Using Advanced DNA Technology to Close Cold Cases

Michael Vogen, Director of Case Management at Othram discusses new ways that DNA technology is assisting to close cold cases and provide names to the unidentified. He discusses the DNASolves platform and community advocate group that Othram has built to share cases they are working on, raise funding, and to collect DNA samples specifically to be used on law enforcement cases.

He also shares the impetus behind our Missing Piece series and shares successes that Othram has had in previously unsolvable cases, including the power of sharing these cases on social media.




Laura: Thank you for joining us for the annual video series for the International Symposium on Human Identification. We have a special guest today with us. Michael, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself.


Michael: Thanks for having me. My name is Michael Vogen. I’m the Director of Case Management at Othram. We work with law enforcement professionals (medical examiners, coroners…) to generate identification from forensic evidence using a lot of tools (target testing, genealogy), but ultimately, we’re digitizing profiles of forensic evidence.

I started in the medical space and transitioned, as a lot of folks do, sometimes, into forensics. I was in the diagnostic side of DNA testing, which is where I met David Mittelman, who is the CEO. That was about 8 years ago and we kept in touch, and we decided to build a forensic lab from the ground up in 2018, late 2018, and we chose to do that, because we found that there was a huge opportunity to look at evidence from forensic scenes with a truly forensic approach end to end. In doing so, we’ve had a lot of success in going back and re-evaluating old cases and being able to access information from that evidence to move cases forward.


Laura: Fantastic. Well, I know I’ve heard a lot about Othram, and some of our viewers might actually recognize you from The Missing Piece series that we’ve been working on for a bit now. Can you tell them a little bit about that?


Michael: Absolutely, well The Missing Piece is a great video series that we’ve done with the backing of ISHI featuring a number of cases that Othram has been a part of from the lab perspective. We work with so many great investigators across the country, who are very passionate about the work that they do and the cases they’re able to move forward, and the families they’re able to help affect in a positive way.

So, we chose to put this series together that highlights some of these cases. The cool thing about The Missing Piece is all these cases have different areas that people are focused on. Different agencies involved. You have law enforcement doing their thing. You have the lab people doing their thing, and you have the general public as well that’s helping move these cases forward, and of course, the families that have been affected by this. So, we thought it would be a real cool way to tell a factual representation of real-life cases and show everyone’s different involvement and angle and how this collaboration between these four areas can come together to make cases come full circle to a solve.


Laura: I love it, because I think that in forensic DNA, the thing we see again and again is collaboration. That’s how you get to where you need to go. So, that may answer the question, but why were you interested in partnering on it and how did that contribute to the work you’ve been doing?


Michael: Well, ISHI’s been great. We do a lot of work with ISHI on a variety of fronts. I know David works on a bunch of articles, and I’m starting to co-write some of those with him as we get more in depth into this casework. But, I think it was knowing that ISHI has such a good reach out into the forensic world and the folks that are working in forensic identification. We thought it was a cool opportunity to tell these stories, and particularly when we got to know some of these investigators too. We could tell that when they were able to move some of these cases forward that we assisted with, you saw a lightbulb go off when they realized, “Oh my gosh! I have 10-12 other cases that I need to go back and look at now, because I was told that there wasn’t enough DNA, it was too degraded…” And they were told this even in the last 6 months, before we got involved. So, technology’s advancing very rapidly, and it’s always something to look at to get a set of eyes with the same type of evidence moving these things forward. Also, we’re hiring at Othram, so we wanted to get these stories out there. There’s a lot of good scientists that are up and coming and we’d love to get these people involved in the work we’re doing.


Laura: That’s wonderful. I think whenever you do a project like that, there are always surprises and things that you like the best. Are there any stories to share with us?


Michael: You know, I thought it was a lot of fun going back to some of these investigators. It keeps coming back to them, and I think, for me, personally, it starts with them. It’s the first call that I have and then it’s the last call, and that’s usually a good call, right? They’ve spent all this time on their end investigating and talking with families, and sometimes those conversations between them and families can be frustrating and sad, right? Not a lot of positivity. So, when we have that final call and there’s some sort of resolution, that leaves a good feeling with everyone, and then everyone gets back into their jobs and goes their separate ways.

When we had the opportunity to do the Missing Piece, there’s some folks that I hadn’t talked to aside from the occasional text. “How are you doing, what’s new?” To go back and revisit these things and I could tell that with some of these investigators, no matter what they’re working on now, it was kind of a breath of fresh air to go back and something positive that they’d worked on that had a positive resolution.


