Fireside Chat: Nick Wagler

Nick is the founder and operator of the Unidentified Wiki, a Wikia site dedicated to documenting and naming unidentified persons.

  
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If you follow cases involving the unidentified, chances are you have probably used the Unidentified Wiki site. I caught up with site’s founder, Nick Wagler, to discuss:

  • His fascination with unidentified persons cases, which started when he was just 12 years old (Nick is 25 now).

  • The history behind the Unidentified Wiki, why he started it, and how it differs from Wikipedia.

  • His plans for growing the site and cataloging cases internationally and not just in the United States.

We, at Othram, are big fans of Nick and his site. We are also very appreciative of Nick and all the contributors that have chronicled previously unsolved cases that have utilized Othram technology. You can see some of those cases in their Othram Cases category section. Also be sure to check out complementary information for these cases, at the DNASolves site.

Face to Face: IHIA 2021

Othram is in DC for the 27th annual International Homicide Investigators Association conference, to showcase technology for solving "unsolvable" crimes.

I am excited to report that the Othram team is in Washington DC this week for the International Homicide Investigators Association conference. Come visit our booth if you are at the conference or if you are local to the DC area, give us a shout if you want to connect for an in-person consultation on a case or project.

What’s IHIA? From their website, here is a description of the IAHIA organization:

The IHIA is the world’s largest and fastest growing organization of homicide and death investigation professionals. The non-profit organization represents the largest network of homicide professionals and practitioners ever assembled. The IHIA has representatives in every U.S. state and nations on six continents.

My company, Othram, specializes in helping identify people from forensic evidence. We operate the only laboratory in the United States, purpose-built to apply the power of DNA sequencing to forensic evidence, particularly for use with human ID applications like Forensic Genetic Genealogy. I have written about how Othram accesses genetic information from evidence that has failed other methods — evidence that has been deemed “unsuitable for analysis”. For a recent example, read the case of Stephanie Isaacson. We identified the suspect in her sexual assault and murder using the least amount of DNA ever used in a forensic genetic genealogy case. The quantity was equivalent to about 15 human cells worth of DNA.

Another really important point: crime scene DNA is finite and often there is not a lot to start with. When you test DNA you consume it. It is gone forever. You risk a case going cold forever if you use inadequate test methods and the test fails. When the test fails, you fail a family that has spent decades waiting for an answer. Forensic DNA cannot be processed the way consumer, medical, and research DNA samples are processed. For more on what makes forensic DNA particularly challenging to work with, see my post about the Siobhan McGuinness case. This is why we need forensic laboratories and forensic processes. At Othram you get all that and its all in-house. The only company in the United States to offer this right now.

Michael and Yudo will be sharing our mission to digitize DNA evidence and to scale this powerful technology to tackle the hundreds of thousands of unsolved cases. True justice is not possible until the technology has been democratized for use by all agencies and cases. Reach out to us and find out how we can help you with your case.

If you can’t make it to the conference but you want to learn more, you can request a consultation (its totally free) for your case.

Finally, please check out our new infographic summarizing what is already possible — in just the last few years — for bring answers to unsolved cases:

We would love your feedback on the infographic, our booth at the conference, and our broader mission. Please post feedback and questions in the comments below!

Stephanie Isaacson

A high school girl is sexually assaulted and murdered in 1989. In 2021, her assailant was identified using the least amount DNA ever used in forensic genetic genealogy.

In June 1989, 14-year-old Stephanie Isaacson headed out on her morning walk to Eldorado High School. The Las Vegas teenager frequently took a shortcut through a vacant sandlot off Steward Avenue and Linn Lane to get to school quicker. After school let out that afternoon, Stephanie’s father began to worry when she did not arrive home at her usual time. Upon calling the school in hopes of finding out where she may be, it was revealed that Stephanie never made it to school. A missing person report was filed and law enforcement investigators then conducted a local search, canvassing the area around the typical route that Stephanie would take to school. Eventually, her body was found at a sandlot and investigators determined she had been sexually assaulted and strangled to death. Over the years, a lengthy investigation, spanning decades, ensued and all available investigative leads were exhausted. Stephanie's killer remained undiscovered.

Stephanie Isaacson was a young high school student in Las Vegas, on her way to school, when she was attacked and murdered by an unknown assailant.

