ADA TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — It was 23 years ago Friday that a maintenance worker picking up trash in a roadside park east of Ada uncovered a mystery instead.

“My gut feeling is it’s a victim of a homicide that’s been dropped off,” a detective told News 8 the day after skeletal remains were discovered on July 31, 1997.

At the time, investigators hoped the skull — largely intact — could be matched to a missing persons report through dental records. But more than two decades later, the skull and bones found scattered among underbrush in a park along M-21 remain unidentified.  

Over the years, the Kent County Sheriff’s Department has submitted DNA samples to national databases and created forensic sketches, a computer-generated composite and a clay model recreation based on the skull.  

Still, they know only that the woman was black, between 20 and 30 years old and stood between 5-foot-2 and 5-foot-8. She was in need of dental care and had a healed fracture on the left side of her nose.  

Crews searching the underbrush for additional bones found a single dark blue leg warmer nearby.

Investigators believe the woman died at least a year before the discovery, likely sometime between March and August 1996. The estimated time frame of her death coincides with a two-and-a-half year span during which the bodies of 11 women were found, beaten and strangled, dumped in and around the Grand Rapids metropolitan area. Most of the victims struggled with substance abuse and worked as prostitutes to support their habits.

Detective Dustin Cook of the Kent County Sheriff’s Department is the latest investigator assigned to the case known as “Ada bones.”

“When the bones were located, they were submitted to the University of North Texas,” Cook said.

UNT has long been a center of innovation in the areas of forensic, genetic and anthropological examination.

“(UNT) was able to extract a DNA sample from the bones, which they’ve had on file there for the last 23 years. It’s been entered into some DNA databases, but there obviously haven’t been any matches,” Cook said.

Now, Cook hopes genetic genealogy testing will produce results.

The sheriff’s department is working with the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit group of volunteers that compares DNA from unidentified remains against public DNA databases designed to help people trace their family trees.  

“There’s somebody out there that I’m sure is wondering, ‘Whatever happened to my loved one, to my friend?'” Cook said. “It’d be incredible to be able to identify that person and track that family member or friend down and say, ‘Tell us this person’s story’ to try to figure out what happened to them.”  

Cook said the DNA Doe Project is currently submitting the Ada bones DNA for sequencing to determine if the sample is adequate to upload for comparison. If it’s not, another sample will be extracted and submitted.

It’s impossible to predict how long the process will take.

It took the DNA Doe Project a little more than a month to solve another mystery in southwest Michigan. For 30 years, a set of remains found off 196 south of South Haven had remained unidentified. Once the genetic genealogy group obtained a DNA sample from the bones, they uncovered a potential match in just five weeks.

Michigan State Police then worked to confirm the remains as those of Marcia Kaylynn Bateman, a 28-year-old woman, sometime homeless and often transient, whose family in Oklahoma City reported her missing in 1988.

Since the success in the Bateman case, police agencies in southwest and West Michigan have submitted the Ada remains for testing, as well as four additional sets of unidentified remains.

The DNA Doe project is currently using genealogical testing to identify the body of an elderly woman known as “Betty the Bag Lady.” A passerby found her handless and dentureless body in August 1992. She had been wrapped in plastic trash bags and dumped along the side of a road in New Buffalo near the Indiana border.

Also undergoing genealogy testing are the remains of three John Does. One was discovered in Allegan County in 2014 and the other two were found in Van Buren County in 1987 and 2010.

Separately, authorities in Ottawa County this week exhumed the remains of an unidentified woman found dead in 1967, hoping to obtain DNA for genealogy testing so she can finally be named. Michigan State University is examining the remains.