Olivia McCarter is just 19 years old, but she’s already been a part of three forensic genealogy successes. As a freshman at the University of South Alabama, Olivia wondered where she fit in the field of forensic science and considered dropping out of school. Then she met Lee and Anthony Redgrave, founders of Redgrave Forensic Services, and was offered an internship.
Olivia had never done genealogy work before, but she poured herself into the work, even foregoing meals and sleep to give names back to those who remained unidentified. As part of the team who worked on the Christine Jessop, Delta Dawn Jane Doe, and Mississippi County John Doe cases, Olivia found what she was meant to do. While working on completing upper level courses, she had made it her mission to provide names for as many of the 40,000 unidentified remains cases in the United States as possible.
In this interview, we learn how she got her start in forensic genetic genealogy, the powerful emotions she feels when working on a case, the bond she’s formed with the team at Redgrave Forensic Services, how she’s handled all of the recent media attention, and her advice for others interested in pursuing a career in forensic genetic genealogy.
Are you interested in learning more about how genetic genealogy is being used to solve cold cases and identify Jane and John Does? Then we invite you watch our playlist on YouTube.
Laura: Hi and thank you for joining us for the International Symposium on Human Identification’s video series. Today, we have a special guest, Olivia McCarter. Olivia, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and then we can talk about all the news attention you’ve been getting lately?
Olivia: My name is Olivia McCarter. I’m 19 years old. I’m an anthropology major at the University of South Alabama. I’m a sophomore currently. I’m also a Senior Intern at a forensic genealogy company called Redgrave Research Forensic Services based in Massachusetts. I was approached by the anthropology head at my school, Dr. Philip Carr. He asked me if I would do an interview with the media department at my school, and once I did that, and it came out, all of the news media attention shot up from there. I’ve gotten a lot of media requests, including a lot of stuff locally, and they want to continue to have me on segments with local cases that I can get, because I am working on a lot of local cases currently. I was approached by ISHI, and then the District Attorney’s Office also. It’s been kind of crazy lately for me. I’m also doing 16 credit hours this semester.
Laura: So, not too busy. Just a little bit on your plate. Not too much, right? Well, why don’t you tell us (for the viewers who are watching who don’t know what’s been going on), why don’t you tell us a little bit about some of the cases you’ve been working on and the attention you’ve been getting?
Olivia: Sure! So, I started at Redgrave Research Forensic Services as an intern in March of 2020. I was put on a case from Missouri – a John Doe that had washed up in a field out of the Missouri River in 1979. We solved that case in four days. He’s been identified; his name is Harry, and Harry’s case really sparked my interest in forensic genealogy. This is the case that really made me know that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. Before that, I had just wanted to do it as a student, and just kind of get to know the field a little bit. But once I solved Harry’s case, it became like an addiction and I had never looked back.
After Harry, we solved the 1994 rape and murder of Christine Jessop from Queensville, Ontario. That case took 6 months to solve, and for most of that 6 months, it was just me and three other people solving this case and just bouncing theories off of each other’s heads. That case taught me a lot about genealogy and the aftermath taught me a lot about what happens during these perpetrator cases. What happens after because I’m also a Criminal Justice minor. So that was really interesting to see.
And then, my most recent case, was in my own backyard (basically). That was the case of the Delta Dawn Jane Doe. She was an 18-month-old baby girl found thrown off of a bridge in Mississippi. We received that case in April of 2020 and had it solved in June. I was able to visit her gravesite during the entire process, and after she was identified, I was able to talk to her family members. I kept in contact with the Sheriff’s Office, and I basically said that I want to do more of your cases here. I think, stuff’s happening, so I think it’ll be a great partnership, starting with Alisha.
Laura: Alright, well that’s really remarkable. Did you know when you took on this internship that this is what it would be like?