It is all too common for cases involving sexual violence to remain unsolved, even after traditional forensic DNA testing is utilized. In spite of heroic efforts to “end” the backlog of hundreds of thousands of sex assault kits, about 85% of sex assault kits tested through CODIS will NOT produce an identity for the suspect. You can learn more about the effort to end the backlog by listening to this interview that I conducted with Ilse Knecht, the Director of Policy & Advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation. In just the time that I have maintained this newsletter, I have mentioned three examples so far: the cases of Siobhan McGuinnessCarla Walker, and Christine Jessop — all unsolved after traditional forensic DNA testing failed to produce leads. Decades later, all three cases were solved, in part, using Othram technology. Unfortunately, there are countless more cases that need advanced testing, in order to reach a successful outcome. We need to make sure this technology is available to all cases.

Back to Stephanie Isaacson, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department teamed up with my company, Othram, in January 2021, to reexamine DNA evidence from the crime scene in hopes that advanced DNA testing might generate new leads in the investigation. Not all agencies have funding support for these newer DNA methods yet. We turned to the DNASolves platform, which we use to crowdfund or seek private donor support for casework that otherwise cannot be funded. We had a relationship with a private donor local to the area and he offered to fully fund the required casework. The private donor is Justin Woo, founder of the non-profit organization Vegas Helps, and I highly recommend you all look him up.

Once we got started, Othram scientists used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to build a genealogical profile from the remaining DNA evidence — only 120 picograms (or 0.12 nanograms) of DNA. This case has set a new lower limit on the quantity of DNA required to build a genealogical profile for a suspect of a crime. The Othram genealogy team used the profile to develop investigative leads that were returned to LVMPD. The research step was a little tricky as the genealogical profile revealed a mix of French Canadian descent from New England and more recent French Canadian descent from Canada. However, about seven months after we received the DNA evidence to our laboratory, Othram returned leads to LVMPD and the detectives were able to confirm the identity of the suspect in Stephanie's sexual assault and murder. He was Darren Roy Marchand and he had died in 1995 by suicide. Remarkably, Marchand had been tied to a previous sexual assault and murder of a woman in 1986.

How did Othram work with such a small quantity of DNA evidence (the equivalent of about 15 human cells)? I have written before about how Othram accesses genetic information from evidence that has failed other methods — evidence that has been deemed “unsuitable for analysis”. Our methods outperform others, especially for cases with very little DNA. Prior to this case, we also helped identify Rodney Johnson from only slightly more DNA than was available in the Stephanie Isaacson case.

Let me present a comparison: In a typical consumer DNA test, the collection kit will collect 750 to 1000 nanogram of DNA. The suspect in Stephanie Isaacson’s murder was identified using only 0.12 nanograms — a quantity that other labs and lab methods are not set up to handle. I am personally grateful to Forensic Lab Director Kim Murga, Forensic Lab Manager Kellie Gauthier, and Cold Case Detective Terri Miller, for trusting Othram and giving us a chance to help with the case.

As a further point of comparison, I will add that in medical and consumer testing, labs can generally assume they will work with high quantity, high quality, single source DNA. In forensics, its hard to make any assumptions about the DNA. Most of the time, crime scenes have small quantities of DNA, the DNA is heavily degraded and is contaminated with non-human sources. Sometimes there are mixtures of DNA from multiple persons — such as in a sex assault (like this one) where there could be DNA from the perpetrator and the victim. Not surprisingly, the process for testing and analyzing forensic DNA evidence is very different than what you would need for medical or consumer applications.

There are two important points that I want to leave you with. First, although forensic genetic genealogy is a very valuable technique for cracking unsolved cases, sending DNA evidence to the wrong laboratory, or testing the DNA with the wrong methods, will results in destruction of evidence and if there is no DNA left, a case can truly go “cold” forever. You can’t simply send DNA evidence anywhere and you should be definitely wary of folks that offer service but “outsource” elsewhere. Othram, for example, does not outsource any step of the testing process.

