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!
DNA evidence sealed investigators’ conclusion that Weldon Alexander murdered his children in 1981.
Law enforcement officials on Thursday announced that Weldon Alexander is the sole viable suspect in the brutal stabbing murders of Karen Alexander, 14, and Gordon Alexander, 13.
In a news release, Texarkana Arkansas Police Department said recent advancements in DNA processing technology, applied to evidence in the case last tested in 2012, pointed to the teenagers’ father as the culprit.
Retired TAPD Capt. Calvin Seward and state forensic criminologist Dr. Todd Steffy consulted on the case with Kelli Dixon, a DNA scientist at the Arkansas State Crime Lab, according to the release.
Investigators are again looking into two decades-old Menomonee Falls cold cases after DNA has offered answers from beyond the grave.
Detectives stood and watched as workers at Milwaukee‘s Holy Cross pulled a casket from the ground this July. Undisturbed for 15 years, investigators were looking for what was inside: DNA from the body of Clarence Marcus Tappendorf.
Douglas was interviewed by detectives in 1986 during a routine canvass, but at that time, there was no evidence to link him to the murder. Connecting Douglas as a suspect was difficult because Douglas had no criminal history; therefore, his DNA profile was never obtained by law enforcement and was not entered into CODIS. Douglas was 33-years old at the time of Ms. Scalf’s murder. He died in 2008 from natural causes.
Vanessa R. Waldref, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, today announced a Department of Justice grant award for Washington State Patrol’s Crime Laboratory Division. The grant allocates $2,245,651 to increase DNA casework and to reduce the current turnaround time for DNA processing.
The Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory Division (WSPCLD) is the established public provider of forensic DNA and DNA database services in Washington State. There are 5 existing casework DNA laboratories in the WSPCLD, which provide forensic DNA casework services for the entire state of Washington. The WSPCLD also has an existing Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database laboratory, which is a computer software program that operates local, state, and national databases of DNA profiles from convicted offenders, unsolved crime scene evidence, and missing persons.
The expected outcomes of this grant are to increase WSPCLD’s capacity to meet the steady rise of submissions, reduce the backlog of samples needing testing, and grow the CODIS database of DNA profiles from crime scene and database samples. These activities will result in more timely investigative leads for law enforcement agencies to aid criminal investigations and increase public safety.
In June 1973, at approximately 11:20 a.m., fishermen found the body of an unidentified female in the San Diego Bay between Laurel Street and the US Coast Guard Station. The woman’s body had been dismembered and placed into an orange suitcase and several plastic bags. An autopsy revealed the individual to be a victim of a homicide. Details of the case were entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as UP58950.
In 2020, the remains were exhumed by the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office to attempt identifying the individual through DNA. With financial assistance from NamUs, a portion of the skeletal remains was sent to Othram, a private, forensic biotechnology company. Othram scientists developed a suitable DNA extract from the highly-degraded remains, recovered a half-century ago. Then, Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® was utilized to develop a comprehensive DNA profile. Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team used the profile to develop investigative leads that were returned to the San Diego Police Department.
With the leads in-hand, San Diego Police investigators were able to eventually identify the unknown homicide victim as Arminda Grangeia Rodrigues da Silva Ribeiro born September 16, 1943 in Portugal. Investigators learned that Ribeiro lived in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, NJ, prior to her death. Additionally, she still had family who lived in that area.
It can take hours for a sexual assault victim to undergo the multiple swabs, hair samples, blood and urine collections, and other invasive procedures of a sexual assault examination. And then it can take months, sometimes years, for investigators to process that evidence kit.
But now, responding to demands from survivors and their advocates, more states have committed to tackling yearslong investigative backlogs — and dozens are adopting tracking systems that allow patients to follow the forensic paths of their own sexual assault kits.
The tracking systems aim to address historical challenges, such as inadequate forensic evidence handling, delays in case processing and underreporting of assaults. The systems can streamline communication among law enforcement agencies, forensic laboratories and survivors, for example. Perhaps most importantly, the accountability and transparency that come with tracking the assault kits also can speed up a case’s resolution.
