Meet some of the women who are propelling the field of forensic science forward. In this interview, we meet Olivia McCarter, a student at the University of South Alabama.
Like many people her age who are in school for a forensic science career, Olivia grew up watching TV shows that portrayed characters who were important members of the forensic science community. At the age of thirteen, she decided that she wanted to be a forensic anthropologist. Five years later, Olivia took it upon herself to reach out to Anthony and Lee Redgrave and was awarded an internship to do forensic investigative genealogy.
Olivia was a member of the April 2020 team that identified a man who had washed up in the Missouri River in 1979. She was so taken aback by her emotions about a man whom she had never met and what had happened to him–and she realized that this was one of the greatest things I will ever do in her life.
While a member of Redgrave Research Forensic Services during the filming of this interview, she has recently begun work with the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office to launch a cold case unit using forensic genetic genealogy to tackle cold cases throughout Alabama.
In this interview, Olivia discusses why she has such passion for genealogy, her determination to help solve cases of infanticide, and her plans for the future.
Ann: Hi, my name is Ann MacPhetridge, and I’m with the Promega Corporation. I’m very excited to be talking to Oliva McCarter today. She is one of our student ambassadors at this year’s ISHI. Thank you so much, Olivia, for joining me. I know it’s a very busy conference and you have a lot of things you need to do as a student ambassador, but I really appreciate you taking the time out to talk to me. I insisted to Tara that I wanted to do this, because it is kind of one of my favorite things about my job, is getting to meet young scientists like yourself, so thank you, I really appreciate it.
Olivia: Thanks for having me.
Ann: Absolutely, absolutely. So, tell me: it’s your first ISHI. What do you think?
Olivia: I love it. I’ve been making friends and networking the best that I can. I know a lot of the forensic people and I’ve talked to them before, but I’ve never met them in person, so this is very fun for me.
Ann: Cool, I can imagine. So, you have a really interesting background, and your story is very interesting the fact that you already have these established relationships with the crime lab. Can you tell everyone what your work is focused on and what you’ve been doing?
Olivia: Sure. I am an investigative genetic genealogist. I started that as soon as I got out of high school, so I was 18 years old. I solved a case a month later after I started, and I just haven’t stopped. My focus is Alabama and Mississippi cases. I live in Alabama, and my specialty is children. So, identifying children and providing a conviction. Usually, with children, their parents are the ones that murder them, so providing a conviction with law enforcement.
Ann: That must be really hard, though. You’re young, so how do you compartmentalize that, or do you carry it with you after you solved a case? I think, as a mother, I would have a really hard time doing that kind of work.
Olivia: I do carry all of my cases with me, children or not. I get a tattoo for every case that I solve.
Ann: Oh my gosh.
Olivia: So, here’s some right here.
Ann: Oh, that’s beautiful.
Olivia: This is one of my baby cases; the Delta Dawn case. She was wearing this on her dress when she died, so I got it on my arm.
Ann: Wow, you’re absolutely amazing. I’m so impressed and we haven’t even dove into the really cool stuff. So, investigative genetic genealogy. What was it about you that made you think, “that’s something I want to do”?
Olivia: Well, I’ve always been interested in forensics. I’ve always wanted to be a forensic scientist, and once bigger cases started getting solved that I was interested in, like the Golden State Killer, and cases like that, I wanted to help. I was 17, so in high school, but I really wanted to help, so I started networking and I started reaching out to these people and was like, “What can I do? This is what I want to go to college for. How can I help you?” And it worked. This is my career now.
Ann: That’s awesome. So, tell me about your poster. So, all of the student ambassadors present a poster on their work as a part of their time here, so tell me what yours is all about.
Olivia: Mine is my biggest passion. It’s the use of genetic genealogy to solve infanticide cases, so children under the age of 1. I give an example of an infanticide case that I’m working on right now. It’s not solved yet, from Jackson County, Mississippi. I give some statistics of infanticide, especially in Alabama and Mississippi, so all of the infanticide cases of Alabama and Mississippi are listed on a pie chart.
Ann: That must be heartbreaking to see. So, you have some news to share, and this will be airing later, but something really cool just happened this week. Can you tell me what’s going on?
