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!




Police Confirm ID of Woman Reunited with Her Family 51 Years After her Abduction (NBC5 DFW – 5/04/2023)

    • The Fort Worth Police Department says they have completed official DNA testing confirming the identity of a woman who was reunited with her family last year after being abducted as a toddler more than five decades ago.

      Melissa Highsmith went missing in 1971 when, at just 22 months old, she was allegedly taken from her parents’ Fort Worth home by a babysitter. More than 50 years later, the Highsmith family found Melissa through DNA testing shared on genealogy sites.



How Body Farms are Helping Forensics Solve Murders (Newsweek – 5/07/2023)

  • Body farms are facilities where corpses are placed in a variety of environments and scenarios to study how they decompose.

    This research can help forensic scientists and police figure out what has happened to a body involved in a murder or other crimes.

    Bodies are usually donated to these facilities, but there is controversy surrounding the use of humans in such research.


Arrest in 2007 Cold Case is Wichita Police’s First Using Genealogy Data. They Hope for More. (The Wichita Eagle  – 5/07/2023)

  • Wichita police used a newer, somewhat controversial technique to make an arrest last week in a 2007 cold case. Ted Foy, 52, of Augusta was arrested Monday on suspicion of two counts of rape, two counts of aggravated sexual battery and one count of aggravated criminal sodomy in connection with a Nov. 13, 2007, case in southeast Wichita. It was the department’s first arrest using investigative genetic genealogy, which takes a DNA sample from an unsolved case and tries to match it to data people have submitted to genealogy websites.



Mississippi Accelerates Rape Kit Timeline While Tennessee Fails Backlog Bill (Forensic – 5/08/2023)

  • Governors and state officials have taken notice in recent years as more and more cold cases rapes are being solved through advanced DNA analysis, including investigative genetic genealogy. The common denominator between all the cases—and where it all starts—is the processing of the rape kit. If rape kits do not get processed, rapists continue to live freely and, in most cases, commit more crimes and rapes. For example, according to a study from Case Western Reserve University, 74% of serial rapists had at least one prior felony arrest, while 95% of all serial rapists had a subsequent felony arrest.

    The best way to get these numbers down is by taking these rapists off the streets. In order to do that, their DNA has to be linked to a rape kit. And in order to show that, rape kits need to be processed—quickly, not years after the crime.

    Leaders in Oklahoma and Mississippi have recently passed laws to support this initiative. Meanwhile in Tennessee—even after the brutal kidnapping, rape and murder of a beloved mother and teacher by a serial rapist—lawmakers failed to advance a bill that would require a 30-day turnaround for rape kits.


Investigators Link Man to 3 Rapes that Occurred 40 Years Ago (Forensic – 5/08/2023)

    • Significant advances in forensic technology have aided the Calgary Police Service’s cold case sexual violence investigators with making an arrest in three sexual assaults that occurred nearly 40 years ago.

      In February 1984, a teenager was babysitting their younger sibling at home when a man entered the residence, sexually assaulted the teenager and then fled the residence.

      In March 1984, a woman and her child were at home in the evening. After going to bed, the woman awoke to an unknown man in her bedroom. As she tried to escape, the man forced her into another bedroom where he sexually assaulted her. Before fleeing, the man threatened the victim with physical harm.

      In June 1985, a woman was asleep in her residence, and awoke to a man covering her face in an attempt to restrict her view of him. He sexually assaulted the victim, alleging he had a knife, then fled the scene.

      With the advancement of forensic technology and investigative techniques, these three cases have been determined to be linked.




Co-founder of Astrea Forensics Picked to Lead California Institute (Forensic – 5/08/2023)

    • Richard (Ed) Green, professor of biomolecular engineering, has been selected to serve as the next director of the California Institute of Quantitative Biosciences (QB3) at UC Santa Cruz.

      QB3 is the University of California’s hub for innovation and entrepreneurship in life science, working with UC researchers and other scientists to launch startup companies and partner with industry. QB3 has centers at UC Santa Cruz, Berkeley, and San Francisco and operates in collaboration with private industry and venture capital.

      “The opportunities in biotechnology are enormous,” Green said. “QB3 has been at the forefront, fostering the connections that aim UCSC technology at important problems. I’m looking forward to expanding the impact of QB3 in Santa Cruz and beyond.”