Laura: I enjoy watching them. It’s like a mini-Dateline. It’s very interesting to see. Well, let’s talk about an Othram initiative that I’d like to learn more about. DNASolves. Can you tell us what that is?


Michael: Absolutely. We started DNASolves in spring 2020, maybe, and we started it because we came across a lot of cases from agencies that are in rural areas or agencies that weren’t well-funded in advanced DNA testing. Some of these methods are so cutting edge that there’s not a lot of funding ear-marked for this type of testing. And, in discussing the evidence in these cases and talking with investigators, we came to the conclusion that literally the only thing from moving these cases forward was funding. We’re very fortunate to have a lot of generous folks with all the work we do. They follow us on Facebook and on Twitter. We have a Facebook group called DNASolves Advocates. People are welcome to join where we post about cases that we have permission to discuss about, we’re raising money for and that we solved. In doing so, evaluating those cases on the front end, we said, why don’t we build a platform where we can raise money from the crowd and we can go promote the cases, share on social media. We can basically have one place where we’re very transparent about casework that we’re working on with law enforcement and people can come to help. They can help really in one of three ways: they can donate a few dollars for a case to help with testing, they can share that case on their social media platform with one-click. We’re a very tech-savvy group, so we made it very easy. And three, if they want to upload their own DNA, we have database that’s only used for law enforcement cases reuniting unidentified human remains to family or identifying perpetrators of crime.

So, folks can come and see what we’re working on. We built that platform initially to help those who need funding, but ultimately, it’s become a place where we can tell stories of these cases. Kind of a mini–Missing Piece without the video, right. It’s all stories and has images of folks that we’re working with law enforcement to identify. It’s just a great place for people to come and collaborate, and it keeps coming back to that, but I think ultimately, you could even have the public out there that can help with cases these days, whether it’s donating a few dollars, their DNA, or just sharing.


Laura: Very forward thinking. I really think that’s the way things are headed. Speaking of the stories, are there any you can share about who’s using it?


Michael: Yeah, I have one of my favorite stories is outside of Williston, North Dakota, and it just happens to be where my grandparents are from, so small world. We were working with an investigator there with the sheriff’s office, I believe the agency was. He had a John Doe. I don’t remember the year or many details, because we never got to work on it, and here’s why. They were going to partner with us to do the case and we were going to announce it on DNASolves. We did a write-up about the case. They did a write-up. We shared details, and then they put out a press release on their end and we put out a note on our DNASolves Advocates group on Facebook, and people started sharing it. The detective called me a week later and said, “Michael, someone saw the story that you guys put out on Facebook and called me and said, ‘I think you have my cousin that I haven’t seen in 30 years.’” There were some tattoo descriptions and things of that nature, and sure enough, she was able to come in and talk with detectives and figure out that it was her cousin that no one had seen in 30 years. So, just the collaboration of people chatting about something, the chatter on social media was enough to solve a case before any money needed to be raised or any DNA testing needed to be done. So, it’s a real cool story.


Laura: That is amazing! That is amazing! I love stories like that. The power of just putting it out there. I know you’ve worked on a lot of really interesting cases, and there was one with Stephanie Isaacson in Las Vegas. Can you talk about that?


Michael: Yeah, Stephanie Isaacson was a 14-year-old girl. In 1989, she was staying with her dad and her parents were divorced, and she was walking to school like she did 5 days a week. I think it was like a half-mile walk to school, and she crosses this little desert undeveloped lot, and one day she did this, and she never came home. And, the dad found out later in the day that she didn’t show up at school. They immediately call the police and they go out looking and they ended up finding her body. She had been sexually assaulted and murdered in that little field and all these years went by and they never figured out who did it.

This case is really cool, because it’s another collaboration. We actually had a private donor. His name is Justin Woo and he’s from the Las Vegas area, and he’s actually a philanthropist. He’s an entrepreneur, but he started a philanthropy in Las Vegas to help the local community in a variety of ways. About 6-8 months ago, he heard about the work we were doing, and he met David, our CEO, and they were chatting, and Justin said, “Hey, I’m from Vegas. If you can find a case in Vegas, I’ll help fund it. I would love to see a cold case get solved there.” So, we reached out to the Las Vegas Metro PD and talked to some great people there in their lab department and said, “Hey, here’s the deal. We have someone willing to fund it. What cases do you have that you’d like us to take a look at?” And this was a case that had failed repeatedly at various other laboratories, other methods, so much so, that they almost consumed the entire amount of evidence, and if you do that, now you’ve really got a cold case. I think it was down to 120 picagrams or 130 picagrams, right in that range, and thankfully we were able to sequence it and we really didn’t have too much of a problem with it.

