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!




Putnam County Sheriff’s Office Teams with Othram to Identify 1980 Homicide Victim (DNASolves – 3/08/2024)

    • In December 1980, the remains of an unidentified man were discovered in Pomona Park, a city in Putnam County, Florida. During a routine patrol, a deputy found the body of a partially-buried individual near Sisco Road and Broward Lake Roan. It was determined that the remains were that of a male estimated to be 5′ 6″ tall and approximately 160 pounds. The man died from a gunshot wound to the neck about two to three weeks before his body was discovered.

      The man had no identification on him and through interviews it was believed that he was a migrant worker. He was last seen alive on November 15, 1980 when a convenience store clerk stated she saw him in her store. Also, a driver for Simmons’ Labor Camp in Pomona Park confirmed he had picked up a person with the same clothing description as the victim in Orlando to work at the farm about three days prior to his disappearance. The driver said he believed the man had wandered off the property.

      Following an autopsy, which confirmed that the man’s death was due to homicide, John Doe #36 was buried with a metal marker in the Lake Como/Pomona Park cemetery. Details of the case were entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as UP1291. Despite investigators attempts to identify the man, the case went cold and the man could not be identified. In February 2023, while reviewing cold cases, Captain Chris Stallings with the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office reviewed the evidence left in this case and contacted Othram to see if advanced DNA testing and forensic genetic genealogy could be used to identify the murdered man.

      In March 2023, the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office submitted forensic evidence to Othram’s laboratory in The Woodlands, Texas. Despite the degradation of the original evidence, Othram scientists successfully developed a DNA extract from the forensic evidence and used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to develop a comprehensive DNA profile for the man. Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team then used the profile in a genealogical search to generate new investigative leads.

      In January, these leads were returned to Putnam County Sheriff’s Office and a possible identity for the man as well as his potential relatives was provided. Investigators reached out to a man, who was eventually identified as being John Doe’s brother. Using this information along with confirmatory DNA testing, John Doe 36 is now known to be William Irving Monroe, III.




UNMC Human DNA Identification Lab Now Accredited to Help Solve Cold Cases (Nebraska Public Media – 3/08/2024)

    • In 2000, Mellissa Helligso started watching a new show, ‘CSI Crime Scene Investigation,’ where the investigators used DNA to solve crimes. It immediately piqued her interest.

      At the time, she was working at a molecular lab at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, but she soon switched to the Human DNA Identification Lab. Helligso is currently the lab’s manager, technical lead and forensic DNA analyst.

      The lab is now one of seven accredited to perform Forensic Investigative Genetic Genealogy analysis to assist in cold case investigations, according to Helligso.

      Being accredited means the lab team has to follow hundreds of procedures and standards, which is especially important for presenting reliable evidence to juries. It took about two years to be accredited, but Helligso has been working on it for a lot longer.



New Funding will Provide Genetic Genealogy Testing for Unidentified Remains in Washington (NonStop Local Tri-Cities Yakima – 3/11/2024)

    • The State Legislature recently approved funding for genetic genealogy and DNA testing for the backlog of unidentified remains in Washington.

      State Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s Office announced the $500,000 in funding on Monday, March. 11.

      The funding will supplement existing state and federal DNA testing resources to help in the identification of the 163 unidentified human remains currently awaiting further testing in Washington, according to the AG’s Office.



Dentures Provide Clues as DDP Identifies 1996 John Doe (Forensic – 3/13/2024)

    • The DNA Doe Project, a trailblazing non-profit organization dedicated to using investigative genetic genealogy to identify John and Jane Does, is pleased to announce the resolution of the case of Scioto River John Doe 1996. Working in partnership with the Ross County Office of the Coroner,  the DNA Doe Project has successfully identified the previously unidentified individual as Ward Raymond Thomas, born in 1918 in Muskingum County, Ohio.

      Ward Raymond Thomas, aged 54 at the time of his disappearance, vanished from a Veteran’s Medical facility in Chillicothe, Ohio in 1972. It would be 24 years before his skull was located in the Scioto River in the same area.

      In 2022, investigators with the Ross County Office of the Coroner brought the cold case to the DNA Doe Project, hoping that investigative genetic genealogy would be able to finally find this man’s identity. They had obtained a grant to help fund the thousands of dollars of lab costs needed to develop a DNA profile suitable to upload to the databases used by law enforcement for this work – GEDmatch Pro and FTDNA. Despite being found in water, a circumstance notorious for contaminating and degrading DNA, a bone sample obtained from the skull yielded a workable profile and the team of volunteer investigators got to work in November, 2023. It took less than two weeks of work to connect a handful of second and third cousins in a family tree, leading to Ward Thomas’s branch.



Ohio Crime Labs Awarded Additional Funding to Reduce Backlogs (Fairfax County Police Department News – 3/05/2024)

    • Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced that 11 certified crime laboratories will receive an additional $3.4 million in funding as part of the Ohio Crime Lab Efficiency Program.

      Governor DeWine created the Ohio Crime Lab Efficiency Program in 2022 to help Ohio crime laboratories reduce and eliminate backlogs, increase overall lab efficiency, and decrease evidence processing time.

      “Criminal investigations depend on the timely work of dedicated forensic scientists and chemists at Ohio’s crime labs,” said Governor DeWine. “The initial $10 million in funding awarded in 2022 was successful in helping crime labs significantly reduce backlogs, and this additional funding will help labs continue to keep their turnaround times down.”