Second, it takes public support to make this work possible. Right now, anyone can help us solve the next cold case — either by financially supporting a case or submitting their own DNA data, in case they might be a distant relative to an unknown person. Many of these cases can be solved by combining crowdfunding, volunteered data, cutting-edge genomics, and tremendous teamwork. Its a lot of work, but its always worth the effort. You can learn more about how to get involved here. In the long term, however, we need to raise awareness for the technology and we need to push for this technology to be better supported by federal funds. There are a lot of cases to work — remember that “ending” the backlog is not the same thing as “solving” the backlog — and individual private donors can’t fund all the cases on their own!

If you want to learn more about the case of Stephanie Isaacson, here are some great links:

Silent Mass Disaster No More

We need efficient and cost-effective ways to match families of missing persons to the unidentified. Time is not on our side.

Traditional forensic methods, alone, won’t solve the hundreds of thousands of unsolved cases in the United States, but new DNA testing technology can help. I started this newsletter to share stories about cases that have been solved by uniting cutting-edge DNA tech with the passion of the public. Browse some of these stories to get an idea of how new technology has closed cases that have been unsolved for decades, bringing peace of mind and some closure to families.

Evelyn Colon, formerly known as Beth Doe, was a pregnant teen homicide victim who was unidentified for 45 years. The revelation of her true identity meant that investigators could arrest the person identified as responsible for her death, and her family could finally know what had happened to her. This case was notable because it was resolved only through the intersection of two seemingly unrelated events: new DNA testing technology that has enabled us to unlock information from even the most challenging forensic evidence; and the efforts of Evelyn’s nephew, who uploaded his consumer DNA profile to various databases hoping to find her. The first is shiny and futuristic, while the latter reflects an age-old human need for connection and history.

My company, Othram, built the genealogical profile for Evelyn. When it was used to search genealogical databases, it immediately matched her nephew’s profile. If this is not serendipity, I don’t know what is.

According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered in the United States annually. Many of these individuals are victims of crimes, but imagine the difficulty of investigating what happened when you don’t even know the victim’s identity. Most of these unidentified bodies remain mysteries, anonymous case numbers. They accumulate year after year, a phenomenon the National Institute of Justice calls a “silent mass disaster.”

As these cases build up and the years pass, the world moves on, but the families and friends of the unidentified victims do not — they cannot. You never forget a missing loved one, even if you don’t speak of it. Left out in the cold, these people have a hole in their heart. Families need answers to even begin the process of healing. This is the ultimate reason we have to tackle the backlog of cold cases. 

There is always someone waiting for answers. We need to match what we know and our genuine sympathy, with an urgency to provide answers. The family and friends of victims will not be around forever, and once they are gone then the opportunity to do right by them is lost. So how do we replicate the serendipitous circumstances of Beth Doe for all the anonymous victims?  

The standard forensic DNA testing framework is the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), an FBI program that supports DNA databases and infrastructure for searching unknown DNA profiles against a catalog of known felons. While CODIS will remain a critical and irreplaceable component of forensic DNA testing, countless cases remain unsolved due to the simple fact that CODIS was designed – when DNA testing was in its infancy – to confirm the identity of those individuals who had already been targeted by other methods. While effective in tracking crime by repeat offenders, CODIS is relatively ineffective for unidentified remains, as victims are not usually present in a database of criminals. Additionally, CODIS will not match many criminals. Many perpetrators are not in the database because they were never caught before, and even those that were indicted earlier (and even convicted) may purposely or accidentally be missing. CODIS is a powerful framework for tracking repeat offenders and confirming their identity, but it’s not the standalone solution for the “silent mass disaster” of unidentified persons. 

But the times are changing, as cutting-edge genomics techniques enable the construction of more detailed profiles for forensic DNA evidence. Othram, builds DNA profiles that draw upon tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of markers (rather than the twenty or so from CODIS). With such a rich marker set it is straightforward to develop leads that help identify and reconnect unidentified individuals back to family.

Nevertheless, in the case of Beth Doe, constructing a more detailed profile was only part of the challenge. The DNA profile of an unknown person has to be compared against a database of other profiles. Right now, investigators enter these profiles into the subset of available genealogical databases that permit law enforcement search. These genealogical databases were built to enable end users to find genetic relatives or, in other cases, to help adoptees find their biological families. When it became apparent that these same databases could be used to identify unknown persons at crime scenes, law enforcement made recourse to the tools at hand. This prompted a number of societal, ethical, and legal questions about how and when to use genealogical databases. This is an important ongoing discussion that we’ll explore in more detail in later posts, but the databases that continue to work with law enforcement now provide their members with options to decide if they will allow their data to be used in a law enforcement investigation. Choice is important.

