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!




Beethoven and the Father of DNA Share Ancestry (Forensic – 3/24/2023)

    • DNA extracted from five locks of Ludwig van Beethoven’s hair has revealed interesting—and unexpected—insights about his health and ancestry.

      While the research team could not identify what killed Ludwig nor what caused his accelerated hearing loss, they did find a genetic predisposition to liver disease, among other infections. But perhaps most surprisingly, DNA analysis revealed Ludwig’s Y chromosome doesn’t match any of the five modern-day relatives carrying the same last name. That finding indicates the birth of a child resulting from an extramarital affair in Ludwig’s direct paternal line. Meanwhile, on his maternal side, Ludwig shares ancestry with James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA.



FGG Identifies Girl with the Scorpion Tattoo 32 Years After Brutal Murder (Forensic – 3/27/2023)

  • In September 1991, an unidentified woman with a scorpion tattoo was found bludgeoned to death and set on fire in a wooded area in Ocean Breeze. The woman was left in a vacant lot just feet from the sidewalk, opposite 777 Seaview Avenue. She was discovered face up, handcuffed, and her body was burned. She died as a result of over 17 blows to her head and she was also strangled. A hammer was recovered under her body that we believe was used in the homicide. That hammer was a bodywork-style hammer that had “Loyd L” engraved in the broken handle. At the time of the discovery the woman was wearing a dress and sneakers. Investigators believe that she had been left at the location at least from 6pm the night prior.

    In 2008, the District Attorneys office revisited the case and submitted her DNA into CODIS and her dental records were submitted to the FBI. Unfortunately, no new leads had surfaced as a result of these inquiries.

    In 2019, DA Michael McMahon made a decision to start the path of forensic genetic genealogy research. In collaboration with the FBI, investigators reached out to Othram to see if advanced DNA testing could produce new leads in the case.

    Othram developed a suitable DNA extract and then used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing to build a comprehensive DNA profile. The profile was delivered back to investigators and they worked with the FBI genealogy team to perform the necessary genetic genealogy research to produce an investigative lead for the case.

    A follow up testing, along with confirmation DNA testing, revealed that the woman was Christine Belusko.


Identification of 1993 Jane Doe is First for New Cold Case Unit (Forensic – 3/27/2023)

  • DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston announced a major development in the case of an unidentified homicide victim whose remains were found in the Tucker area nearly 30 years ago. The victim has been positively identified as Rebecca “Becky” Burke, 52. The newly formed DeKalb County Cold Case Task Force seeks information about Burke’s death.



Coroner: Lake Mead Body Found in 2022 was 1974 Drowning (Forensic – 3/29/2023)

  • Human remains found last October on the shoreline of shrinking Lake Mead were from a North Las Vegas man who drowned in April 1974, authorities in Las Vegas said Tuesday.

    Donald P. Smith was 39 when he was reported missing in the waters of the Colorado River reservoir behind Hoover Dam, the Clark County coroner’s office said in a statement. The identification was made through DNA, and his death has been ruled accidental.

    Coroner’s investigators are still trying to identify other remains found last year while the lake recedes because of drought, county spokeswoman Stacey Welling said. That includes those of a man who Las Vegas police say was shot in the head and stuffed into a barrel found in May 2022 near a popular swimming and boating area about a 30-minute drive from the Las Vegas Strip.


FGG Finds Sister of Now-Identified Jane Doe Missing Since 1974 (Forensic – 3/29/2023)

    • In December 1974, the Gatlinburg Police received a call from a man who stated that he and his friends were taking a shortcut back to their chalet, when they discovered the remains of a body, below the tramway station at Gatlinburg Ski Lodge. Chief of Police, W.B. Ogle and Sergeant J.G. Moore responded to the scene, which was a remote area, just east of the tramway, that was untraveled. The body was found lying face down on a coat that had been spread when she had been apparently sitting against a tree. No identifying information was found near the body or the scene.

      Throughout the years and as technology improved many investigators attempted to identify the remains but were unsuccessful. In 2007, computerized technology help produce a composite of the deceased but no identity was ever discovered. In 2007, a new dental identification was utilized through NCIC and once again no identification was discovered. The case was submitted to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as UP1589.

      In 2021, skeletal remains from the unidentified woman were submitted to Othram for forensic genetic genealogy testing, in hopes of identifying potential relatives. Othram produced a suitable DNA extract from the skeletal remains and then used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing to produce a comprehensive DNA profile. Othram’s in-house genetic genealogy team then worked to produce investigative leads. These were transmitted back to the agency and investigators were able to identify a potential relative that currently resides in Arkansas. That individual was contacted and did, in fact, report having a sister who had been missing since August 1974 and was last believed to be in Tennessee. A DNA sample of that individual was submitted for direct comparison to the unidentified. The results positively identified her to be Charlotte Roberta Henry, born Jan. 4, 1939, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Henry was last seen, by her relatives, at her father’s funeral in April 1974. The family received a letter from her in August 1974 from 2124 Vinton, Memphis, Tennessee.


Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office Partners with Othram to Identify a 2022 Female House Fire Victim (DNASolves – 3/28/2023)

    • In December 2022, the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department responded to a house fire in northwest Atlanta, GA. The fire devastated the structure and required aggressive measures to extinguish. Firefighters with the Fire and Rescue Department discovered two deceased individuals, a man and a woman, inside of the home and alerted Atlanta Police Department. As part of the death investigation, the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office was dispatched to determine the cause of death and identify the two individuals. The cause of death for both individuals is under investigation, and while Medical Examiners were able to identify the male individual, the female decedent could not be identified due to extensive damage caused by the fire.

      As part of an ongoing collaboration with Othram to close unsolved cases, the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office once again partnered with Othram to identify the unknown woman. Using Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing®, Othram scientists developed a comprehensive DNA profile for the female victim. In the course of the investigation, a possible family member contributed a reference DNA swab to help rule out the chance that the victim could be related to them. The family member’s DNA profile was compared to the unidentified woman’s DNA profile using KinSNP® rapid family testing. Using this information in conjunction with a follow up investigation, the agency was able to confirm the identity of the female victim as 85-year-old homeowner, Lola Bell Thomas. Ms. Thomas was born May 28, 1937 and resided in the home with her nephew. Her nephew was the second person identified at the crime scene.



Oconto County Sheriff’s Office Teams with Othram to Identify 1979 Doe Case (DNASolves – 3/28/2023)

    • On August 24, 1979, a landfill caretaker in Lena, WI discovered a human skull inside of a metal bread box. The bread box was noted to be in good condition and the skull appeared to belong to an individual who, at the time, had died in recent years. The decedent was estimated to be between the ages of 30 and 40 years old at the time of death. Upon discovery, forensic anthropologists reported the sex of the individual to be female. No other identifying characteristics were observed and despite exhaustive efforts of the Oconto County Sheriff’s Office, the identity of this individual remains unknown.

      In September 2022, the case details were entered into NamUs as case #UP95145. In 2023, the Oconto County Sheriff’s Office and the Brown County Medical Examiner’s Office partnered with Othram, Inc. in The Woodlands, TX in hopes of identifying the unknown individual through advanced forensic DNA testing and genetic genealogy.

      Initial analysis at Othram has determined that the sex of the unidentified individual is male and not female as originally thought, and reported by the Racine Journal Times in an article on September 14, 1979. Anyone with information that could aid in this investigation is encouraged to contact the Oconto County Sheriff’s Office and reference agency case number OI22-3101 or NamUs ID #UP95145.