How Louisiana Police are Using a DNA ‘Lab in a Box’ to Solve Crimes (PBS Newshour – 5/04/2023)

    • When a pair of suspects fled a routine traffic stop and shot at a Baton Rouge-area police officer in 2020, DNA at the crime scene helped police quickly arrest one suspect.

      But the other remained on the run, until he was arrested for another crime — possessing stolen goods — two years later. Using a “Rapid DNA” machine at booking, the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office took a cheek swab and connected the person to the previous crime while he was in custody.

      This was made possible by what detectives there call a “lab in a box.”

      Rapid DNA programs are not new. Other law enforcement agencies have used similar machines. But Louisiana is the first state in the country to work with the FBI to integrate it into the booking process. The machine analyzes samples against the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a national database of DNA profiles.



New Forensic Capabilities to be Put to Solving Tasmanian Cold Case Crimes ( – 5/08/2023)

    • All Tasmanian cold cases will be re-examined using new forensic technology, with a hope it could help families desperate for answers. The new technology will start to be used later this year, with further upgrades set to happen over the next three years.



Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office Teams with Othram to Identify 1989 John Doe (DNASolves – 5/08/2023)

    • In July 1989, partial skeletal remains were discovered behind a warehouse near railroad tracks at First and McGee Streets in Kansas City, Missouri. The remains were covered by a 3’x4’ sheet of tin. At the time of discovery, the victim was wearing multiple layers of clothing, including a striped nylon shirt, a red nylon shirt, a “Doobie Brothers” tee shirt, socks, a tan jacket, boxer shorts, and remnants of denim jeans. The unknown male was believed to be 29 to 49 years of age with a height between 5’5” to 5’7”. No other identifying characteristics for the man were discovered and the man’s ancestry is undetermined.

      In 2009, the case was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as #UP4999. For over three decades, law enforcement have diligently pursued various leads about the man’s identity. Despite their tireless efforts to identify the unknown man, his identity remains a mystery.

      In 2023, the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office partnered with Othram to determine if advanced forensic DNA testing could help identify the unknown man or a close relative. Anyone with information that could aid in this investigation is encouraged to contact the Kansas City Police Department at  816-581-0700 and reference case number 89092841 or the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office at  816-881-6600 and reference case number 89-ME-221.

      A DNASolves crowdfund has been created to raise funds for the remaining casework costs. Anyone can contribute here.



On the Case: First Students Graduate with GCU’s Master’s in Forensic Science (GCU – 5/09/2023)

    • Employment for forensic science technicians, who work in crime labs to help solve criminal or civil cases, is projected to grow 11% from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations. About 2,500 openings are projected each year on average over the decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

      What’s so notable about GCU’s program, which launched in August 2021, is that Beddow and Assistant Dean of Science Dr. Bina Vanmali believe it is the first online master’s program in the country to incorporate remote lab work.

      The college partnered with Carolina Biological to design lab kits with step-by-step instructions to conduct experiments at home. The kits might contain slides with dried fluids that students analyze using compound microscopes mailed to them, or they might include fibers they evaluate under a microscope.



An American Expat Raised a Family in Australia. He was Hiding a Dark Secret. (The Washington Post – 5/08/2023)

    • Unaware of their father’s secret, the children of John Vincent Damon knew him as a successful businessman and a loving parent — a quiet, reserved loner who once told his daughter that he ached to reveal so much more about his life.

      He never did. Damon died in 2010 in his adopted homeland of Australia, taking his secret to the grave.

      Last week, the U.S. Marshals Service resurrected it, announcing that investigators had discovered that Damon wasn’t really Damon at all, but William Leslie Arnold, a prisoner who’d escaped the Nebraska State Penitentiary in 1967 while serving a double life sentence for murdering his parents when he was 16. For more than a half-century, Arnold eluded authorities, including for over a decade after his death, the Marshals said in a news release. As Damon, he built a new life, marrying twice, fathering two children and eventually moving halfway around the world to Australia, where he became a successful salesman. He died in 2010 at the age of 67.



Cold Case Unit, Othram ID Suspect in at Least Two Rapes (Forensic – 5/10/2023)

    • In June 1994, a 39-year-old victim reported to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department that an unknown subject had broken into her residence and sexually assaulted her at knifepoint. A sexual assault kit was completed on the victim and analyzed. Additional testing of the evidence was conducted in 2018, and in 2019, the forensic samples from the scene were linked to another sex assault in Columbia, South Carolina that happened in 2010.