In 1975, 16-year-old Sharron Prior was kidnapped in Montreal after leaving home to meet her friends at a local pizzeria.
Three days later, she was found in a wooded area just outside Montreal. She had been tied up, raped and beaten to death.
“Sharron was a lively little girl. The community of Pointe-Saint-Charles liked her a lot, and she had a lot of friends,” said Éric Racicot, a detective sergeant at Longueuil’s police department, in an interview with W5’s French sister station, Noovo Info.
Racicot took on the case in December 2021. He was the 14th investigator to try to crack the case police had been investigating for 48 years. By the time it reached his hands, 120 suspects had been identified.
Racicot was determined to solve the case with the help of advancements in DNA technology.
“The more time that passed, the more techniques and more refined that DNA collection techniques and identification recovery became,” he said.
He submitted several items of Sharron’s clothing from the crime scene, including a pair of pants to a lab that specializes in detecting DNA. That sample was then compared to samples in a genealogical database. That ultimately gave Racicot a last name for the investigation.
In October 2011, a Colorado Mesa University instructor and a group of students discovered a skull near the Umcompaghre Plateau wilderness area in rural Mesa County. The students were environmental science majors performing a fire management field project on the plateau just a few hundred yards off Divide Road near the town of Whitewater, Colorado. The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office was able to determine that the skull belonged to an adult male, but there few other insights that could be gained from the partial remains. No determinations could be made about the unknown man’s height, weight, or outward appearance. It is also unclear how and when the unknown man died.
For the past decade, investigators have diligently pursued various leads in an attempt to identify the man. Initially, the skeletal remains were transferred to forensic anthropologists who determined that the skull was not related to any missing person cases in the county. In December 2011, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation conducted DNA testing and were able to produce an STR profile but a search in law enforcement databases did not return a match. In 2020, the unsolved case was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). The case was entered as UP64014. Despite exhaustive investigative efforts, law enforcement was not able to identify the man and the case eventually went cold.
In September 2022, the Mesa County Coroner’s Office partnered with Othram to determine if advanced forensic DNA testing could help establish an identity for the man or a close relative. Skeletal remains were sent to Othram, located in The Woodlands, Texas. Othram’s costs for processing the casework were provided by a DNASolves crowdfund. The Othram team is grateful to everyone that helped fund and share this case.
With evidence in hand, Othram scientists developed a DNA extract from the forensic evidence and then developed a comprehensive DNA profile for the man, using Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing®. Once the profile was succesfully built, Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team produced new investigative leads that were provided to law enforcement.
Using the leads, Mesa County Coroner’s Office investigators reached out to a potential family and eventually confirmed that the unknown man was in fact Michael John Alonzi, born December 10, 1961. The circumstances surrounding Alonzi’s death are unclear and an investigation continues.
As of September 2021, investigative genetic genealogy — which uses genetic information collected from direct-to-consumer companies like GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA to identify suspects and victims — has led to the successful identification of over 150 suspects, including high profile identifications like the Golden State Killer.
So, here are some of the most notorious cold cases that have been solved decades later with advancements in technology.
Bryan Patrick Miller violently murdered two young women in Phoenix in the early 1990s and went decades without being caught. By the time police caught up to him, he had a new persona and was hiding in plain sight. Genetic genealogy and DNA would be the keys to identifying him as the killer.
See how investigators tracked down a killer more than 20 years after the Phoenix canal murders.
In September 2017, skeletal remains belonging to an unknown person were found in a wooded area behind an Indianapolis, Indiana neighborhood. The remains were located inside an abandoned overturned trailer. Marion County Coroner’s Office launched an investigation. It was determined that the remains belonged to a White male, estimated to be 5’10” in height, and between forty and sixty years old. Orthopedic devices were found on the right radius, right ulna, and left femur. The unknown man was found wearing a dark jacket, blue jeans, black belt, a plaid shirt, and a white shoe. Details of the case were entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System as UP17341. With limited information, investigators were unable to determine the identity of the man. He became known as Indianapolis John Doe.
