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WKYT Investigates | Volunteer forensic genealogists try to crack Kentucky cold case

DRY RIDGE, Ky. (WKYT) – Investigators hope they are getting closer to cracking a Kentucky cold case, after three decades the murder has gone unsolved, with the help of a team of volunteer forensic genetic genealogists.

On April 9, 1989, a man’s body was found inside a Grant County tobacco barn; he was stripped of clothing, had been shot twice in the back of the head with a .22-caliber weapon, and his hands were severed from his arms, according to Kentucky State Police. But the victim has never been identified.

Even 30 years later, he is still “John Doe.”

“You think about moms, dads, brothers and sisters – perhaps even children who are no longer children, they’re adults,” said Det. Sgt. Charles Haselwood of KSP Post 6. “And they want closure.”

That is why investigators are working with the DNA Doe Project, a network of volunteers across the country who use genetic genealogy to identify Jane and John Does.

The non-profit has made more than 60 identifications since it was founded in 2017, a spokesperson said.

“That person deserves to have their name returned to them, and the family deserves to have some resolution,” said Franchesca Werden of California, media director for the DNA Doe Project. “So it’s important for us to return the names to the nameless, because it’s really a humanitarian mission.”

The organization has 70 cases currently in its pipeline. They also recently helped solve a 2001 cold case in Bowling Green, identifying the victim as a woman from Nashville.

The volunteers’ work begins after DNA goes through lab processes like extraction, genome sequencing and bioinformatics.

Volunteer forensic genealogists then upload the data, sorting through troves of information online to look for matches.

“You never know what you can find out there on the internet. And that’s what we do,” said Missy Koski of Texas, the volunteer team leader for the DNA Doe Project crew working on the Grant County case. “We look at all kinds of different databases, trying to find if someone has uploaded their genealogy, if someone has been on any of the public sites uploading their family tree to see if we can find something that can help us.”

The advent and growth of online family trees and DNA results has allowed them to make connections and solve cases they would not have been able to before. They often comb through databases of public profiles and family trees on sites like FamilyTreeDNA and GEDMatch.

Think of it like a puzzle. Before, experts say they could only see a match if it fit exactly – DNA of the same person, maybe a parent or sibling. That could be hard to do if the piece they needed was not already there.

But now, the growth of that new technology can help them focus in on a specific area even if there is not a perfect match, getting them much closer to being able to put the pieces together.

“He’s a human being. He’s someone’s family member. He’s someone’s child. He could be someone’s parent, sibling – we don’t know,” Koski said. “But he’s a person who deserves his truth to be found, and just deserves his name back.”

So far in this case, the team does not have many close matches. But they have determined that the man likely had roots in Eastern Europe and may also have ancestry from the Middle East and England.

DNA matches right now are at the distant cousin level. Volunteer genealogists say closer matches can come with more time, as more people are DNA tested and build public family trees online.

State Police hope that being able to identify the victim can not only help provide some sense of resolution to any friends and family left behind, but that it can also be the start toward answering their other questions: Who did it? Why?

“Ultimately there are loved ones out there who want justice,” Det. Sgt. Haselwood said. “And they’ve been looking for answers for years, and they deserve it.”

In 2016, KSP released a digitally-enhanced photo, using technology from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, of what the victim is thought to have looked like.

A digitally-enhanced photo of what the Grant County "John Doe" may have looked like.
A digitally-enhanced photo of what the Grant County “John Doe” may have looked like.(Kentucky State Police)

He is believed to have been a white man, 25-35 years old, 6′5″ tall and weighing about 220 pounds. His hair was medium brown, worn in a crew cut with short sideburns, police said.

Anyone with information about the case is asked to contact KSP Post 6 Dry Ridge at 859-428-1212 or to call anonymously at 1-800-222-5555.

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Get the WKYT News app on ROKU, Apple TV and Amazon Fire.(WKYT)

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