Cold Case Project | Identified using forensic genetic genealogy

ATLANTA, Ga. (WJBF) – Have you ever wondered what would happen if someone was found superhuman? Who is it? Where is that person from? The process required to identify a person varies. And it’s possible that a missing person could be one of those who needs to be named using technology and DNA.

“We have a very good success rate in placing families with their loved ones,” said Richmond County Coroner Mark Bowen.

When someone has been killed and left dead for a long time, identifying the person should be a job. Bowen told the Cold Case Project that he only gets a handful of extra people each year.

“If it’s a body and can be fingerprinted, let’s fingerprint it. We have a fingerprint scanner. (That’s your first step?) That’s the first step, to see if we can get a good print,” Bowen said.

The electronic device can sometimes identify a victim, in just two minutes. Otherwise, the original ink and roll fingerprint will be available to all users through AFIS – the Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Teeth can also be used, but only if there is lead.

“We have to have a name to get dental records. And if we don’t have anything to go on then it’s usually a dead end street,” he shared.

Bowen’s last attempt at putting a name to a body was DNA.

“We do buccal swabs,” he explained. “Wipe the mouth. We wrapped them up and we turned them over to the GBI as soon as possible so they could start the DNA process.

Our cameras reached the GBI and the crime lab that we often refer to in murder stories. Ashley Garrish introduces us to an unknown body, which after a medical process turns into bones.

“We have teeth. We have some dental work here that if we have a potential missing person that we want to try to match or exclude, we can look into it. We could do an X -ray, we could also look at the tooth in place,” said Garrish, Director of Medical Operations at the GBI Medical Examiner’s Office. “When our anthropologist looks at this case, they can look at the femur to estimate the height. They can look at the pelvis, the skull, different things to try to tell us it’s a boy or a girl. Approximate age for us to put that for a missing person. ”

Bowen and more than 150 coroners in Georgia send at least 100 unidentified bodies or bones to Garrish and his GBI team each year. Autopsies were performed. And the medical examiner examines the condition, prints, dental and surgical history. But increasingly today, law enforcement is turning to DNA. And except for dry DNA or no family members available, it helps.

“Sometimes we get a cold call from a family about a missing person. That information is recorded. We check it against any of our UIDs, unidentified remains that we now need to look at- We’ll see if there’s any matches. And then if we don’t then we’ll keep that information for when new cases come in. We always recommend families go to NamUS, the National Association of Missing Unidentified Persons System to put their missing individuals there so they are always searched against unknown corpses.”

The Cold Case Project reports on missing persons every year. And we know there are many more throughout the CSRA. We are looking for NamUS. That system has 18 missing persons in Richmond County, Georgia. In Aiken County, South Carolina, eight people. But a new technology emerged in 2018, Forensic Genetic Genealogy. The National Institutes of Health reports this investigative tool can help solve cold cases using advanced DNA and genealogical research.

“It provides leads for law enforcement because it can identify family members or just the name of the family so they have a place to start looking,” Garrish said.

The GBI works with Othram, a forensic genetic genealogy lab near Houston, Texas. It was critical to the identification of 26-year-old Chong Un Kim in October, whose body was found in Jenkins County in 1988.

Dr. Kristen Mittelman, Othram Chief Development Officer shared, We tested the blanket with some DNA from what she transferred onto it. We were able to do a DNA profile.

Genealogy also helped law enforcement ID Kim’s daughter and found that the family lived in Liberty County, Georgia. While there are many labs around the country using FGG, Othram has solved hundreds of cases, including Baby Jane Doe, a 5-year-old murdered in Georgia in 1988.

“Our doctors always say we give voice to the dead because they can’t speak for themselves,” Garrish said.

Anyone hoping to find a missing person should add them to NamUs, if they aren’t already there. What it takes for the family and law enforcement to get justice and close the case.

Photojournalist: Reginal McKie and Gary Hipps

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