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!




Washington Sheriff’s Office Awarded $480K Grant for Rapid DNA Program (Police1 – 9/15/2022)

    • The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office’s Rapid DNA program is the recipient of a $480,000 Department of Justice grant.

      Vanessa R. Waldref, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, made the announcement on August 1. The grant will assist law enforcement in identifying, arresting, and prosecuting violent crimes and prolific property crimes, according to a press release. The goal is to enhance the sheriff’s office with technical expertise as well as a way to increase the number of solved crimes in the county – all while reducing the number of crimes against both people and property.



Re-examined Evidence Yields Suspect’s DNA Profile (Forensic – 9/16/2022)

  • On March 29, 1983, Sheriff’s Deputies with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office responded to a deceased female found in the San Lorenzo River in Ben Lomond, Calif. The female was identified as 33-year-old Joette Marie Smith, a Ben Lomond resident and owner of the Buffalo Galls restaurant in Ben Lomond.

    The Sheriff’s Office determined Smith’s death to be a homicide. She was last seen two nights before leaving Henflings Bar. Numerous items of evidence were located at the crime scene. For the next several years, Sheriff’s Detectives interviewed dozens of people and investigated several leads and tips, but no viable suspect was identified.

    In 1988, the Sheriff’s Office developed a suspect in the case, Eric David Drummond. Drummond had an extensive history of violent crimes that included sexual assault convictions in California and Nevada. Detectives learned Drummond had asked Smith for a date while at her restaurant and she declined. Drummond left California abruptly after her murder. While there was circumstantial information tying Drummond to the crime, no criminal case could be brought against Drummond without further physical evidence.

    In 2022, Smith’s clothing was reexamined using new technologies and established a suspect DNA profile. In late August 2022, a DNA sample was collected from the 64-year-old Drummond for comparison. Drummond’s DNA was determined to be a match.



‘The Numbers Kept Going’: The Forensic Office Identifying Human Remains at the Border (The Guardian – 9/19/2022)

  • Over the past two decades, the combination of increasingly extreme heat and border enforcement policies that funnel migrants deep into the Sonoran Desert has killed thousands of people in southern Arizona. The complex process of identifying their remains has prompted the office to innovate, increasing its technical capacity and helping create an affiliated organization that supports the victims’ families. By turning this difficult work into a group effort, the office has set a high standard for addressing border-related migrant deaths.



New Method Speeds Forensic Genetic Genealogy Process 10-Fold (Forensic – 9/19/2022)

  • The new method proposed by Stanford University professors Lawrence Wein and Mine Su Ertürk aims to maximize the probability of finding a descendant solution in the shortest time possible. In simulated runs using data from the DNA Doe Project (DDP), the team solved cases 10 times faster than the current average.


Area Detectives Solve 30 Year Old Cold Case, as DNA Links Serial Killer to at Least 4 Murders (WLBT3 – 9/19/2022)

    • St. Louis area detectives have cracked a cold case dating back to the early 1990s, after a recent DNA discovery led them to the alleged killer.

      St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell announced charges against Gary Muehlberg, 73, in connection with the deaths of four women between March 1990 and February 1991. Police confirmed the identities of the women to be Robyn Mihan, 18, Sandy Little, 21, Brenda Jean Pruitt, 27, and Donna Reitmeyer, 40.


Alachua County Sheriff’s Office and Othram Team to Identify 1979 John Doe (DNASolves – 9/19/2022)

    • In 1979, while conducting a controlled burn in High Springs off of County Road 236 near I-75, an employee with the Florida Division of Forestry discovered a skeleton in the woods and a nearby noose. There was no identification with the remains and little evidence left to go on to determine his identity other than to say he was likely a white male. The field of forensic DNA testing had not yet been developed and he did not match any known missing person cases in the area.

      In 2018, after forensic DNA testing had been well established, the deteriorated remains were sent to a lab for the extraction of genetic material in hopes of obtaining enough of a viable sample of genetic material to build a DNA profile that could be used for forensic genetic genealogy. Despite the efforts of several labs, no one was able to obtain a usable DNA profile.

      In 2021, Cold Case Examiner Kevin Allen sent the still unidentified remains to a newer forensic lab in Texas named Othram, who was able to build a comprehensive DNA profile for a genealogical database search using a proprietary DNA testing process called Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing®. In early 2022, Othram’s team used the DNA profile to identify a genetic match estimated to be between a second to fourth cousin to our unknown man.

