Woman Identified Through Genetic Genealogy After Almost 55 Years
Written by Kristi Mayo   

January 20, 2021—A young woman’s identity was brought to light this week, almost 55 years after she was found drowned in Pecos, Texas motel swimming pool. The case came together through DNA technology, genetic genealogy, community support, and teamwork.

On July 5, 1966, a young couple, assumed to be newlyweds, checked into the Ropers Motel under the names Mr. and Mrs. Russell Battuon. The young couple—a male around 25 years old with blond hair and a slight build, and a female between 17 and 20 years old with long, dark hair and large, dark eyes—had been seen around the pool earlier that day by motel employees. Later in the afternoon, while the male was asleep in the room, a motel maid found the female unresponsive in the motel swimming pool. She was pulled from the water and taken to Reeves Memorial Hospital where she was pronounced dead. Her male companion awoke during the commotion, took everything in the room—including any possible identification of the victims— and checked out of the motel. Police were unable to identify the victim, nor could they locate the man. With no dental records available and no matching fingerprint records at the FBI, the case went cold for 55 years.

In June 2019, Pecos Police Chief Lisa Tarango was contacted by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) about a 1966 Jane Doe case at her department. Being newly appointed, Tarango moved to learn more about the case, but found very little information available other than old newspaper clippings. With a little investigation and luck, she was able to track down a folder that had been stored for decades in the garage of the local funeral home. The folder contained a death certificate with limited information, a couple poor-quality Polaroid photos of the drowning victim, letters from people concerned that the Jane Doe might be their missing child, and a funeral-arrangement packet. It turned out that the concerned citizens of Pecos donated money to make sure their Jane Doe was given a proper burial.

With help from NCMEC, the Polaroid images were used to create a facial reconstruction. They also connected with the University of North Texas Department of Anthropology and—with the help of a judge to obtain the exhumation order, and even crowdfunding to cover the cost of the process—the team was able to have the body exhumed, a skeletal reconstruction was conducted, and a DNA sample was obtained.

Despite delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, by July 2020 a degraded DNA profile had been obtained and uploaded to CODIS. Also around this time, Othram reached out to the police department to offer their DNA analysis services.

“This case is 55 years old,” said Othram CEO Dr. David Mittelman. “The body had been buried and left for decades. In spite of that, we were able to build a really great genetic profile. Just in the last couple of years, there has been tremendous innovation in what can be done with even the most scant quantity of DNA.”

With the new genetic profile in hand, NCMEC connected the police department with investigative genetic genealogy firm Innovative Forensic to try to find the relatives of Jane Doe.

“Once it was submitted to Innovative Forensic, not only was the genealogy work done, but also there was some amazing investigative work that was done,” said Tarango at a press conference on January 19.

The investigative genetic genealogy pointed investigators to a potential relative living in Florida. The woman was active on social media promoting NCMEC cases and sharing information about her own missing relative who had gone missing more than 50 years ago. After being contacted by the team, the Florida woman provided a cheek swab that was sent to Gene by Gene for genetic testing—which ultimately proved that the woman was a relative of the Pecos Jane Doe.

In mid-January, the team traveled to Kansas to meet with the possible family of the Jane Doe. With the information provided by all of the collaborators, they were able to confirm that the unidentified woman who died in 1966 was in fact Jolaine Hemmy of Salina, Kansas. “She was 17 years of age the day she was here in our community in Pecos. And talking to the family last week was like talking to them 50 years ago,” said Tarango, who added Hemmy was one of 15 siblings, nine of which are still surviving. “The emotion was just as raw and just as solid for their missing family member.”

Ryan Backmann, media relations with Innovative Forensic, stressed the critical role of DNA databases, specifically FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch, to which the Jane Doe DNA profile was uploaded in the course of the genetic genealogy research. “This would not be possible without members of the public uploading their genetic profiles to these public databases that are law-enforcement friendly,” said Backmann.

“An investigation like this relies a lot on technology which is ever-changing,” said Luis Vasquez, team coordinator for NCMEC. “But most importantly, in cases like this, what I find is very beneficial and just as important is the teamwork. This is a perfect example of what can be accomplished when people come together and decide to work on something.”

The Pecos Police Department is treating the case as an open and ongoing investigation. They hope to learn more about the man who checked into the hotel with Hemmy more than 54 years ago, and the circumstances surrounding her death.

 
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