I think that’s another story out of this case. That’s very tractable evidence sometimes. A lot of people when they see quantities that low, they go, “there’s nothing I can do.” Or they’ve been told that there’s nothing they can do. So, it’s always good to re-evaluate it. But, we built a great DNA profile. We started doing some records research and some great tree building and we were able to figure out who did it. That was one of those cases, where working with the investigators, she talked to the family once a month on what they were doing with it for 30 years, so to be able to give that call and have that conversation and then seeing them being able to confirm it on their end. I think it actually linked to another sexual assault/homicide that was three years earlier, where I think they weren’t able to prosecute him, but it linked those two crime scenes together, so that was a great demonstration again and collaboration in terms of funding and investigative work and then to be able to solve two cases. We cleared two there and we’re hoping to be able to do some more work out there.


Laura: That is really remarkable. We’re hearing so much more about small amounts of evidence or touch DNA and how much more people are able to do with that. Did forensic genetic genealogy play a role in that case?


Michael: It sure did, yeah. It was one of those where we had to build a profile that was going to be applicable and suitable for the databases to be able to upload and build family trees and do genealogy. The difficult part was really just getting the case, right? We had to find someone to fund it, and luckily Justin came along graciously and helped that out.


Laura: Sounds like it opens up a lot of possibilities for the future.


Michael: It does. I think there’s the possibility of a lot of cases that have low quantity DNA or high degradation, high contamination. I think all of those should be re-looked at, and then I think the opportunity on the funding side too. The more that we’re able to get through these cases, however they’re funded, will demonstrate that this type of advanced DNA testing should be part of the investigative model. They should always go through the traditional route and get a profile, upload to CODIS, and if that doesn’t work, flip to this type of model where we’ve had a lot of success in getting DNA profiles, and digitizing evidence, which in itself is a win. Let’s say if you were to burn a CD into a MP3, you don’t have to worry about the CD scratching anymore or getting worse off. Your evidence is always in this pristine fashion now and you can always use genealogy. If it doesn’t solve with genealogy in that day or year, you this profile that you can always target test up to 3rd cousin to do kinship analysis. So, there’s all sorts of things you can do. Just digitize the evidence.


Laura: What’s next? New techniques, new cases? Anything you can share? I know that gets dicey.


Michael: Yeah, there’s not a ton of specifics I can share. You know, we’re growing a ton. That’s what we’re really excited about. We’re adding a lot of really great people in the upcoming months, and a lot of new positions. We’re working with a lot of new agencies that are very excited about the work that we’re doing. I think it’s going to open up to where instead of doing these one-off cases, we’re going to start doing a lot of chunks of cases. People are going to figure out basically on the parameters what’s the least you can do, and they’re going to start looking at cases that fall above those parameters and they’re going to get out and get after it and see if we can get these figured out. I think that’s what’s going to happen.


Laura: Well, I can’t wait to hear and see and whatever the next Missing Piece episode may be.


Michael: I think there’s going to be another one coming out soon, so there’s a little tease there.


Laura: I know Othram is pretty new, but how did you get involved in this work initially? What drew you do it?


Michael: Sure, as I said, I was in the medical space a while back, and I did pharmacogenetics, which basically measures how fast you metabolize pharmaceutical drugs, so I was working with a lot of pain management clinics and helping them figure out what the correct dosage was for their clinics. I met David during one of those ventures, and he and I hit it off, and I knew right away that he was someone I could work with and he’s very bright. He jokes about it too. I think I mentioned it to you too. He’s a one-trick pony. DNA is his one trick, but he knows it extremely well. I’d say better than anyone in terms of this type of testing and how to access this type of evidence. So, when he called me and said they were working on building this and would I like to be involved, there was no hesitation from my end. I enjoyed the work I did in the past, but as we were talking, this work is impactful. It’s still a job and there’s a lot of work to be done, but in the end, you’re trying to make a positive outcome for folks via the families and the investigators and just the world in general. It’s been a lot of fun and we’re looking forward to the future.


Laura: We’re looking to hearing more about it. I know at ISHI, we’re always interested in what’s next and what everyone’s working. So, do you come to ISHI often?


Michael: I will be.


Laura: How do you find it?


Michael: I was on the virtual one last year, of course, because of the pandemic. So, this was my first in-person show, so thanks for having me, and I’ll be at all of them going forward for sure.


Laura: Ok, that sounds great. We’ll love to hear about your experience and happy that we get to be in person and remote and bring everyone together until we get back to normal. Well, thank you so much Michael, we really appreciate it.