Modern tech turns to modern fundraising to solve Fairfax Co. cold case

Cutting-edge DNA analysis is having a dramatic impact helping close cold cases, and helping local police departments solve decades-old mysteries. But it can be expensive — costing police departments several thousands of dollars to analyze each case.

Now, modern tech is merging with modern fundraising to ease some of that burden.

One of the DNA-analysis companies that Fairfax County Police in Virginia have been working with is Texas-based Othram, which is now crowdfunding help to identify a woman who was found dead in Fairfax County nearly 30 years ago.

A drawing from a cold case in Fairfax County. (Courtesy Othram)

Even today, there isn’t a lot that police know about the woman, whose remains were found in 1993 near a cedar tree around what’s now the corner of Sharpsburg Drive and Calvary Place in Centreville. Back then, it was just a wooded area.

Police believe she was about 5-foot-2- to 5-foot-3-inches tall and was about 27 to 34 years old.

“What has us stumped is who she is,” said Major Ed O’Carroll with Fairfax County police. “We’ve identified jewelry she was wearing” and what he called “very unique items.”

While her remains were discovered in 1993, “we do think that they were there for maybe one to as many as six years,” he said.

Some of the items found with the unidentified woman, whose remains were found in 1993 in Fairfax County. (Courtesy Othram)

Police also think the woman was killed somewhere else and moved to the place it was found after the fact.

“We need to get information on this case and turn it into a case closed,” said O’Carroll. “There might be several locations where someone saw something, knew something.”

Hoping to trigger something, Othram is crowdfunding for this case and others around the country, trying to help police departments cover some of the cost and still get the answers they’re looking for.

“We have the ability to budget and define the cost of a case,” said Andrew Singer, the chief commercial officer with Othram. “The entirety of the case, from start to finish, is going to be $7,500.”

That’s typically what it costs to come up with the answers to each case they’re looking at.

“The good thing about this type of case is we’ve already begun the testing on it so we’re to the point where we know we’re going to be able to generate DNA to search against these databases,” said Singer. “The hope is that we’ll be able to apply this and provide answers fairly quickly for a relatively low cost,” he said.

The solving of other high-profile cases around the country has raised enough awareness that it’s ended up helping renew interest in cases that have gone cold.

“There is the idea to seek local support and local interest to help advance these through the technology” now, said Singer. So by crowdfunding, “I think it gives them a chance to be part of the solution.”

The DNA analysis itself will take about 12 weeks to complete. Then, in this and most other cases, he said the biggest uncertainty is using the result to find genealogical matches.

While more and more people have entered their family’s DNA into various databases, genealogists sometimes have to search through generations of families, and their various branches of a family tree, to narrow down who the potential DNA sample belongs to.

But Fairfax County detectives and Othram, are convinced this will provider answers that have eluded detectives since 1993.

“The return on that investment is significant,” argued Singer. “We’re providing answers that investigators and communities haven’t had for, in many cases, 10 to 15 or longer years.”

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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