DNA Sleuths: The quest to identify nameless victims

Genetic geneology may help identify nameless murder victims. Here's how.
Published: Sep. 23, 2020 at 8:21 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Simple granite headstones mark the gravesites of two unidentified women who died at the hands of an Alaska serial killer. The remains of Jane Doe and Jane Doe #3 are buried at the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery, two among scores of young women killed by Robert Hansen.

Although the women died decades ago, investigators hope advances in DNA technology can help solve the mystery of who they are.

Cold case investigator Randy McPherron of the Alaska State Troopers has used genetic genealogy to locate suspects in other murder cases, most notably Steven Downs and Donald McQuade. The method looks for family matches to a sample of DNA. Once a match is made, investigators can trace relationships and look for individuals who are likely to match the gathered sample. It’s the process of building a family tree, using genetics as the branches and filling in the gaps with other records.

While the search for Hansen is long over, McPherron hopes the same process that led to McQuade and Downs can connect unidentified murder victims to their families.

“DNA evidence has been a real game changer,” McPherron said.

Advances in technology have heightened accuracy and reduced the amount of DNA to produce good results, he said.

Hansen chose vulnerable, petite, young women for victims. After his arrest, he said he usually picked them up as dates from strip clubs. He told investigators he didn’t remember much about Jane Doe, other than she’d maybe said she was from Kodiak. She was found in a shallow grave near Eklutna Lake Road in 1980 and is now more commonly known as Eklutna Annie.

A second victim, Jane Doe #3, known as “Horseshoe Harriet,” was located in 1984 near Horseshoe Lake north of Anchorage. Hansen led law enforcement to the site after entering a plea deal. In 2014 the victims' remains were exhumed to gather DNA samples.

“They exhumed her body, got some bone fragments, got some DNA, and now she’s in the national database as well. But again, unfortunately, no matches,” McPherron said.

One of the challenges of creating family trees from genetic profiles is that it relies on samples being in the databases to create matches. Private firms that offer genealogy tracing don’t make their clients profiles public, and they aren’t accessible to law enforcement without a court order.

But other sites, like GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA are. On its website, GEDmatch states it “provides applications for comparing your DNA test results with other people.” FamilyTreeDNA offers similar services through an “opt-in” policy, and also allows a user to “opt-out” of law enforcement matching.

“It’s all voluntary. We can’t make people make their profiles public, but we sure encourage people to do so,” McPherron said.

“The bigger the database, the greater the chance we have of identifying somebody, both whether they are a suspect or a victim of a crime,” he said.

Investigators believe Hansen’s victim type contributes to the challenges of locating the victims' families. In the 1970s and 1980s, Alaska was enjoying its oil-boom wealth. People frequently traveled in and out of the state for work, including sex workers. One of the prosecutors handling Hansen’s case explained at the time that Hansen chose victims people wouldn’t miss.

But without knowing who the women are, and without knowing a version of their story other than that offered by their killer, any details about what their life was like is speculation.

At some point in their lives, the women went missing from family, missing from friends or acquaintances, and McPherron hopes he can one day answer for them, why it happened.

“We’re always hopeful that something might turn up," he said.

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