After 26 years without answers, can genealogy ID homicide victim?

Ottawa County

WRIGHT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — The 1994 case of an unidentified homicide victim could be one step closer to being solved thanks to genealogical testing.

The woman, who investigators have called Matilda for the last 26 years, was found in November 1994. Two rabbit hunters came across her skeletal remains while scouring the woods just south of 32nd Avenue and Arthur Street near Coopersville.

The site in Wright Township where an unidentified homicide victim was found on Nov. 6, 1995. (April 28, 2021)

Police say the woman was never identified and her cause of death remains unclear.

“The majority of our task has been first identifying who this is and then to go forward in the potential homicide investigation,” Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Mark Bennett said Wednesday.

Bennett said the woman was believed to be between the ages of 25 and 35 and that she stood about 5-foot-7. Authorities say they think her death was tied to sex trafficking in the Grand Rapids area in the early 1990s.

The sheriff’s department says it constructed a forensic sculpture of what they believe Matilda may have looked like at her time of death and chased down tips for years.

But with only a few pieces of clothing and Matilda’s bones as evidence, very little of the her story could be brought to light.

“There were a few different names floated around as potential suspects. Those names that became apparent to us and were checked out, we couldn’t make any correlation,” Bennett said.

As technology and DNA evidence advanced over the years, the possibility of identifying the victim grew. This past fall, the sheriff’s department submitted paperwork to collaborate with the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit that conducts genealogical testing to identify cold case victims.

“We find out from the agency if they have a DNA sample of the John or Jane Doe. They might or they might not,” said Franchecsa Werden with the DNA Doe Project. “If they don’t, we talk to them about the condition of the Doe when they were found and what might be used for DNA extraction.”

Werden said the DNA sample is then put through a process called genome sequencing as a part of the research phase. She said that one step can take several months to a year depending on the condition of the sample.

After that, the information from the sample can be uploaded on to a database called GEDmatch. There, Werden says, the DNA can be compared and used to find living relatives of the victim who may have used programs like 23andMe or Ancestry.com.

Below, see a file 1994 report from News 8 at the scene where the body was recovered. Some viewers may find the images upsetting. Discretion is advised.

The nonprofit says since starting its work in 2017, it has been able to identify victims in about 65% of the cases it has taken on.

“That proverbial empty seat at the dining room table is something that is a part of a family’s narrative, even for family members who never knew that person,” Werden said. “It’s really a humanitarian mission for us.”

The Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office is also working on another cold case with an unidentified victim out of Blendon Township. Crews exhumed the body of the victim, who they call Jenny, last summer. It says access to genealogical testing is a good tool, but it will likely take some time before the cases come to a close. Anyone with information is asked to give detectives a call at 616.738.4000 or Silent Observer at 877.887.4536.

The DNA Doe Project also reminds people who participate in genealogical testing to read their terms of service, as the results (e.g. unexpectedly learning of a family member’s death) can be damaging.

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