Southeast Students Help Solve Cold Case

Southeast Students Help Solve Cold Case

Southeast students cracked the case! A team of Southeast students and faculty were able to solve a real-world cold case in Southeast Missouri. Dr. Jennifer Bengtson, associate professor of anthropology, and her students, identified human remains found in a farm field near Charleston, Missouri in 1979.

The remains had been classified as “unidentified” and turned over to the University. The case went cold until Bengtson and her students “rediscovered” the case in 2013. In 2016, Bengtson and her students submitted the case to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a national clearinghouse and resource center for the missing, unidentified and unclaimed persons across the United States.

When Traditional STR profiling by the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification did not turn up any clues as to the person’s identity, Bengtson and her students turned to forensic genealogy, a new approach to identification using GEDmatch. GEDmatch is a repository of DNA profiles voluntarily submitted by the public to connect with their biological relatives. Forensic genealogy has been applied successfully to solve cold cases as old and complicated as the 1979 Charleston case.

With funds raised through the Southeast Missouri University Foundation, Bengtson and her team of students continued testing with Redgrave Research. Modern genealogical research involves significant online work, so the genealogists at Redgrave Research created a private online forum and repository for information and findings, and acted as a primary communication forum as the geneticists, genealogists, and Southeast students worked through the case.

In 2020, Bengtson and her students sent a small sample of the remains to Othram, the leading forensic sequencing laboratory for law enforcement located in Woodlands, Texas, in the hopes of solving this case. The Othram laboratory specializes in extracting and enriching human DNA from degraded, contaminated sources such as bone. Students participated in the forensic genealogy process which ultimately led to a match.

Upon identification of the deceased, it was learned that his death was not a homicide, and the family of the deceased asked that the full name associated with the remains not be released. The deceased went by the name Harry and was in his mid-30s when he drowned in the Mississippi River. His death was known to his family and authorities, although his remains were never recovered. Based on original reports and new information, it is believed that significant flooding in 1979 resulted in Harry’s remains washing up on a farm downriver within a year of his death. He remained unidentified for 41 years before Bengtson, her students, and Othram were able to finally identify the remains and contact his family.

Thanks to the dedication of everyone involved, and the support of the University Foundation and donors, Bengtson and her students are proud to have helped solve this case and bring resolution to a local family’s history. They’re currently raising funds to tackle a second cold case, this time from Cape Girardeau County.

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