Closing Cold Cases Between College Courses

Meet the Next Generation of Forensic Genetic Genealogists

Tara Luther, Promega

Alisha Ann Heinrich was just 18 months old when her life was taken over 38 years ago. Her tiny body, weighing only 25 pounds was found in the brush on the side of the Escatawpa River in Mississippi on December 5, 1982. An autopsy concluded that someone had tried to smother her before tossing her into the river while still alive. The once bright-eyed toddler had drowned. With no way to identify her, she was given the name Delta Dawn and was added to the list of over 40,000 missing persons in the United States.

A local deputy and his wife “adopted” the toddler and gave her a proper burial with the inscription on her headstone reading, “Baby Jane: Known only to God”. Years passed with no information and Delta Dawn’s headstone became overgrown until she was “adopted” once more.

A Chance Internship

Olivia McCarter was a freshman at the University of South Alabama working toward completing her anthropology major when she began to wonder where she would fit within the forensic science field. Feeling discouraged, she considered dropping out of school, but her interest in forensic genetic genealogy led her to reach out to Anthony and Lee Redgrave, her personal heroes, and founders of Redgrave Research Forensic Services, based in Massachusetts. She described her passion for working with unidentified remains cases and her desire to become a forensic anthropologist, and they offered her an internship with their company where she would be able to learn how to do forensic genetic genealogy through their training course.

Forensic genetic genealogy relies on genetic relationships between a DNA profile for an unknown person and profiles of known people in genealogy databases, such as GEDmatch, FamilyTreeDNA, or DNASolves. To begin, investigators upload their unknown DNA profile to the site, which generates a list of the closest genetic matches, based on how many centimorgans (cM) of DNA are shared with the unknown person. Next, investigators will begin to build back the unknown person's family tree until a common ancestor is uncovered. Then, they will build the family trees forward, identifying every descendent possible, using traditional genealogy techniques. Once the trees have been fully built out, investigators look to identify candidate persons that might match the unknown person. Once a person of interest has been identified, new DNA can be collected to compare to the original forensic sample.

In March of 2020, when many of us were reeling from the news of the COVID-19 pandemic, Olivia began working on her first case: Mississippi County John Doe. In 1979, unidentified burned human remains were discovered in an agricultural field near Charleston, Missouri and turned over to the Anthropology department at Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO) after the investigation stalled. In 2013, Dr. Jennifer Bengtson and her students began to re-analyze the case. Traditional STR profiling did not yield an identity for the individual and little could be learned about the remains until the SEMO team turned to forensic genomics and genealogy.

Dr. Bengtson sent a small sample of the remains to Othram in early 2020 in the hopes that a full genome profile would enable an identification. Combining DNA extraction techniques with methods for enriching human DNA produced a digitized genome sequence from the degraded and contaminated bone.

The genetic analysis and genealogical research revealed that the individual was related to the Creole-speaking Missouri French who initially settled Illinois County in the early 18th century. Olivia joined the team of genealogists led by Anthony Redgrave and Lee Bingham Redgrave who developed a tree and eventually submitted a name for confirmation. The victim was identified as male in his 30s who went by the name “Harry” and had drowned in the Missouri River many decades prior. After significant flooding in the area, the body washed up on a farm and was accidentally burned during field maintenance. 41 years later, Harry was finally identified and returned to his family.

Olivia memorializes the cases that she has worked on through tattoos. Harry loved being in the outdoors and building bird houses, so she chose to represent him through this bluebird.

Olivia and her fellow genealogists helped investigators solve “Harry’s” case in just four days, with three of those days spent on a continuous Zoom call leaving no time for sleep and little for meals. After working on “Harry’s” case, Olivia was hooked, saying “[Using forensic genetic genealogy to work on these types of cases] became like an addiction and I have never looked back.”

Learn more about how anthropology, forensic genomics, and genealogy work in tandem to restore identities to unknown remains cases in the May 2020 issue of The ISHI Report.

“The Kid”

Though the same age as Olivia, 19-year-old Eric Schubert’s path to genealogy and working cold cases could not be more different. Eric began doing genealogical work when he was just 10 years old with traditional paper genealogy. As he grew older and gained more experience, he quickly became accustomed to genetic genealogy work and when it was time for him to get a job at 14, he weighed his options; he could get a job working at a fast-food restaurant or a farm, or he could do something untraditional and unique for someone his age: start his own genealogy business.

Eric received a New Jersey Governor's Jefferson Award for his genealogy work.

Eric had been helping friends and family answer their personal family history questions for years, but he wondered if anyone in the community would be interested as well. The answer was a resounding yes, and he launched his business before his freshman year of high school.

Since he first began his genealogy research, Eric has worked with over 1,000 people to fill in holes in family trees and clear up questions, and he’s seen it all. From the cliche of the milkman or mailman being the biological father to the tragedies of murder/suicide in adoption cases, he is grateful for the impact he’s been able to make in his clients’ lives.

In this interview, Eric shares how he got started in genealogy, why he considers himself to be part genealogist, part therapist, and part investigator, the challenges he’s face throughout the years, and what advice he has for others looking to join the field.

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News first broke of forensic genetic genealogy being vital in identifying the Golden State Killer when Eric was 17 or 18, and the field began growing at light speed. The new use of the technique caught Eric’s attention and he wondered how he might be able to use his skill set to help, saying, “It’s not like someone is going to come to you and say, ‘Can you do this for us?’” so he decided to shelve his interest. It would not be long before Eric would be proved wrong.