      In 2022, with the assistance of funding from the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI), detectives utilized forensic genetic genealogy to identify a person of interest. Forensic evidence was sent to Othram. Othram scientists used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing to build a comprehensive genealogical profile for the unknown subject. Othram’s in-house genealogy team used a genetic genealogy search to produce investigative leads that were returned to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. CMPD investigators continued working the case and their follow up investigative efforts led to the collection of a DNA sample from a person of interest. The DNA profile for this person of interest matched the the DNA profiles for the unknown subject that were recovered from the 1994 and 2010 sexual assaults.



20 Bodies Found in Congo Mass Grave, ADF Rebels Suspected (Forensic – 5/10/2023)

    • The remains of at least 20 people were found buried in a mass grave in an area used to cultivate cacao in Ndoma village in Congo’s North Kivu province this weekend, according to local authorities and a military spokesperson.

      A team of forensic and security officers exhumed the bodies after residents of villages in Beni territory found bones and clothing and alerted officials.



Three’s a Crowd: Researchers Created Babies using Unusual Number of DNA Samples (FOX News – 5/10/2023)

    • British scientists have created infants using strands of DNA from three people, a technique that aims to reduce the risk of rare genetic diseases.

      “Mitochondrial donation treatment offers families with severe inherited mitochondrial illness the possibility of a healthy child,” the U.K. fertility regulator said in a statement Wednesday.

      Britain’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority confirmed that fewer than five infants have been born using the mitochondrial donation treatment and provided no further details in order to protect the families. The number was accurate as of late April 2023, The Guardian reported. Doctors in the U.S. announced the birth of the world’s first baby using the mitochondrial donation technique in 2016, after the treatment was conducted in Mexico.



Advanced Technology Solves 46-Year-Old Missing Persons Mystery ( – 5/10/2023)

    • Thanks to the diligent efforts of staff members from the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office and current forensic technology, the body of a deceased male found in the Missouri River near Pierre on Aug. 9, 1976 has now been finally identified. 

      “Modern Technology has assisted law enforcement in solving this 46-year-old cold case,” said Attorney General Marty Jackley. “An autopsy was conducted which resulted in a probable cause of death by drowning and there is no further evidence of foul play.”



Gwinnett County Medical Examiner’s Office Teams with Othram to Identify a 1999 John Doe (DNASolves – 5/11/2023)

    • In January 1999, skeletal remains were discovered near a creek in a Lawrenceville, Georgia floodplain located adjacent to an industrial area. Gwinnett County Medical Examiners determined the remains were that of an unknown Black male who was approximately 25 to 45 years old, with an approximate height of 5’7” to 5’11”. A Forensic Artist with the Gwinnett County Medical Examiner’s Office created a composite drawing sketch to depict how the man may have looked during his life.

      Investigators determined that the man had likely died elsewhere, and the remains were either buried where they were found, or flooding had carried the remains to the location of discovery. Aside from a striped shirt and a black necktie, no other personal items were found with the man’s remains. Despite extensive efforts to identify the man, his identity remains a mystery.

      In April 2022, the case was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as #UP90201. For over two decades, investigators have diligently worked to identify the Gwinnett County, Georgia John Doe, but all leads have been exhausted and the case has gone cold.

      In 2023, the Gwinnett County Medical Examiner’s Office, as part of a longstanding collaboration with Othram, decided to use advanced forensic DNA testing combined with a genealogical search to help identify the man or a close relative. Anyone with information that could aid in this investigation is encouraged to contact the Gwinnett County Police Department by calling  770-513-5000 and referencing case number 99-005040. A DNASolves crowdfund has been created to raise funds for the casework costs. Anyone can contribute here.



Mexico’s National Forensic Database to Begin Operations on May 29 (Mexico News Daily – 5/12/2023)

    • Mexico’s new National Forensic Data Bank (BNDF) will begin operations on May 29, the federal Attorney General’s Office (FGR) announced on Thursday. It is expected to become the main tool for addressing the country’s crisis of disappearances and unidentified remains.