Olivia: I did not! I had wanted to take on an internship. I was interested in genetic genealogy and forensic genealogy from watching all of these genealogists work. I had been a fan of Anthony and Lee Redgrave and probably been their biggest supporter and befriended them. I just started talking to them and told them that I was an anthropology student. I was 18 at the time, and I was a freshman in college. I said that I’m passionate about unidentified remains. This is what I want to do. I want to be a forensic anthropologist. They said, “Would you take an internship and let us train you through the forensic genealogy training course?” And obviously I said yes, because these two people were my heroes, and I did not think that I’d be so emotionally involved in my cases. I did not think that. I do not consider myself a very emotional person until I got these cases and solved them and loved somebody without knowing their name.
Laura: That’s a really remarkable… The way you just put that is really remarkable, and I have heard that from so many other people we’ve talked to who work in the field, and it’s been really interesting to watch forensic genetic genealogy grow from its origins and it’s exploded. What kind of emotions were you going through on some of these cases?
Olivia: So the first case I was ever put on was the rape and murder of Christine Jessop, a 9-year-old girl who was killed in Queensville, Ontario in 1984. Before being placed on the case, Anthony and Lee Redgrave sat me down and asked me if this would be something that I would be ok working on. I, of course, said that I would be ok with it, and since I want to be a forensic anthropologist, I would have get used to cases like these, especially ones involving children and babies. This case was so difficult for all of us, emotionally. Personally, I would forget to eat and sleep, because I was working on finding out who did this horrible thing to this little girl, who was not that much younger than me. We only have, you know, a 10-year age difference. I would work at ungodly hours of the day and would not stop working until I was going to pass out from exhaustion. The only thing that kept me from losing sight of myself at this time was my team. My team makes it a point to take care of each other, and we make points to take breaks and watch a TV show or a movie once a week together to get away from the horrible things that we see every day. Not a lot of other companies do this, but on our team we’re family and we care about each other. These are some of the best friends that I’ve ever had. It was really hard for me to come as a freshman and start working on these murder cases like the Delta Dawn case. That was the hardest case that I’ve had to work on. I live 15 minutes away from where she was found and where she was buried. I had visited her gravesite before I became a genealogist, because somebody had to remember. When we got her case, I threw myself into her research and I also began to visit her gravesite again, which had become very overgrown and forgotten. I remember when I saw what it looked like, I sat beside her headstone and I cried, and I made a vow that second to never ever let this little girl be forgotten again.
My parents went to her gravesite, and the one next to her (also belonging to an unidentified little girl) and cleaned them up. We took some weed eaters and such and cleaned them up. And I now go very often to replace the flowers and make sure that it’s clean and doesn’t look overgrown ever again. One of the greatest moments in my career was the week after we solved her case, I went to the gravesite again and I got to say her name to her. I realized that this was the first time anyone had been able to call her by her name in 40 years.
During the research for the case, I began to think of the child as my own. I know it sounds strange, but she was a child, and at the time she was alone. She didn’t have a family to visit her or love her. My team was that family. We cared for her, and when we found out what her name was. It was Alisha Ann Heinrich, my team got into a video call together and cried. We cried for the life that she would never live and we cried for her mother, whose remains had never been found.
I became so attached to this case and all of the other cases that I view myself as their own family until we identify their biological family. I also keep framed photographs on my mantle of all of the cases that we’ve solved, and I have tattoos of most of my cases, so they can be with me for the rest of my life.
I have solved three cases so far (this last year) and they all own a piece of my heart.
Laura: Aww, Olivia, I can’t even… Wow, I didn’t know about the tattoos and certainly I had read a lot about how emotional, and how connected… This must be a lot for you. How could you have predicted that doing this work and how did you manage that? Staying up all night and then trying to focus on schoolwork and everything else that you need to do?
