Cold Case in Lincoln: Forensic lab gives new hope for identifying woman

Othram, Inc tries to find clues when other techniques have failed
Updated: Dec. 2, 2020 at 11:33 AM CST
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LINCOLN, Ala. (WBRC) – Less than five miles from Talladega Superspeedway, and behind an abandoned house at the corner of State Route 77 and Allred Road is where this mystery begins.

A law enforcement officer was patrolling the area and saw the familiar abandoned house with the door wide open. In the backyard, the officer found the remains of woman. She was wearing a navy sweatshirt, blue sweatpants and slippers. She had no identification, no belongings and no reason to be in this backyard.

The remains of an unidentified woman were found in this backyard in May 2012.
The remains of an unidentified woman were found in this backyard in May 2012.(Credit: Lincoln Police Dept.)

Her remains were found two days before the 2012 Aaron’s 499 NASCAR race, and now eight years later, officers still don’t know who she is.

“It could literally be anybody,” said Captain Zack Tutten with Lincoln Police Department.

Tutten doesn’t know how long the woman was in the backyard before an officer found her, but says by the time she was discovered, her body was so badly decomposed that identification through fingerprinting wasn’t an option.

Dental records only led to more questions after a forensic odonatologist found the word “Powders” engraved on her dentures.

“Which could be a last name, it could be the manufacturer of the dentures, we don’t know,” said Tutten.

Her autopsy revealed a few clues. Her cause of death was lung cancer, and she had a scar from a prior brain surgery.

She was five-feet-six-inches tall and estimated to be between 45 and 65 years old. The coroner was unable to determine the color of her eyes, but said her hair was sandy brown and graying.

“Pretty much every lead you could think of that we ran down was a no-go, we had nothing at the end of it so it was just sitting here, a cold case.”

Then, this summer, someone reached out to a lab in Texas after reading about the mysterious case on NamUS, a “national information clearinghouse and resource center” for missing, unidentified and unclaimed person cases.

“Someone sent us the link,” said Michael Vogen, Director of Case Management, Othram, Inc. “I think they’re from the area and said ‘Hey, this is one I felt wasn’t necessarily getting attention because there’s not a wild story to it necessarily.’”

Othram is a private DNA laboratory built specifically to solve cases like this one.

“Othram is the first and only lab in the U.S. that was built from the ground up to work in a forensic laboratory setting, specifically with forensic evidence. What that means is Othram is able to basically access information from DNA evidence that is unsuitable for evidence at other labs or traditional labs that have worked in this space.”

Vogen added, “We have the technology out there now where there shouldn’t be anyone out there without a name, there shouldn’t be any gravestones that say ‘Unknown’ or ‘Jane Doe’ or ‘John Doe.’ We should be working to clear all those up.”

Lincoln Police tried to identify the woman through DNA using the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which is the FBI’s criminal justice DNA database.

“That basically is just criminals, so unless you’ve committed a crime and been entered into that system, or been the victim of a crime and been entered into that system, then there isn’t going to be a record of your blood,” said Tutten. “It’s very limited in that capacity.”

Othram is able to cast a wider net.

“CODIS looks at about 20 markers of DNA when they’re doing it, looking at DNA. We are looking at tens-of-thousands to hundreds-of-thousands of markers of DNA, so we are able to pull a lot more data and useful information that can then be used to build out family trees and help locate folks related to a DNA source found at a crime scene or unidentified scene,” explained Vogen.

Once it creates a “very clean DNA profile,” Vogen said scientists try to find a match through its volunteer-built DNA database, DNASolves. It also has access to commercial DNA databases through its partnership with law enforcement agencies.

“We are going to try to help locate a individual by generating an ID or the closest family member,” said Vogen.

He added, “It gives hope to a lot of these cases that were previously thought to be unsolvable.”

Tutten added, “We are really hopeful this will give us a new path to follow, or some new leads or opportunities that come from it.”

Othram will start its analysis on the DNA in the Lincoln case once it raises enough money to cover the costs for testing.

If you’re interested in donating money or your DNA to assist in this investigation, click here.

Since the lab opened in 2018, Othram has helped solve dozens of cases, including one dating back to the 1880s.

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