Olivia: Yeah, I just signed a deal with the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office. I’m going to be starting and heading up a cold case unit with my partner, Detective Jason Thornton. We’re going to be working on all of Mobile County’s cases and we’re also going to be going to be taking on cases from all over Alabama from agencies that don’t have the money, or the manpower. So, we’re going to be working all over Alabama, and I’ve got about 20 cases right off the bat from all over the state. Most are children, because that’s my specialty, and there’s a lot of kid’s cases in Alabama, but we are running with it. We are rocking and rolling.
Ann: Awesome. Congratulations! That’s just amazing at such a young age to be given that responsibility. That’s a testament to the importance of your work and the success that you’ve had at such a young age. So, what is the hardest part of the investigative genetic genealogy work? We’ve got a lot of folks watching this that aren’t that familiar with it, so maybe you can help us with that, but then, also, what’s the biggest challenge of that work that you do?
Olivia: It’s not the genealogy itself, it’s the emotions involved with the case, because when you’re working with unidentified remains cases, they don’t have a name. They don’t have a family just yet, so you become their family. So, with all of my cases, we are their family, and we give them nicknames. We don’t call them John or Jane Doe. We give them names to call them and we love them until we can give them back to their family. I’m very close to the family members of all my identified victims. That’s the hardest part is the emotions involved in those cases.
Ann: So, how many have you identified to date?
Olivia: Two unidentified remains, and one unidentified perpetrator. So, the perpetrator case was one of the most notorious perpetrator cases in Canada; the 1984 rape and murder of 9-year-old Christine Jessop, and that one had to do with a wrongful conviction, so that’s why it was so notorious in Canada. I also identified Harry, who is a former John Doe from Charleston, Missouri, who was found drowned in 1979, and I helped identify an 18-month-old toddler found drowned in Jackson County, Mississippi in 1982.
Ann: And that’s the flower tattoo.
Olivia: That’s that one, and this is for Harry. He loved birds and build birdhouses for them.
Ann: Wow, I’m just sitting here stunned and there’s so many things that I want to ask you, and I’m just so impressed with your dedication and your focus. I can feel that intensity and that laser focus on this work and how it important it is to you personally to be a part of it. So, the inspiration to do this and the desire to do this, where did that come from? Was there someone in particular that inspired you or was it a case? What brought you to the place where you are now?
Olivia: I didn’t know I wanted to do genealogy for the rest of my life until after I solved my first case. So, that was Harry. He was identified in April of 2020. His family knew of his death, but the body was never recovered until we gave him back to them. They buried him. He had four living children and his wife was still alive. Everyone was still living; two brothers. So, just hearing how that much that meant to his family and how much they loved him really humanized him. He wasn’t just a box of bones. He was an actual human being with thoughts and feeling. There’s so many people out there who are still unidentified. There’s over 100,000 people in the United States alone that are unidentified. And all of them have families. All were people just like you and me. They could have been sitting right next to me. So, that’s what really drives me is giving these people back to their families.
Ann: Well, it’s incredibly important work and I applaud you for taking that on, because it certainly takes an emotional toll over time. So, please tell me, as a mom I have to ask, that you are taking care of yourself, and you’re able to step away and enjoy things away from this type of work. So, how do you relax? How do you separate yourself from the work that you spend during the day so that it doesn’t get too overwhelming for you?
Olivia: I do take care of myself. My team also makes sure that we take care of each other. I’m currently working for Redgrave Research Forensic Services. I’m about to leave to do the cold case unit, but we make it a point to take care of each other. We sit back and watch movies over Zoom once a week or watch TV shows, but just hang out. Don’t talk about forensic work. Don’t talk about anything related to genealogy. Just have fun and take care of one another, and they’re my family. They really have grounded me and take care of me.
Ann: Well they must be so incredibly proud of you to be given this opportunity as well. Have you received any advice from them in terms of starting this next role? Any career advice or personal advice that any of them have shared with you to help you step into this new gig?
Olivia: Oh gosh, everyone is! Everyone in the forensic genealogy world is. CeCe Moore, Margaret Press… Everybody has really taken care of me, because I’m the youngest in the field (I believe). So everybody is very supportive of me. Everyone has been very motherly to me and has taken care of me and has given me advice, and just supporting me. It has been really great to see, and I know that I can always rely on them. This field can be so cut-throat. Every field can be cut-throat, but this is a new field and it can be very competitive. But, everybody has kind of taken care of me and make sure that I’m protected and making sure that I don’t have to deal with some of these people, and it’s just been great to see.