Olivia: It’s been crazy, but these cases are so important to me. Not a lot of people care about these people anymore. Like Harry, Harry was my first John Doe case that we solved, and there was only a handful of people who cared about him and knew that these bones were there and that he was unidentified. Who cared and wanted to find his name. I stayed up for three days straight. Me, Anthony, and Lee sat on a Zoom call for three days straight with the anthropologist and we solved it in four days. The anthropologist called his family the next day and I still keep in touch with his family, actually. They follow all of my genealogy stuff and they give me updates. They had the funeral back in July and he got a headstone two weeks ago; they sent me pictures. It’s still very emotional for me to talk about that case and we solved it back in April. It’s almost been a year. When I saw that headstone two weeks ago, I was in the car and I just started to cry, because we did that. No one else did that. It was us. Me and my team. I’ll be forever connected to this man’s family and to the Redgraves for all of these cases that we’ve been on.
Laura: That’s amazing. What was the most surprising to you? I’m sure you had preconceived notions going into the internship as to what this was going to be like and working with them. What surprised you? What changed over time, and how does this affect you going forward?
Olivia: It really surprised me how the different genealogy companies treat each other. I think, like a lot of other fields, it can be competitive. It’s such a new field that people can just be mean to each other. The Redgraves and I don’t like that. We make it a point to be friends with these other genealogy companies, because the competitiveness: the fame, the notoriety, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that these cases get solved, and there’s enough for everyone. There’s 40,000 unidentified remains in the United States. There is enough to go around. We do not need to fight over the most notorious cases, and I’ve made it a point to befriend other genealogists from companies, and when they get a solve, I’ll reach out to them and congratulate them and make sure that they’re ok, and they do the same with me. That’s what matters. It’s taking care of each other. What was so surprising to me is just the competitiveness and the meanness that is out there.
Laura: You are going to love ISHI, because (not being in the field, but attending and having worked with them for 10 years), the way people come together and help each other and are doing it in the service of justice and making things better for people… It is a remarkable industry. It’s not the first time that I’ve heard that, and I think you will just continue to see that and it’s just amazing. Are you working on any cases now?
Olivia: I have a few cases in the pipeline that I can’t talk about just yet, but we recently announced the case of Preble County Penny. We are teaming up with Detective Adam Turner of the Shelby Police Department in Ohio to identify a 30–50-year-old Jane Doe found in Preble County in 1968. Detective Turner had this Jane Doe exhumed in 2019 to be compared against a missing persons case that he had been working on for years. The case of Mary Jane Croft Vangilder, who went missing from Ohio in 1945. Whether or not Preble County Penny is Mary Jane or not, she will be identified, and hopefully Mary Jane Vangilder will be located and brought back to her waiting family.
Laura: So you still have your work cut out for you? How are you going to manage that with the next semester?
Olivia: So, this semester (it’s my second semester in my sophomore year), I’m taking 16 credit hours. At lot of them are level 300 courses, which is not very common for a sophomore, but I wanted to do it and just get them out of the way. I’m tired of doing general education. I want to be taking level 300 anthropology courses and level 300 criminal justice courses. It’s a lot right now. I started the semester last week, and that’s when all the news broke, and I started getting all this media attention. I had to leave class early, because a news person messaged me and said, “Let’s do something right now,” and then I was on TV an hour later. It’s just been really crazy. I’m not used to all of this. I’m 19 year’s old. I’m not a superhero.
Laura: Well, you are definitely getting some on the job training here on how that works, and personally, you can control when and how you want to do that as well, so if you need to set some boundaries, that’s ok too.
Olivia: Honestly, it’s kind of fun.
Laura: And honestly, people love reading about it and hearing about it, and we love telling these stories every year. So, I would love for you to keep talking to everybody if you can, but within reason so that you’re ok too. I hear you’re probably going to be joining us in Orlando in September for our next ISHI event as a Student Ambassador possibly. Do I have that right?