      The BNDF will integrate several existing registries, including the National Registry of Mass and Clandestine Graves, the Federal Forensic Registry, the National Genetic Information Base, the National Detention Registry, and the National Database of Missing and Unlocated Persons.



Unidentified Woman’s Remains Found in Riceboro (Georgia Bureau of Investigation – 5/12/2023)

    • Nicholas James Kassotis, aka Nicholas Killian James Stark, age 40, was arrested on Friday, May 12, 2023, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  He was arrested in connection to the death of his wife, Mindi Mebane Kassotis.

      Mindi’s body was found on a hunting club which covered areas in Liberty and Mcintosh Counties on December 2, 2022.  She was 40 years old at the time she was found in Riceboro, GA.  The Kassotis’ were living in Savannah at the time of Mindi’s death.

      GBI agents assigned to this investigation sought the FBI’s assistance with genealogy DNA. FBI used a lab specializing in this advanced testing and received results that furthered the investigation.  The GBI interviewed family members and obtained DNA swabs for comparison to the profile created through genealogy DNA.  Mindi Kassotis was identified on May 11, 2023.



INTERPOL Makes Black Notice Public for First Time to ID 22 Female Murder Victims (Forensic – 5/15/2023)

    • The woman in the well. The woman with the flower tattoo. The burned body in the forest. The body in the carpet. The woman by the motorway. These are just a few of the 22 unidentified woman police from three European Countries are trying to identify as part of INTERPOL’s Operation Identify Me.

      Details on each case have been made available on the Operation Identify Me campaign page. This marks the first time INTERPOL has made public some details of so-called “Black Notices,” which are used internally with partner agencies to seek information and intelligence on unidentified bodies and determine the circumstances surrounding death.

      “Black Notices allow law enforcement agencies to collaborate and share information across borders, ultimately helping to bring closure to the families of the deceased and bring offenders to justice,” said Susan Hitchin, Coordinator of INTERPOL’s DNA Unit. “Advances in technology across the different fields of forensic human identification have been significant in helping solve cold cases.”

      In general, black notices include information on the location where the body was found, physical descriptions of the body or clothing, and any other details that might be relevant to identifying the deceased.



Human DNA is Everywhere. That’s a Boon for Science – and an Ethical Quagmire. (University of Florida – 5/15/2023)

    • We cough, spit, shed and flush our DNA into all of these places and countless more. Signs of human life can be found nearly everywhere, short of isolated islands and remote mountaintops, according to a new University of Florida study.

      That ubiquity is both a scientific boon and an ethical dilemma, say the UF researchers who sequenced this widespread DNA. The DNA was of such high quality that the scientists could identify mutations associated with disease and determine the genetic ancestry of nearby populations. They could even match genetic information to individual participants who had volunteered to have their errant DNA recovered.

      David Duffy, the UF professor of wildlife disease genomics who led the project, says that ethically handled environmental DNA samples could benefit fields from medicine and environmental science to archaeology and criminal forensics. For example, researchers could track cancer mutations from wastewater or spot undiscovered archaeological sites by checking for hidden human DNA. Or detectives could identify suspects from the DNA floating in the air of a crime scene.



Unidentified Milwaukee Woman Found Dead in ’80s May Have Ties to Atlanta, Officials Say (11Alive – 5/15/2023)

    • An unidentified woman found in Wisconsin in the 1980s may have loved ones in Georgia, according to searchers.


      The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said genealogy research has potentially linked a young woman found dead in the Milwaukee River near the docks in March 1982 to Georgia. Now the NCMEC is asking the public to share facial reconstruction photos in hopes of identifying her.



Mississippi Office of the State Medical Examiner, Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and Lincoln County Sheriff’s Team with Othram to Identify 1989 Jane Doe (DNASolves – 5/16/2023)

    • A long-standing mystery surrounding the unidentified body of a female homicide victim discovered in September 1989 has finally been solved, thanks to a collaboration between the Mississippi Office of the State Medical Examiner, Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, and Othram. The unknown woman has been identified as Melinda Lou Barnhouse, bringing closure to a case that had remained unsolved for decades.