In 2023, the Marion County Coroner’s Office submitted forensic evidence to Othram, in hopes that advanced DNA testing could assist with the identification of the unknown man. With evidence in hand, Othram scientists developed a DNA extract from the forensic evidence and then developed a comprehensive DNA profile for the man using Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing®. Once the profile was successfully built, Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team produced new investigative leads that were provided to investigators at Marion County Coroner’s Office.
Using these leads, law enforcement investigators were able to identify the man as Randy Carl Lee of Greenfield, Indiana. Lee was born January 23, 1956 in Elwood, Indiana. Mr. Lee kept to himself and had last spoken to his family in 2015. Lee’s remains were found approximately seven miles from his address in Greenfield. He was never reported missing.
In 1983, a California city known for its agricultural roots was shocked by the murder of a 14-year-old girl on her way her school. Inundated with tips and evidence that was useless at the time, rumors rocked the town the longer the Tehama County Sheriff’s Office failed to point to a suspect.
At one point, some of the citizens believed the sheriff at the time was involved with the homicide, and that’s why it was being covered up—even though no evidence implicated the man. At another point, convicted murderer Henry Lee Lucas, known as The Confession Killer, claimed he killed the girl—one of the 600 murders he falsely confessed to.
Now, thanks to forensic investigative genetic genealogy (FIGG), authorities can confirm 14-year-old Rashell Ward was murdered by Johnny Lee Coy, who was not a suspect at the time but did have a violent criminal history.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office celebrates a comprehensive federal grant funds package awarded to the Puerto Rico Department of Justice, the Puerto Rico Forensic Science Institute, and to Community Response to Gender-Based Violence Stakeholders in excess of $28.8 million.
“The Puerto Rico U.S. Attorney’s Office works closely with our state law enforcement partners and community response stakeholders to effectively investigate and prosecute crimes and provide justice and protection to our victims of crime. Identifying available federal funding and ensuring that these funds are properly and efficiently expended enhances our collaborative law enforcement efforts,” said United States Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow.
These recent funding allocations from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs (OJP) are intended to build community capacity to curb violence, serve victims and youth, and achieve fair outcomes through evidence-based criminal and juvenile justice strategies.
In February 1990, the remains of an unidentified individual were located in a wooded area near Evans Bridge Road in Heflin, Alabama, a small town situated nearly halfway between Birmingham, AL and Atlanta, GA on Interstate 20. A logging crew working in the area discovered the remains and contacted the Heflin Police Department. The Alabama Department of Forensic Science and Alabama Bureau of Investigations assisted local law enforcement in their search of the wooded area. Skeletal remains were collected and submitted to the Alabama Department of Forensic Science laboratory for identification. It was determined that the remains belonged to a White female. The woman’s identity could not be established. Her age was difficult to determine due to the condition of the remains, but it was estimated that the woman was in her late twenties to late thirties at the time of her death. The woman’s manner of death was determined to be homicide. She became known as “Cleburne County Jane Doe.”
Details of the case were entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as UP84287. A forensic facial reconstruction was developed by LSU FACES and released to the public in hopes that the woman could be identified. Despite the extensive efforts of law enforcement, the case went cold and the identity of the woman remained a mystery. In 2022, the Heflin Police Department re-opened the case with a goal of identifying the woman and bringing justice to her and her family.
In 2023, the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, in collaboration with the Heflin Police Department, submitted forensic evidence to Othram in hopes that advanced DNA testing could assist with the identification of the unknown woman. With evidence in hand, Othram scientists developed a DNA extract from the forensic evidence and then developed a comprehensive DNA profile for the woman using Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing®. Once the profile was successfully built, Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team produced new investigative leads that were provided to the law enforcement investigators.
Using these new leads, investigators contacted potential family members of Cleburne County Jane Doe. Additional investigative work and follow up DNA testing enabled investigators to positively identify the woman as Clara Kopp Reynolds of Georgia
While ubiquitous now in some of our favorite true crime shows, the technique of using DNA samples to identify potential criminals started making its way into the forensic world by chance — and still is not as popular or helpful as one might think.
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