New DNA Technology Solves Decades-Old Murder Mystery
SEBASTOPOL, CALIFORNIA – The DNA Doe Project (DDP) announced on May 24, 2018, that their volunteer team identified a 37-year old unidentified person case, dubbed “Buckskin Girl,” as Marcia L. King. Chief Deputy Stephen Lord of the Miami County Ohio Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) confirmed the discovery in a press conference held in Troy, Ohio.
While all other forensic identification methods failed, the newly-founded DNA Doe Project’s pioneering approach utilizing state-of-the-art genetic genealogy to take a closer look at extremely degraded DNA succeeded.
“This is not your run of the mill ‘DNA solves unidentified person,'” said Dr. Elizabeth Murray, Ph.D., at the MCSO press conference. “I think you’ll hear today that this is really some revolutionary and groundbreaking work.” Murray, a forensic anthropologist in Ohio, has worked on over 30 Ohio cold cases, but this one was different.
The mystery began in Ohio in 1981 when law enforcement was called to the scene of a young lady lying lifeless in a ditch on a cold and rainy day. Her highly unique fringed leather jacket and blue jeans made her case stand out and led some to believe that perhaps she had Native American roots. Investigators collected her fingerprints; however, they returned no clues to her identity.
In 2001, “Buckskin Girl’s” DNA was analyzed to develop a nuclear profile. Later in 2008, a page was devoted to her on the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NAMUS). Then in 2009, a mitochondrial DNA sample was submitted to the FBI for inclusion in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). However, there were still no clues that could shed light on the identity of the nameless girl. That’s where the DNA Doe Project came in.
The DNA Doe Project, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) non-profit humanitarian initiative created to help identify Jane and John Does and return their names to their families. Recently founded in 2017 by Dr. Margaret Press, Ph.D., and Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., the DDP relies on a team of skilled volunteers who analyze cases through the application of highly specialized methodologies.
A chance meeting between Murray and Colleen Fitzpatrick, at the 2017 American Academy of Forensic Sciences conference serendipitously brought the mysterious case together with the newly-minted techniques of the DNA Doe Project. Fitzpatrick was delivering a talk on Forensic Genealogy, and before the conclusion of the presentation, Murray had already penned a quick email. “I have the cases if you have the methodology,” said Murray. “We had all the other stuff—why not try this?”
Several challenges existed due to the age and quality of “Buckskin Girl’s” DNA sample, which was still liquid in an unrefrigerated heparinized tube. However, a sufficient percentage of the available data was salvageable, despite reports from several laboratories indicating the DNA was no longer useful.
Margaret Press, an acclaimed writer, genealogist, and researcher, explained that Weining Tang, of AMD Biotech, miraculously extracted the necessary data from the damaged blood sample. Then the information was examined for viability and routed through specialized laboratory and bioinformatics processes which resulted in a data set similar to that utilized by commercial DNA companies.
Fitzpatrick said, “50 to 75 percent of those points were left after they massaged it to get us the data we need.” Fitzpatrick added, “We got enough marbles in that jar to make it work.” Fitzpatrick, a retired nuclear physicist, and forensic genealogist has been instrumental in assisting with several high-profile cases.
Press clarified further that a significant portion of the data was unusable. “We threw out 99 percent of the genome.”
After obtaining and manipulating the available data, the teams then began the process of transferring the files to GEDmatch.com and then searching the 800,000+ entries for available DNA matches. From there the best matches were scrutinized for clues to “Buckskin Girl’s” identity.
Although there are never any guarantees with the cases they take on, the DNA Doe Project hit pay dirt after only a few hours of searching. A first cousin once removed match and a family tree which indicated that a family member, Marcia L. King was missing and presumed deceased, provided the essential clues to solve the case at last.
Press and Fitzpatrick were quick to point out that Marcia King’s case was a rare find and that most cases take hundreds and perhaps thousands of hours for their volunteers to resolve. Some people in the law enforcement and genetic genealogy communities didn’t think it was possible. Press shared, “We were dismissed by everybody. I think the biggest lesson was persistence because a year and three months ago when we started talking about it, and everyone said it couldn’t be done, we’d look at each other and say, ‘Why not?'”
The DNA Doe Project attributed a significant portion of their revolutionary success their lab and bioinformatics teams, including Dr. Weining Tang, PhD (Co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer, AMD Biotech), Justin Loe (CEO, Full Genomes Corporation), and Dr. Greg Magoon, PhD (Senior Research Engineer, Aerodyne Research, Inc. [working in collaboration with Full Genomes Corporation]).
DDP Co-founders, Press, and Fitzpatrick said the innovative project would not have been possible without the resources available through GEDMatch.com. Of equal importance is the support received from the genetic genealogy community. Press and Fitzpatrick also praised their dedicated and highly skilled team of volunteers who helped bring Marcia King’s identity back to her family.
Detective Steven Hickey later shared with Forensic Magazine that the case “was forensically ‘groundbreaking’” because of the breakthroughs made by Press, Fitzpatrick and the teams working with the DNA Doe Project and because the DNA was so badly degraded. Hickey continued, “I encourage any law enforcement agency who had a cold case like this to do everything they can.”
Returning Marcia King’s identity to her family is just the first part of this critical investigation, and law enforcement must now work to determine who is responsible for her death.
Miami County Sheriff Steve Lord said that he has reached out to Marcia’s family and shared that “Her mother lived in the same house for the last 37 years. She didn’t change her phone number; she was hopeful that one day her daughter would return. So, we’ve given her answers, but it’s not necessarily the answer she wanted.”
Miami County Ohio Sheriff’s Office has also released a press release with details of this historic case. Anyone with information on the matter is encouraged to contact the sheriff’s tip line at (937) 440-3990.
For more information on the DNA Doe Project, visit www.dnadoeproject.com.