      Crime laboratories receiving funding include labs in Cuyahoga, Franklin, Lake, Licking, Lorain, Lucas, and Montgomery counties. Eligible grant expenses include hiring additional staff, purchasing new technology, and outsourcing lab work.



Cold Case Solved in Dallas County’s First Murder Conviction Using Forensic Genealogy (CBSNews – 3/12/2024)

  • In a first for Dallas County, the suspect in a cold case murder was convicted using investigative genetic genealogy.

    The case goes all the way back to 1986.

    In November of that year, Garland police say Barbara Villarreal was stabbed to death at her home. Investigators cleared her husband from the case and police said they recovered DNA evidence from the scene but the case remained cold for decades.

    Just last year, 86-year-old Liborio Canales was arrested after investigators say advancements in technology finally allowed for new testing to be done on blood collected at the scene.

    Through investigative genetic genealogy, police say they were able to match the DNA to Canales and tracked him down in New Mexico. He is the victim’s brother-in-law.



Deputies Use Genetic Genealogy to ID Woman Found Dead in Indian River County in 1982 (WPTV5 – 3/12/2024)

    • The Indian River County Sheriff’s Office said it has used genetic genealogy to identify a woman whose body was found in a canal beside a state road more than 40 years ago.

      “For 42 years the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office has referred to her as ‘Jane Doe.’ We don’t know who she is, but every year we memorialize her,” Sheriff Eric Flowers said Tuesday during a news conference. “Folks, we gave her her name back. We did it. Her name isn’t Jane Doe anymore.”

      Flowers said deputies have identified Evelyn Lois Horne Townsend, of Perry, as the woman who was found shot to death on Sept. 1, 1982, along west State Road 60. Flowers said his office used genetic testing to identify a half-sibling who confirmed that Townsend, born on May 9, 1939, was indeed the missing relative.



Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner Teams with Othram to Identify 1974 Homicide Victim, “Lorraine Stahl” (DNASolves – 3/13/2024)

  • In May 1974, Connecticut State Police recovered the decomposed remains of an unidentified woman from a wooded area in the town of Ledyard, Connecticut. The agency had received a tip about two murders that had occurred at a home on Shewville Road. Investigators located two shallow graves several hundred feet behind the house, in which they discovered the decomposed bodies of a man and a woman. Investigators later successfully identified the man as Gustavous Lee Carmichael, a convicted serial bank robber who had previously escaped from federal custody. He and the woman had been known to use the aliases Dirk Stahl and Lorraine Stahl before their murders on December 31, 1970. In the subsequent years, two men, Richard DeFreitas and Donald Brant, were convicted for the murders of the individuals.

    Since the discovery of the unknown woman’s remains, law enforcement investigators diligently pursued various leads about her identity. Investigators located a woman named Lorraine Stahl, who had moved from the area in the months prior, and determined that her identity had been assumed by the unidentified decedent. Investigators also created a composite sketch of the woman’s appearance as she had been known in her life. Years later, in July 2011, the case was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as case number #UP8909. Despite the exhaustive efforts of law enforcement, the woman’s identity remained a mystery. With few leads for investigators to pursue, the case went cold.

    In 2022, in an ongoing collaboration aimed at solving the backlog of cold cases in Connecticut, the Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner submitted forensic evidence to Otham’s laboratory in The Woodlands, Texas. Othram scientists developed a suitable DNA extract from the evidence and then used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to build a comprehensive DNA profile for the unknown woman. Using this profile, Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team assisted Medicolegal Death Investigator Michelle Clark in a forensic genetic genealogy search to develop new investigative leads in the case.

    These leads led investigators to potential relatives of the murdered woman. Confirmatory DNA testing led to the identification of the woman as Linda Sue Childers, born September 4, 1946. Childers was originally from Louisville, Kentucky. Childers’ daughter and sister were notified of her identification. Richard DeFreitas and Donald Brant, the men convicted for Childers’ murder, are now deceased.



New Simpler and Cost-Effective Forensics Test Helps Identify Touch DNA (University of New Hampshire – 3/14/2024)

  • Research from the University of New Hampshire has found a less expensive and easier to use test to learn more about forensic touch DNA. This research has important implications for forensic investigations and being able to identify DNA from a primary contact—someone who may have committed the crime—as well as secondary DNA that was inadvertently and indirectly transferred through touch.

    “So-called ‘touch DNA’ is a form of trace DNA that is deposited when a person touches something and leaves behind their skin cells, sweat or other fluids that contain their DNA,” said Samantha McCrane, a lecturer in anthropology and co-director of UNH’s Forensic Anthropology Identification and Recovery (FAIR) Lab. “While touch DNA is often the result of direct contact, which we call primary transfer, it can also be indirectly transferred between surfaces or individuals, leaving behind secondary or even tertiary DNA.”

    In their study, recently published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, researchers developed an innovative test that uses a more accessible and affordable sequence method, known as qPCR. To test their protocol, they paired male and female volunteers and kept it simple, only looking at one marker to determine the sex of the DNA. In the trials, they first had a male participant hold a gun grip for 30 seconds before placing it down on a sterilized table. Then, a female picked up the same gun grip and held it for 30 seconds and followed that by grasping a coffee cup for 30 seconds. Afterward, the gun grip, coffee mug and female’s hand were all swabbed for DNA.