      The unidentified woman’s body was found in the bushes at a rest stop along the southbound side of Interstate 55 in Lincoln County, Mississippi. Investigators were unable to definitively determine the woman’s ancestry. They estimated her age to be between 16 and 35 years old at the time of her death. Descriptions indicated that she had brown, shoulder-length hair, possibly naturally curly or wavy, and blue eyes. She stood approximately 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighed around 140 pounds. Notable identifying features included a one centimeter scar on her forehead and another scar on her right thigh. Based on the condition of the remains, investigators believed she had died just days before her discovery.

      In 2022, the Mississippi Office of the State Medical Examiner in partnership with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and Mississippi Bureau of Investigation explored the potential of forensic genetic genealogy as a tool to generate new leads. Forensic evidence collected in the case was sent to Othram’s laboratory in The Woodlands, Texas. Othram scientists used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to build a comprehensive genealogical profile for the unknown woman. Othram’s in-house genealogy team then leveraged this profile to conduct extensive genetic genealogy research, ultimately providing investigative leads to law enforcement.



Sleep-Tracker Study Finds Fatigued Officers Struggle with Investigations (Forensic – 5/17/2023)

    • Like many first responders, law-enforcement investigators and detectives often struggle with sleep. Late-night shifts, stress, and the 24-hour nature of crime can throw off biological clocks and cut sleep cycles short. Along with the negative health implications, new research indicates officers who are fatigued have a harder time collecting information that could bring justice to victims.

      Zlatan Križan, a sleep scientist and psychology professor at Iowa State University, led the study. He says previous research, including his own, shows that people who have lost sleep have trouble controlling their emotions and keeping themselves on task.

      “Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of research about the role of sleep for people who conduct high-stakes investigations. We wanted to see what real detectives and law enforcement officers experience during their investigative interviews because we know that they’re often getting less sleep than the recommended amount and frequently experience sleep disorders,” says Križan.



Girl Missing Since 2017 Found after Recognized from Unsolved Mysteries Reboot (Forensic – 5/17/2023)

    • A girl who was allegedly abducted in suburban Chicago in 2017 by her noncustodial mother has been found safe in North Carolina after she was spotted at a business, authorities said.

      The child was found safe Saturday in Asheville, North Carolina, by officers who were called to a business by someone who “believed she had recognized a woman who kidnapped a child in 2017,” Asheville police said Tuesday in a news release.

      Officers found a woman and a minor child at the business and were able to confirm their identities, police said. They said the woman, Heather Unbehaun, was wanted on an extradition warrant out of Illinois for child abduction.



Bibb County Sheriff’s Office and Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council Team with Othram to Identify 1977 Homicide Victim (DNASolves – 5/18/2023)

    • Forty-six years after her remains were discovered off Arkwright Road, a woman previously identified by the Macon Telegraph as “Macon Jane Doe” has been identified. Yvonne Pless was 19 years old when she was murdered in Macon by Samuel Little, confirmed by the FBI as the US’s most prolific serial killer. For decades she was missing from her family and remained unidentified until the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office teamed up with the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) to solve her case and return her remains home to Macon.

      Captain Shermaine Jones of the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office and Amy Hutsell, Program Director for CJCC’s Sexual Assault, Child Abuse and Human Trafficking Unit first collaborated in 2018 when the now-deceased serial killer confessed to killing two Macon women. Ms. Pless was Little’s first victim in 1977, and his second, Fredonia Smith, was murdered in Washington Park in 1982. In 2019, Jones and Hutsell traveled to Wise County, Texas where Little was being held to confirm that his confessions matched the unsolved Macon cold cases. The case of the unidentified victim was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified System (NamUs) database as UP2126.

      After interviewing Little, Captain Jones closed both cases and the remaining family member of Fredonia Smith was notified. Because the family of Macon Jane Doe was unknown, Jones and Hutsell teamed up again in 2022 and used forensic genetic genealogy to identify her.

      In 2022, skeletal remains from the victim were sent to Othram in The Woodlands, Texas. Othram developed a suitable DNA extract and used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to build a comprehensive DNA profile for the unknown woman. Othram’s in-house genetic genealogy team used the profile to develop investigative leads that were returned back to law enforcement so that they could continue their investigation.

      Working with Othram, investigators identified a relative of Ms. Pless, who connected them with her remaining family members. Little confessed to killing 93 women in total. Eight of his victims were Georgia citizens, and a 9th was from Chattanooga, Tennessee, but her remains were left by Little in Dade County, Georgia.