Olivia: Yes, they messaged Anthony and Lee Redgrave the other day and asked if I would apply. Obviously I did, and I think that would be a lot of fun, and it’s in Orlando. I live in Alabama, so it’s just the next state over. I’m really excited actually. I hope that I get to go, because I’ve never met the genealogists I talk to in person, and I really want to meet them. I’ve been a supporter of them for years, and I really want to go to all of the workshops and learn more about forensic science and people in the field at ISHI. I’m new to ISHI, actually. I watched a couple of videos last year because Anthony and Dr. Margaret Press of the DNA Doe Project were interviewed. They’d given a presentation on Joseph Henry Loveless, the John Doe found in 1979 who turned out to be a wanted criminal who killed in 1916. So, watching that and knowing sort of that’s what ISHI does and is interested in; that’s what I’m interested in too, so I’m very excited.
Laura: I think you’ll have an amazing time. Forensic genealogy and genetic genealogy has been one of the top areas of focus for years now, and it’s an incredible group. I feel honored to speak with the luminaries and it’s the who’s who, so if there’s anyone you want to meet, there’s a very good chance that you’ll get to sit down with them there. I’m happy that we have possibly the chance to be together in person this year after doing it virtually last year. It’ll be great. So, now what about your personal plans? I know you’re just a sophomore, but what do you want to do after graduation and how has the work you’ve been doing impacted that plan?
Olivia: So, although I am a forensic genetic genealogist, I still want to pursue my forensic anthropology education. I want to obtain my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree, and go get my doctorate as well. I want to continue to work with law enforcement and continue to identify remains and solve cold cases. As I said, there are about 40,000 John and Jane Doe cases in the United States. My dream is to have every single one of those victims identified and returned to their families, and I will not stop until they are. A lot of people ask me if I’m going to quit school, because I’ve already done a lot in my career, but anthropology and forensic genealogy sort of go hand in hand. Our team has forensic anthropologists, like Dr. Amy Michael, that work with us and help us with anthropological estimations on cases that we’re working on. So, I would like to do both of those things and solve as many cases as possible.
Laura: I have no doubt that you will, and we’re going to continue to hear your name and hopefully I’ll be able to continue interviewing you every year. How about, you know, I think what is really compelling to a lot of people, and what is gaining so much media attention is that you’ve very young. You’re just getting started and you’ve had this remarkable opportunity to work together and solve some cold cases. Do you think that’s inspiring some other young people to get into the field, or are there some other things that we can be doing to encourage people to consider it?
Olivia: I hope it’s encouraging a lot of younger people to pursue the forensic science field. I’ve gotten a lot of messages from other people at the anthropology department at my school that are interested in what I do and just want to talk with me about how they can do it too. I mean, nothing is impossible. I’m only 19 years old, and I started this a year ago. A year ago, I was a freshman in college and ready to drop out of school because I didn’t think that my future was going to go anywhere in the forensic science field, and then I met Anthony and Lee Redgrave and they changed my life. They’re my heroes and they’re two of the best friends that I’ve had in my entire life. Anthony taught me everything. I did not have a genealogy background. I was not adopted. I had never worked any adoption cases. I was just an anthropology student at some small school in Southern Alabama. Anthony took a chance on me. Obviously, I’d never done this before. I’d like to think that chance paid off for him. If you make connections and you go out there and do these things, you can do it. That’s what I did.
Laura: That’s actually a beautiful story and it’s very inspiring. That says a lot. I had no idea that you were considering dropping out and that this was an opportunity to do something different. Given all that, any advice for students who are sort of in that place and struggling?
Olivia: Don’t give up! I was about to give up. I was ready, and then I met Anthony and Lee and it turned my life around. I met a lot of amazing professors in the criminal justice and anthropology departments who kept me in school and guided me toward the right path. Make friends with your professors. Ask for help. Make connections. Network. That’s what I did.
Laura: Well, we are so happy to talk to you today and we can’t wait to have you at ISHI next year and see what remarkable things you do next, so you definitely have to keep us posted.
Olivia: Of course!
Laura: Thank you, Olivia. We really appreciate your time and have a wonderful day!
WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE MORE ARTICLES LIKE THIS? SUBSCRIBE TO THE ISHI BLOG BELOW!