Ann: Well I’m glad to hear that, because as a mom, it’s just that you’re taking on so much, and that’s not my job.
Olivia: You guys know CeCe Moore, right?
Ann: We do, yes.
Olivia: She’s taking great care of me. She’s making sure I’m alright.
Ann: That’s great. She’s a wonderful person, so I’m not surprised to hear that at all. I want to mix it up a little bit and get to know you a little better and ask you some questions that give you a little more insight as to who you are. So my first question is, if you had a superpower, what would that superpower be?
Olivia: I want to read minds. Nobody could ever lie to me. I think that could be kind of fun to know what everyone’s thinking at all times.
Ann: You’d have to shut that off so it doesn’t get to be too much. To be able to read minds at your own will.
Olivia: At my own will. It’s like a light switch!
Ann: Exactly, yeah, that’s a good one, and I think in your field that would be incredibly helpful, right? As you’re interviewing people who were perhaps involved.
Olivia: Yeah, I’m starting to get more into the investigation stuff. My partner, Corporal Thornton. He’s a homicide investigator, so he keeps me up to date on everything and we kind of spitball back and forth, so I’m starting to get really into the investigation portions.
Ann: Yeah, it’s really great to have that in a partner, right?
Olivia: Absolutely, he’s wonderful for it.
Ann: My next question is three words that you think describe you or words that others perhaps would use to describe you.
Olivia: I’m definitely crazy. I’m a workaholic, as you can tell, and I’m pretty sure that I’m pretty funny. I’m very funny.
Ann: I can tell that you are, yes. Yeah, that’s good. And I don’t think that those are bad qualities to have. I often joke to my husband that he’s driving me nuts, and his funny is, “It’s a short drive.” Yeah, so I think that there’s some joy to being a little crazy and so focused on your work.
Olivia: I couldn’t do my job unless I was a little bit crazy.
Ann: Yeah, you have to be just a smidge off for your own self-protection, I think. Ok, next question, and this one stumped one of the other student ambassadors, so I hope it doesn’t stump you. Can you think of a movie quote that you really relate to?
Olivia: Ok, I think I would have to say a quote from Peter Pan, since we’re at Disney. “All it takes is a little faith and trust.”
Ann: Ok, so in your work, I imagine that’s something that you need. You’ve got to trust the data in front of you. You’ve got to trust your skills.
Olivia: You’ve got to have faith in your team. You’ve got to have faith in yourself. It’s a lot of trust that you’re putting in your team to identify this person. Absolutely.
Ann: Yeah, see, perfect. Winner, winner, chicken dinner.
Olivia: Yeah, I’m ok with that one.
Ann: Ok, dream job. If you could do anything, I think I know the answer, but I’ll lob this softball your way. If you could be anything at all in the world, what would you be?
Olivia: I’m doing it! Is that what you think I’d say? My dream job is absolutely investigative genetic genealogy. I’ve wanted to be a genealogist for years now, ever since I’ve heard about the Golden State Killer, that’s what I’ve wanted to do. I follow the DNA Doe Project, Parabon… I was a big fan of theirs for ages, and now we’re friends, and I think that’s really cool. I was just an 18-year-old kid from a small town in Alabama and I really wanted to help, so I took those chances myself, and I took those risks, and here I am at ISHI 32.
Ann: Yeah, that’s pretty cool. I have to say, there’s a colleague of ours, and you say, “Hey Dave, how are you doing?” and he says, “living the dream.” I think that should be your answer when people say, “How are you?”, because it sounds to me, based on what you’ve shared with us today, that is exactly what you’re doing. So, congratulations to you on all of your success, especially with the Alabama cold cases. I know that you are going to be continuing to make headlines in the news with the work that you’re doing, and I predict that at ISHI 42 that Tara will likely be interviewing you and you’ll have won some sort of award in the field for leading the way in solving these horrible cases. Especially those that are involving children. So, I applaud your efforts and I’m grateful to you for taking that one. The world needs more people like you.
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