WRIGHT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — She had been known to local detectives only as Matilda — a name they gave her after hunters discovered her body 27 years ago in a ditch.
But now, thanks to recent advances in DNA research, Ottawa County detectives have tentatively identified her as a missing woman from Minnesota, court records show.
The woman was 29 when she disappeared. She was last seen in October 1993 in Minneapolis.
Target 8 is not identifying her because the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department is waiting for confirmation.
Her mother told Target 8 she had no idea why her daughter would have been in Grand Rapids.
Rabbit hunters discovered the remains in November 1994 in a ditch near 32nd Avenue and Arthur Street in Wright Township.
She was the second of 11 women whose bodies were discovered in Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties from March 1994 to October 1996. Police have said they believe the deaths were tied to the illegal sex trade.
Local police formed a task force in 1996 to investigate the deaths, which remain unsolved.
The Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department worked with a forensic sculptor to create the victim’s face, hoping it would provide leads. They chased down tips for years.
An autopsy could not determine a cause of death, but the Western Michigan University Forensic Anthropology Department examined the remains and determined the woman had suffered a degenerative condition affecting cartilage and bone.
“The report indicated that the individual likely walked with a habitually locked knee and could be the remnant of childhood Osgood-Schlatter’s disease,” an Ottawa County detective wrote in a request for a search warrant.
Then in February 2021, sheriff’s detectives, while working with the DNA Doe Project, sent some of the remains to Astrea Forensics to get a DNA sample, court records show.
DNA Doe Project conducts genealogical testing to identify cold case victims. 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.
Astrea Forensics, founded in 2019, uses proprietary methods to recover genetic profiles from rootless hair and other degraded samples.
DNA Doe Project officials have said that the sample is then uploaded onto a database called GEDmatch. The DNA can then be compared and used to find living relatives of the victim who may have used programs like 23andMe or Ancestry.com.
In August, the DNA Doe Project notified detectives that its genetic genealogy researchers had identified the Minnesota woman as a possible match.
Detectives interviewed her relatives in Minnesota who told them she had been diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter’s disease, which led to repeated surgeries on her left knee.
Detectives in October obtained a search warrant for the woman’s medical records at St. Joseph Medical Center in Brainard, Minnesota.
“Based on the investigation, your affiant believes the medical records … would further the investigation and help positively identify the victim,” Detective Allison Anderson wrote in an affidavit for the search warrant.
An Ottawa County sheriff’s spokesman refused to discuss the case until the identification is confirmed.