A Mystery from the 1800’s and Justice for Jennifer – Interesting Cases from ISHI 24

The Interesting Cases section during the 24th International Symposium on Human Identification in Atlanta, GA showcased the power of DNA in two different ways. First, through a joint effort between Mitotyping Technologies and the Smithsonian, a boy from the 1850s was given back his identity. Second, a Detective from Texas and a Special Agent with the FBI were able to use DNA analysis to find justice for an eight year-old girl almost 20 years later.


Written by: Tara Luther, Promega


The Boy in the Iron Coffin:

At the same conference, Charity Holland of Mitotyping Technologies presented a case that baffled the Smithsonian.

On April 1, 2005, a construction crew in Washington, DC had an April Fool’s Day like no other when they accidentally unearthed an iron coffin. The workers locked the coffin in an empty building, but vandals broke in and smashed the oval glass faceplate on the coffin. Following this, the Smithsonian took custody of the coffin.

The construction crew likely didn’t know it at the time, but what they had uncovered was a “Fisk burial case” dating back to the 1850’s, which were not only expensive and often reserved for the wealthy, but were also airtight. This particular coffin was shaped like an Egyptian sarcophagus molded into the shape of a flowing gown and marked with the imprint of a flower on a raised area by the feet.

When a team from the Smithsonian opened the coffin, they found the well-preserved remains of a boy dressed in white cotton clothing, including a pleated shirt and vest with cloth covered buttons. An autopsy was performed, which revealed the boy was five feet tall, Caucasian, between 12-15 years of age, and had most likely had succumbed to pneumonia.

Research into the area where the coffin was found revealed that the area was once home to Columbian College, and that the college had a cemetery. The original cemetery was moved in 1866, but it’s likely that this coffin had gotten left behind.

The Smithsonian contacted a team at Mitotyping Technologies in September of 2005. They researched obituaries from the 1850s to try and locate living maternal relatives. Mitotyping also received a 1.5 cm section of long bone (tibia) from the boy and attempted PCR using a standard primer set, but were unable to get results. They were able to obtain a mtDNA profile, however.

Meanwhile, the Smithsonian team had uncovered several potential candidates for who the boy could be, and they had located living maternal relatives, but none were a match to the boy, leaving the team with another dead end.

Additional research indicated that there was an error in the family tree of one of the candidates, which meant that the wrong family member had been tested. When this was corrected, a new reference sample was taken from a woman who turned out to be the boy’s great-great-great-grandniece.  This sample did match the boy, and he finally had an identity. The remains were determined to be that of William Taylor White, who had been a student at the Columbian Collage prep school when he died at the age of 15 on January 24, 1852.


Justice at Last. The Jennifer Schuett Case Resolved:

Typically the ISHI stage welcomes presenters who are analysts or researchers, but nothing is quite as powerful as when a victim shares their own story. Such was the case when Jennifer Schuett told her story of survival and explained why she is no longer a victim.

Jennifer’s story begins in Dickinson, Texas on August 10, 1990, when she was only eight years-old and preparing to enter third grade. She began the night as she would have any other, falling asleep in her mother’s bed. In the middle of the night, Jennifer was asked to sleep in her own room. Soon after she fell asleep, she awoke in the arms of a strange man. He covered her hands and nose with his hands and calmed her by claiming to be an undercover police officer.

The man took her to his vehicle and drove her to an overgrown lot off of a gravel road, about a mile past her elementary school.  It was there that he sexually assaulted Jennifer, drug her through a field, cut her throat, and left her for dead on a fire pile. Jennifer was found 12-14 hours later and life-flighted to the hospital. Jennifer’s case went cold and though she was told by doctors she may never speak again, she regained use of her voice so that she could tell her story.

In January of 2008, Detective Tim Cromie was assigned to the case, and he teamed up with FBI Special Agent Richard Renison, an old friend to work the case. Cromie and Renison realized that there was a significant amount of evidence collected from the case, and sent clothing that had been recovered off for DNA testing.

A profile was obtained and put into CODIS which matched that of Dennis Earl Bradford, who had been convicted of assaulting a woman in 1996. Bradford was out of prison by 2000, and he later married and had children of his own. Cromie and Renison were able to place Bradford in Texas at the time of Jennifer’s attack, and on October 14, 2009, Bradford was arrested and brought back to Texas.

As Jennifer prepared to take her attacker to trial, Bradford, who had been placed on suicide watch was unexpectedly moved to general population, where he hanged himself after seven months in jail. Unfortunately, Jennifer was not able to read her victim statement in a courtroom, but on the 20th anniversary of her attack, she drove to his gravesite where she delivered her statement, and was able to finally come “face to face” with him.