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Health science center solves forensic ID mysteries

FORT WORTH -- For Austin County Justice of the Peace Dennis King, the day she was found is still vivid in his mind.

It was June 7, 1975, and King, then a brand-new judge at age 29, scampered down the banks of the Brazos River where the nude woman's body had been caught in fishing lines near Sealy, west of Houston. She had no possessions or markings to identify her.

Thirty-five years later, after officials crossed off many possible matches across Texas and the rest of the nation, the woman's identity is as elusive as ever.

"It is one of the things that have affected me the most dramatically in my lifetime," King said. "My kids have told me she was almost like a member of the family even though we don't know who she is."

But King has a glimmer of hope that the mystery can be solved in Fort Worth.

The Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas Health Science Center has been trying to extract DNA from her bones.

Last year alone, the ID center processed 700 unidentified samples in Fort Worth. It is the Texas clearinghouse for missing-persons cases and one of a half-dozen or so across the country.

"We don't make identifications; we make associations," said Dixie Peters, technical leader of the missing-persons unit.

Since 2003, the ID center has analyzed more than 2,700 samples of human remains that led to 550 identifications nationwide.

To extract DNA, analysts cut into the bones. Many times they find something, even if it isn't enough for a positive identification. They look for both nuclear DNA, where the vast majority of genes are located, and mitochondrial DNA, genetic material inherited from the mother that can provide clues to ancestry.

All results are entered into the Combined DNA Index System at the FBI as well as state DNA databases. The center also encourages relatives of missing people to give DNA samples for the databases. Already, the center has collected 5,000 DNA profiles from relatives of missing people.

"It's really taking off in recent years: More and more family members are coming forward," said B.J. Spamer, program manager of the forensic service unit, who works with law enforcement to obtain samples.

Health science center officials stress that families must work with local law enforcement officials to give samples rather than working directly with the school.

Officials at the ID center won't comment on specific cases, but Austin County officials are waiting for whatever it can provide

"We start on the cases as soon as they come in. It really just depends on the condition of the remains," Spamer said.

The case has had some developments. A UNT odontologist in Denton examined the woman's teeth and estimated her age at 17 to 20, far younger than originally believed. A Texas Rangers artist also made a sketch of the woman this summer after studying her skull.

With all the hopeful signs, investigators still know very little about the woman, Austin County Deputy Sheriff Scott Minyard said.

"The challenge is that you've got a body with no clothing, no jewelry, and the fingerprints were not any good," Minyard said. "You basically got a clean slate. No clues to her identity. Nothing at all."

Officials don't even know whether her death was a drowning or a suicide or from natural causes.

"Absent any other evidence, we have no reason to believe it was foul play," Minyard said.

Depending on what the ID center's forensic experts find out, that could all change.

King, the Austin County justice of the peace, still believes that it was a homicide, primarily because so little water was found in her lungs. If she is ever identified, he predicts that the Sheriff's Department will have a homicide to investigate.

"She was dead before she hit the water," King said. "We just can't prove it."

Knowing that the woman was younger than first believed makes King think there may be an old missing-persons case that has been overlooked.

"Maybe some 18- or 19 year-old was ignored because of the age difference," King said. "Maybe all we need is someone to read about this to find out who she is."

Anyone with information can call the Austin County Sheriff's Department at 979-865-3116 or the Texas Department of Public Safety Missing Persons Clearinghouse, 800-346-3243.

Online: Center for Human Identification, tinyurl.com/unt-id

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

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