosas-Zagal and four of her daughters who had lost hope of knowing their mother’s whereabouts.



Texas Rangers Team with Othram to Identify Gray County Jane Doe (DNASolves – 6/27/2023)

  • In August 1999, the Texas Rangers were called to assist with an unidentified body of an adult female along I-40 west of McLean, Texas. Investigators attempted to identify the female by fingerprint, DNA, and composite sketch; however, those efforts were unsuccessful. A DNA profile was developed and entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

    In February 2004, The Texas Ranger’s Unsolved Crimes Investigation Program (UCIP) reviewed the case file. The Rangers found numerous possibilities through report research to assist in identifying the unknown woman, but were unsuccessful. The case was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as UP6936. With few leads to pursue, the case eventually went cold.

    In April 2022, Texas Ranger’s UCIP personnel reviewed lab reports and pursued the advancements in DNA associated with this investigation. The evidence was submitted to Othram Inc. With funding assistance from the Roads to Justice (RTJ) program, skeletal remains were submitted to Othram’s lab. Othram scientists developed a suitable DNA extract and used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to develop a comprehensive genealogical profile. Othram’s in-house genetic genealogy team used the profile to generate investigative leads in the case. These leads were returned to investigators.

    The leads suggested that the unknown woman might be Brenda Sue Guessler. Guessler was positively identified through standard familial DNA comparisons with a close relative. Guessler was believed to live in or near the Phoenix, Arizona, area.



First Death Row Exoneration Involving DNA Evidence Happened 30 Years Ago (Death Penalty Information Center – 6/28/2023)

  • June 28, 2023 marks the 30th anniversary of the exoneration of Kirk Bloodsworth (pictured), the first person exonerated from death row with DNA evidence. In the three decades since he was exonerated from Maryland’s death row, Mr. Bloodsworth has been a vocal advocate for criminal justice reform. He played an essential role in ending the death penalty in Maryland in 2013 and served as director of Witness to Innocence, an organization of death row exonerees.

    Since Mr. Bloodsworth’s exoneration, 28 additional death row prisoners have been exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence. A federal law called the Innocence Protection Act of 2004 created the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program intended to help states pay for post-conviction DNA testing, but prisoners still face significant procedural hurdles, including resistance from prosecutors and judges, to obtaining post-conviction DNA testing.

    Mr. Bloodsworth was convicted in 1984 of the rape and murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton. He was granted a new trial because of prosecutorial misconduct, but was wrongfully convicted a second time and sentenced to life in prison. DNA testing conducted in 1993 excluded him as the perpetrator and identified another man, who was serving a 45-year sentence for a similar attack that occurred three weeks after Mr. Bloodsworth was arrested. The actual perpetrator was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2004.

    Mr. Bloodsworth is the subject of the film “Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man,” which was released in 2015.