      It took the collaborative efforts of a number of agencies, family members, volunteers as well as time, tenacity and some cutting-edge forensic DNA technology to bring this case to a successful conclusion, however UP5286 – Alachua County John Doe is now identified and can be returned to his family.


    • As FoxLA reports, Horace Van Vaultz Jr., 67, was found guilty in August of first-degree murder for the strangulation of 21-year-old Selena Keough on July 16, 1981, as well as the asphyxiation of Mary Duggan, a 22-year-old Reseda resident, on June 9, 1986. Keough was killed in San Bernardino County and her body was dumped in bushes in Montclair, while Duggan’s body was found in the trunk of her car in a Burbank parking lot. Prosecutors believe both women were raped by Vaultz before they were murdered.

      Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman argued during the trial that the murders were “sexually motivated homicides” and were “committed by the same serial killer between 1981 and 1986,” citing investigative genetic genealogy, in which detectives run DNA material from the crime scene through commercial DNA databases to find a relative’s match that can point toward a suspect and collect their DNA.


National Forensic Science Week Roundup (Forensic – 9/21/2022)

    • Sunday kicked off the 10th anniversary of National Forensic Science Week, seven days to recognize the important role proper forensic science plays in the investigation of crimes, from exonerating the innocent to identifying the guilty.

      Many universities, organizations, police departments and others are celebrating and acknowledging the hard work forensic professionals put into their jobs, especially given the mental toll working with crime investigations can have on an individual. Additionally, some areas of forensic science can be “thankless,” but that doesn’t stop professionals from doing everything they can to pursue justice.

      Let’s take a look at what different organizations are doing to celebrate National Forensic Science Week 2022.



DNA Leads Cold Case Team to Suspect in 1991 Rape, Murder (Forensic – 9/21/2022)

    • Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley D. Billhimer announced that a collaborative, multi-agency investigation has conclusively identified John Pelletier as the individual responsible for the murder of Deborah “Debbie” Ann Bloomquist, 30, of Ocean Township (Monmouth County), in Barnegat in 1991.  Pelletier passed away in North Dakota in 2015.

      On Oct. 26, 1991, the body of a young woman, later identified Bloomquist, was discovered in a heavily wooded area in Barnegat. An autopsy performed by the Ocean County Medical Examiner’s Office revealed that Bloomquist died from multiple stab wounds and that she was the victim of a sexual assault. The Medical Examiner ruled Bloomquist’s cause of death a homicide.

      Over three decades after her murder, the biological evidence collected from the scene led to the development of a male DNA profile. In January 2022, at the direction of Billhimer, the case was presented to the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General–Cold Case Task Force and the investigation was reopened. A full analysis of the evidence was conducted in a cooperative investigation by the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office Major Crime Unit, Barnegat Township Police Department, New Jersey State Police Cold Case Unit and the Ocean County Sheriff’s Office Crime Scene Investigation Unit. Thanks to technological advances – and with the assistance of BODE Technology – detectives were able identify the male DNA profile collected from the scene in 1991 as belonging to John Pelletier, and reach the conclusion that Pelletier was, in fact, the individual responsible for Bloomquist’s murder.



Utah Company Examines Mass Grave to Identify Remains of Tulsa Race Massacre (KSL TV5 – 9/21/2022)

    • A team of Utah experts with unique expertise has started to examine a grave site for hundreds of people killed in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

      Sorting out the remains will not be easy for the team at Intermountain Forensics in Millcreek but recent advances in technology have made their work possible.

      “It’s been a solemn honor,” said Danny Hellwig, director of laboratory development. “We’ve been contracted to take 14 bodies, of which we’ve got two samples; one bone sample and one tooth sample.”

      All of them were found in a mass grave in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hellwig said, “Using some really intense forensic DNA to come up with identification for genetic genealogy.”

      It’s technology that not many people have, but Intermountain Forensics hopes it will help better understand what happened.



Maryland Quietly Shelves Parts of Genealogy Privacy Law (WMAR2 – 9/21/2022)

    • A WMAR-2 News investigation has learned the Maryland Department of Health quietly stopped implementing key parts of a landmark privacy law meant to protect ancestry data online. The law, enacted last year, was seen as a model for other states looking to set standards for when law enforcement can tap into DNA uploaded by Americans researching their heritage.