DNASolves was started in the fall of 2019 because of all these issues. We envisioned a new kind of database that would be used exclusively for reconnecting the unidentified to their families and for solving “unsolvable” crimes. There are many databases specialized for genealogy, medical research and other applications, so we wanted to focus on this one use case. Much like with Othram’s laboratory, the focus on one mission, identifying the unknown persons from forensic DNA evidence, allows us to refine tools and methods for forensic DNA evidence specifically. This has been the key to our success in unlocking information from DNA evidence that has failed testing with other methods or at other laboratories.

We believe that a clear explanation of what the database is for, with a singular focus on forensics, would help address some of the concerns that have emerged from the use of genealogical databases that have been drafted by law enforcement. DNASolves works like other genealogical databases and its aim is transparent and clear. If you’ve already taken a consumer DNA test from a third-party DNA testing service, you can download your raw DNA data from that service and then upload it to DNASolves. There is only one reason to do this: to help solve a cold case. 

And yet today DNASolves has grown into a lot more than just a database. DNASolves is a platform for sharing updates about cases, and for financially supporting casework that would otherwise not be possible. This support is made possible by private donors, sponsorship, and crowdfunding. We are truly grateful to everyone that has helped support a case. If you are curious which cases currently need assistance, we keep a running list here. We would love for you to get involved!

The main question is how we can continue to accelerate solutions to the “silent mass disaster” of accumulating cold cases? The widespread availability of genealogical databases cuts both ways. It is, and has been, very useful for law enforcement. But these databases are often difficult to use because their original aims were so very different, resulting in great inefficiencies.

Over the past several months we have been thinking about how we would design a database for forensic purposes from day one. How would we make them more efficient? How do we build the smallest database that can do the most good? Why not build a database for families of the missing and unidentified? If you have data, great. You can start here. But the intersection of genealogy enthusiasts and those who are concerned with missing persons and unsolved crimes is limited. So what about everyone else who has not tested?

We want to do what is best and most efficient, even even if it is not the easiest path forward. We need efficient and cost-effective ways to match families of missing persons to the unidentified. So we are announcing DNASolves® Connect. Launching with the new program is our new logo for DNASolves. We hope you like it, it was a labor of love.

The DNASolves® Connect program allows people that have not previously tested with a DNA testing company to contribute their DNA profiles to DNASolves by ordering a swab kit directly from DNASolves. The swab kits cost $14.99. That’s it. You order a kit, register the kit, swab, and then return the kit, using a provided return label. Your DNA, whether you upload a profile or send us a swab, is never shared. It is not publicly searchable. However, if investigators submit a profile for an unknown person from a crime scene, we will use the profile to compare against these submitted profiles.

We have the technology and we can start making a difference now. We can identify missing persons and bring peace of mind to the families of victims. Please help us spread the word and let’s get started!

Beth Doe

Evelyn Colon was brutally murdered towards the end of her pregnancy in 1976. Her identification after 45 years has led investigators to a suspect in her death.

In December 1976, a teenager out for a walk along the Lehigh River in Carbon County, Pennsylvania discovered a dismembered human head and immediately returned home and notified authorities. Pennsylvania State Police and the Carbon County Coroner responded to the scene. Three separate suitcases were located, all containing dismembered remains of what appeared to be a young white female and her unborn, full-term baby girl. Found inside the suitcases were six sheets of paper from the September 26, 1976 edition of the New York Sunday News, helping date the crime. 

Forensic Pathologist Dr. Halbert Fillinger from the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office completed the autopsy on the female. Eventually known as "Beth Doe", the young woman was estimated to be between the ages of 16-22, around 5 feet tall and 145 lbs at her time of death. She had distinct dental work, a couple small markings, and two distinct facial moles. Investigators determined that she was was sexually assaulted, strangled, and shot a close range. She was dismembered, postmortem. It’s hard to imagine a more gruesome and horrific crime.