A week after graduating from high school, Eric was contacted by a police department in Pennsylvania who needed help solving a case. Though intrigued, it took a few weeks before he would agree to work on the cold case. Two weeks later, Eric produced a lead for the detectives. Throughout this process, Eric gained an education on how police departments proceed with these types of cases and just how many cases remain unsolved due to a lack of resources or funding. This inspired Eric to reach out to other agencies and offer his services. In the past year, agencies have asked Eric, nicknamed “The Kid”, to assist on a half dozen of the “hardest of the hard” cases, leaving him appreciative of the opportunity to fill a need and help provide answers.

Delta Dawn

In April of 2020, Olivia joined the multi-disciplinary team working to identify Delta Dawn. Olivia felt immediately connected to the little girl who was buried only 15 minutes from where she lived. On many occasions, Olivia visited the gravesite to keep weeds away, add flowers, and pay her respects.

“During the research for the case, I began to think of the child as my own,” Olivia says. “I know it sounds strange, but she was a child, and at the time she was alone. She didn’t have a family to visit her or love her. My team was that family.”

Through combined efforts of forensic genetic genealogy, advanced DNA testing, and traditional investigative work, Delta Dawn was identified two months later as Alisha Ann Heinrich. Alisha had last been seen when she left the family home in Missouri on Thanksgiving Day 1982 with her mother, Gwendolyn Mae Clemons, and her mother’s boyfriend. Gwendolyn had told family members that she was heading to Florida to start a new life. Eventually, Gwendolyn’s boyfriend returned to Missouri without them, and neither was seen alive again. Though he has since passed away, he is considered a suspect. To this day, Gwendolyn has not been found.

Olivia noted that, “One of the greatest moments in my career was the week after [her case was solved]. I went to the gravesite again and I got to say her name to her. I realized that this was the first time anyone had been able to call her by her name in 40 years.”

In this interview, we learn how Olivia got her start in forensic genetic genealogy, the powerful emotions she feels when working on a case, the bond she’s formed with the team at Redgrave Forensic Services, how she’s handled all of the recent media attention, and her advice for others interested in pursuing a career in forensic genetic genealogy.

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Balancing College and Cases

It’s not uncommon for those who do forensic genetic genealogy work to become emotionally tied to the cases they work on. Eric says that he has become, “part genealogist, part investigator, and part therapist” throughout the years. He notes that, “it’s important to be careful with [the information you uncover], and you don’t want to just throw it at people. A lot of times, people think the best and you have to prepare them and sometimes give them the worst.”

Finding a balance between genealogical work and college requirements can be a mental challenge. Eric has been navigating that balance for years and says that he finds that discipline and organization is key. He says, “I like to categorize. [Every case is] different, but I categorize what I work on. I know what I need to put into it, what work needs to be done, how much gentle pushing I need to give in terms of what needs to be done and what should happen.”

Eric talks on the phone with New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy regarding genealogy work.

Olivia has come to rely on the support of her team in a multitude of ways as she balances 16 credit hours of upper-level classes with genealogical work. “It was really hard to jump into this type of work as a freshman,” she says. “I would work at ungodly hours of the day and would not stop working until I was going to pass out from exhaustion. The only thing that kept me from losing sight of myself at this time was my team. My team makes it a point to take care of each other, and we make sure to take breaks and watch a TV show or a movie once a week together to get away from the horrible things that we see every day. On our team, we’re family, and we care about each other. These are some of the best friends that I’ve ever had.”

Advice for Others

As forensic genetic genealogy continues to grow as a field, resources have begun to spring up for younger genealogists wanting to help. In the August 2020 issue of The ISHI Report, Anthony and Lee Redgrave described their Forensic Genealogy Training for Law Enforcement (FG4LE) online educational program. Similarly, Dr. Claire Glynn has just developed a new certificate program at the University of New Haven.

When asked what advice he had for others interested in getting into the field, Eric says, “Show ‘em what you’ve got. Get [some experience] under your belt. Get your track record down and prove people wrong.” As a young professional, he's faced plenty of skeptics, but the extensive number of adoption (and growing number of criminal) cases he’s worked on speak for themselves and he’s quickly gaining the trust of law enforcement (and media attention).

Olivia has garnered plenty of media attention herself, and her advice for those looking to follow in her footsteps is, “Don’t give up! I was about to give up. I was ready to quit, and then I met Anthony and Lee and it turned my life around. I met a lot of amazing professors in the criminal justice and anthropology departments who kept me in school and guided me toward the right path. Make friends with your professors. Ask for help. Make connections. Network.”

Looking to the Future

With all that Eric and Olivia have accomplished at such a young age, we can’t wait to see what the future holds for them. Currently, Eric is staying very busy, without a second to spare, with his classwork, genealogy cases, running an academic advising program, and as a student research assistant.

Olivia has a full course load with 16 credit hours (including 300-level course) and continues to pursue her major in Anthropology and minor in Criminal Justice. As for what she hopes to do in the future, she says, “There are about 40,000 John and Jane Doe cases in the United States. My dream is to have every single one of those victims identified and returned to their families, and I will not stop until they are.”