Crime & Courts

Can new genetics test help Richland coroner’s office ID nearly decade-old remains?

Richland County Coroner’s Office trying to identify unknown human remains

Forensic anthropologist Bill Stevens of the Richland County Coroner's Office discusses how they store human remains
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Forensic anthropologist Bill Stevens of the Richland County Coroner's Office discusses how they store human remains

In spring 2011, the Richland County Coroner’s Office found badly decomposed human remains in a wooded area close to Huger and Blossom streets.

Little information could be found about the body beyond that it likely belonged to a shorter white man between 35 and 55 years old and that he had arthritis in his feet and spine. Deputy coroners got their most promising lead from the camping tent that the bones laid in. After investigating, deputy coroners found who the tent belonged to.

“We got a lot of hope up for who it could be,” said Bill Stevens, the forensic anthropologist for the coroner’s office.

But they discovered something else about the tent’s owner. He was alive and in jail.

The remains have been unidentified for eight years. But now the coroner’s office has a new hope.

The coroner’s office has turned to a new method of genetic profiling. The method involves laboratory tests for specific anomalies in DNA known as single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs. Family members share these unique DNA characteristics. The SNP method can find more distant relatives than previous DNA testing technologies, Stevens explained.

Popular genealogy services like Ancestry.com and 23andMe use the technology. The method has been successful in other forensic work and famously worked to find the Golden State Killer suspect.

“The intent is to positively identify the person and return him to his family,” Stevens said. “If we generate leads as to who’s related to him ... we can then narrow down who the missing person is through directly speaking with them or doing a family tree that shows the relatedness.”

Stevens learned about DNA testing technology at a 2018 forensic scientist conference. John Doe 2011 immediately came to mind, and he brought the idea to Richland County Coroner Gary Watts.

Watts “is very into technology and emerging technology and he was excited about the potential,” Stevens said. “We get so many leads on these John and Jane Does. ... The idea of being about to solve one or to return that person to their family is just amazing.”

Years ago, when the investigation of the Huger Street body hit a dead end, the coroner’s office sent a bone for an older method of DNA testing that compared the unidentified remains’ genetics to those listed in criminal and family submitted databases. The coroner’s office never got a hit on those traditional databases.

A sample from the same bone was recently sent to Parabon Nanolabs, which will perform the SNP testing and compare the results to those in a new genetic database.

If Stevens gets a match, the work isn’t over.

“It’s a puzzle,” Stevens said. “You find relationship but then you have to do the legwork to narrow down who that is. ... It could lead us to documents, X-rays or dental records or even a reference DNA sample of someone close that could be use to verify his identity.”

The coroner’s office may have to conduct more interviews and collect other DNA samples to verify the identification.

With all that work, the ending could still be disheartening. That’s because unidentified people are often unknown because of estrangement from their families. Estrangement, many times, stems from drug issues or abusive relationships, Stevens said.

Stevens has witnessed the range of responses after the forensics are done and it comes time for a deputy coroner to knock on a relative’s door.

“Sometimes they can’t remember when they last spoke with” their late family member, Stevens said. “If they have children, the children get to an age they’re searching for their lost parent.”

He’s heard people say “‘I’m glad he’s dead’” and he’s seen people overwhelmed by emotion.

“Some people go unclaimed,” Stevens said. They have no family left.

Even with the possibility of never identifying the body, Stevens and the coroner’s office still do all they can to ensure that a set of remains becomes a person again.

“For yourself, you get satisfaction for doing the work and finding an answer,” Stevens said.

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