Crowdfunded DNA test identifies woman found dead in the desert in 1971

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Crowdfunded DNA test identifies woman found dead in the desert in 1971

In January 1971, hunters discovered a woman dead in the Arizona desert. She lacked identification. A coroner found no signs of blunt-force trauma or gunshot wounds and ruled her cause of death unknown. But police opened a homicide case based on one piece of evidence — her body had been bundled into a canvas sack tied shut with cotton string.

Her file sat in the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office for decades until investigator Lori Miller pulled it out in the summer of 2020, determined to finally solve the mystery of the county’s oldest unidentified victim.

Miller had little to work with. An artist had produced a sketch of the woman’s likeness in 1971, but no leads had emerged. Fingerprint tests from that period were inconclusive. Miller tried running them in a modern database, to no avail.

“We struck out there,” Miller said. “We struck out with dental records. And so last resort was to try to ID her through her DNA.”

That wasn’t easy either. Pressed for funding, the sheriff’s office had to pay for the $7,500 genome-sequencing service with a public fundraiser organized by the testing company. But with it, finally, came a breakthrough. On Tuesday, the sheriff’s office identified the woman as Colleen Audrey Rice from Portsmouth, Ohio — no longer Mohave’s oldest Jane Doe.

“When you do these kinds of cases, you feel for … the victim and her loved ones who might be out there looking for her,” Miller said. “We decided that since she was the oldest [unidentified victim] she kind of deserved the most respect and our best effort to try and figure out who she was and how she died.”

Miller, restless after retiring from the Los Angeles Police Department and moving to Arizona, joined the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office when the department assembled a special unit to investigate cold cases in 2019. In 2020, she decided to take on the case that had eluded the county for 50 years.

She quickly exhausted all of her options, and the quest to identify Rice would have failed again if not for the emerging technique of genome sequencing — and the generosity of online donors. Miller decided a genealogical test was her final option in May and contacted Othram, a Texas-based forensic laboratory that creates DNA profiles of individuals to help law enforcement identify them.

Othram’s tests work by building a “comprehensive” genetic profile using DNA extracted from remains, founder David Mittelman said. The company attempts to find matches for that profile within public databases of genealogical profiles, eventually homing in on a family tree and requesting follow-up DNA tests with people from that tree to confirm a match.

“As you build out the [family] trees and connect the matches, we’ll notice there’s probably somebody missing or unaccounted for in the tree,” Mittelman said. “And that’s usually a good candidate for being the person that we’ve found the remains for but is unidentified.”

Miller’s only problem? The Mohave County Sheriff’s Office couldn’t foot the $7,500 bill for the company’s services. That’s not uncommon, Mittelman said, among agencies that either lack funding or have their funds tightly controlled and earmarked for specific uses. Awareness of genome sequencing grew in 2018 after it was used to identify the Golden State Killer, Mittelman said, but it’s still on the newer end of proven investigative techniques.

“Unfortunately, because it’s a newer method, there’s not always grant funding left or even available in the first place, especially for smaller agencies, to do the work,” Mittelman said.

Othram instead runs a website to crowdfund investigations proposed by authorities. To investigate Rice, the Mohave sheriff’s office paid $1,000, and the company put out a request for $6,500. Miller was shocked at how quickly the donations arrived.

“We were able to fund it in five days,” she said. “There are people out there who felt the same way as we [did], that this woman deserved a name.”

Over the rest of the year, Miller and an Othram genealogist searched through family trees, eventually finding a strong match in Ohio. Miller sent a DNA test to a man they believed to be a distant relative of Rice. The man provided a yearbook photo of Rice — a strong resemblance to the sketch drawn over 50 years ago. The breakthrough finally came on Monday, when the genealogist called Miller and confirmed that the test was a match.

Miller’s investigation continues, she said — Rice’s extended family lost contact with her after she graduated high school, and the sheriff’s office is now searching for leads to reassemble the rest of her life and to find out how she ended up in Arizona by the time of her death, when she was estimated to be in her late 30s.

But at the very least, Colleen Rice now has a name.

“When [the genealogist] called to say that was her, there was a moment of silence between us,” Miller said. “There were no words. After you work for this long, to finally have a name for her, I mean, you just can’t describe the feeling.”