The Pennsylvania State Police conducted an extensive investigation trying to identify Beth Doe and her child. She was entered into all available national missing person databases, NCIC, NamUs, and ViCAP. NCMEC intaked this case in 2002 at the request of the PSP. Over the years NCMEC helped process over 29 leads to missing persons enhancing lead information through ASD’s analytical resources and securing forensic comparisons through FSU. The female’s fingerprints had been sent to multiple state and national databases during the initial investigation and uploaded into NGI in 2017. In 2007 authorities exhumed her remains so additional biometrics could be obtained and advanced technologies be applied. Dental records were examined and coded and in 2013 FSU worked with the American Dental Association and had the case featured in their newsletter hoping to generate leads. In 2008 full DNA profiles for the female and baby were uploaded into CODIS through UNT. No matches to dentals and no hits to her fingerprints or DNA. Multiple forensic facial reconstructions failed to produce leads to her identity as well.

The forensic facial reconstruction from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to help identify the murdered pregnant teen.

At this point law enforcement had investigated this case for more than four decades and NCMEC had been providing support services for two decades. That is an immense effort and with all leads exhausted, NCMEC made the recommendation to try advanced DNA testing techniques. My company, Othram, is a proud partner with NCMEC and we are trying to help them with many of their 700 cases of unidentified children. For more on our work with NCMEC, check my post on Pecos Jane Doe.

In 2020, the Pennsylvania State Police, working with NCMEC, moved forward to leverage advanced DNA testing to help produce leads that could identify Beth Doe or a close relative to her. NCMEC engaged DNA Labs International to produce a DNA extract from skeletal remains from the case. In November 2020, the DNA extract was sent to Othram. The Othram team used a combination of Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® and proprietary human enrichment to produce a genealogical profile for Beth Doe. There was was plenty of DNA, however, the challenges in this case were degradation and bacterial contamination. Fortunately, the laboratory at Othram has a number of tools developed to account for and accommodate challenging forensic DNA evidence. I touch on some of the things that make forensic DNA testing so much different than regular DNA testing, in this post. If you don’t have time to read it, just remember that forensic DNA evidence really does require special methods and equipment — you can’t just send that DNA evidence anywhere.

In February 2021, the Othram team returned the genealogical profile to NCMEC and DNA Labs International. They identified a top match in a genealogical database with over 1700cM of shared DNA to Beth Doe. Investigative work by the Pennsylvania State Police revealed the very close match to be that of Luis Colon Jr., a nephew to Beth Doe. Luis confirmed that his father’s sister, Evelyn Colon, had not been heard from since the mid-1970s. Incredibly, Luis had uploaded his DNA profile to many genealogical sites hoping to reconnect to Evelyn. This is where a parallel story begins.

Unrelated to the investigation and unaware of Beth Doe, Luis Colon Jr. was searching for his aunt. He knew that she was a young mother living with a boyfriend. He knew that his aunt had eventually stopped keeping in touch with family. Apparently a letter, written by her boyfriend, was sent to Evelyn’s family, after her death, detailing that Evelyn had delivered her child, everything was fine, and that she would be in touch, in the future. In sharing his DNA, Luis had hoped to find out where his aunt was. He assumed she was still alive, raising her child.

After 45 years, and thanks to data uploaded by Luis and the efforts of so many groups, working as team, Beth Doe was identified as fifteen-year-old Evelyn Colon. Colon, a Puerto Rican native, had been living in Jersey City, NJ with her boyfriend/father of her child prior to her death. Her boyfriend, Luis Sierra, who wrote the note to the family and was living with Evelyn at the time, was arrested in March 2021 and charged with her homicide.

I have shared before that in many of these older cases, the world moves on, but the families and friends of the victim do not — they cannot. Evelyn’s brother did not (just look at the photo above). The families of the unidentified need answers and closure to begin the process of healing. This case, in particular, also reminds us all that restoring the identity of a homicide victim is the first step in being able to investigate the crime and seek justice for the victim.

What can you do to help solve the next cold case? You can either (1) help financially support a case involving an unidentified person or you can (2) submit your own DNA data, in case you might be a distant relative to an unknown person. If you are missing someone in your family, you should definitely consider submitting your DNA data. Many of these cases can be solved by combining crowdfunding, volunteered data, cutting-edge genomics, and tremendous teamwork. Its a lot of work, but its always worth the effort. You can learn more about how to get involved in these efforts, here.

If you want to learn more about the case of Evelyn Colon, here are some great links:

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