New DNA technology could help solve missing person cases
Forensic genetic genealogy could help solve mysteries related to missing persons and unidentified remains.
ATLANTA – 2,500 people missing in the state of Georgia and 154 unidentified remains. New technology called forensic genetic genealogy could help solve these mysteries.
One includes the case of a young woman whose death and identity have been unknown for almost three decades.
“We’re here 27 years later, and we still don’t know who he is,” said Dr. Carol Terry, a Gwinnett County coroner.
The “she” Terry refers to is known as the “Atwood Girl.” She was found in a shallow grave on Atwood Street on April 5, 1995. Her real name and the rest of it remain a mystery.
“There are few answers. So many questions about what happened to this girl,” Terry said. “Who is she? How did she die?”
In 1995, Terry worked for Fulton County. He did the autopsy and examination of the girl and has been thinking about her ever since.
He said his body was very decomposed, but the girl could be said to be in his mid-teens. Technology told researchers how potentially the girl was, but she couldn’t say much more.
“There was nothing in the toxicology, there was no obvious trauma,” Terry said.
Terry said at the time she was sure all her questions about the girl would be answered. But as the years passed, those answers never came.
Today, he said he has renewed hopes of getting those answers, thanks to forensic genetic genealogy. It’s the same technology that helped identify Marlene Stanrich.
“One person was found in Stone Mountain, Georgia,” said Gwinnett County Police Detective Brian Dorminy.
It took Gwinnett County police 40 years to identify the missing wife and mother in 1973. Dorminy said he would still be an unidentified person if the technology did not exist.
The same goes for Gordon Rexrode in Gwinnett County, Stacy Lyn Chahorski in Dade County, and dozens of others across the country who, after decades, now have names again.
Traditional DNA testing could not identify these people because the researchers had no DNA with which to compare them. But companies have developed their own places where people can hang their DNA, such as GED Match and Family Tree DNA, so that researchers can access it and solve cases.
Kristen Mittleman is the director of business development for Othram Labs, which created the DNA Solves site.
“Our technology targets tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of markets,” Mittleman said.
DNA Solves helps Othram build a family tree of likely relatives of the person being tested. Mittelman said the company’s success rate is almost 100%.
“Almost all of our cases are cases that have failed elsewhere or have become a dead end for DNA,” Mittelman said.
HELP SOLVE CRIMES
Othram said he is now working on hundreds of cases. He said the technology not only serves to identify remains but also to help solve crimes.
Investigators attribute the forensic genetic genealogy to the capture of the Golden State Killer, which killed 13 people and raped nearly 50 more in the 1970s and 1980s.
But while departments like Gwinnett’s are accepting aid, the technology isn’t widely used.
“Our technology is fairly new and people still don’t know it,” Mittelman said. “I think as more and more people listen to what we do and see the difference, I think that will become the standard.”
This brings him back to the “Atwood girl.”
Technology could do more than tell investigators who she is, she could tell them if she was killed and potentially who killed her.
“I wish this would answer before I go to my grave and this is one that has always bothered me,” Terry said.
Fulton County did not respond to requests for an interview, but told 11Alive Investigators that it is in contact with Othram Labs to identify the “Atwood girl” because of our report.
Fulton County will probably not have to pay for the tests.
Two Georgia philanthropists cover the cost of any state department that has remains that they want to identify. Any interested department should only contact Othram Labs.