DNA test identifies woman found dead in Arizona in 1971 as Colleen Rice


In January 1971, hunters discover a dead woman in the Arizona desert. She lacked identification. A coroner found no signs of blunt trauma or gunshot wounds and ruled her cause of death unknown. But police opened a homicide case based on one piece of evidence – her body had been wrapped in a canvas bag tied with cotton string.

Her file sat in the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office for decades until Detective Lori Miller removed it in the summer of 2020, determined to finally solve the mystery of the county’s oldest unidentified victim.

Miller didn’t have much to work with. An artist had made a sketch of the woman’s likeness in 1971, but no leads had emerged. Fingerprint tests from this period were inconclusive. Miller tried running them in a modern database, to no avail.

“We hit there,” Miller said. “We tackled dental records. And so the last resort was to try to identify him through his DNA.

It wasn’t easy either. Pressed for funding, the sheriff’s office had to pay $7,500 for the genome sequencing service with a public fundraiser organized by the testing company. But with it, finally, came a breakthrough. On Tuesday, the sheriff’s office identified the woman as Colleen Audrey Rice of Portsmouth, Ohio – no longer Mohave’s oldest Jane Doe.

“When you deal with these kinds of cases, you feel for … the victim and their loved ones who might be out there looking for them,” Miller said. “We decided that since she was the oldest (unidentified victim) she somehow deserved the most respect and our best effort in trying to figure out who she was and how she died.”

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Miller, restless after retiring from the Los Angeles Police Department and moving to Arizona, joined the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office when the department assembled a special unit to investigate cold cases in 2019. In 2020, she decided to take over the case that had eluded the county for 50 years.

She soon exhausted all her options, and the quest to identify Rice would have failed again had it not been for the emerging genome sequencing technique — and the generosity of online donors. Miller decided a genealogy test was his last option in May and contacted Othram, a Texas-based forensic lab that creates DNA profiles of individuals to help law enforcement identify them.

Othram’s tests work by creating a “complete” genetic profile using DNA extracted from remains, founder David Mittelman said. The company tries to find matches for this profile in public genealogy profile databases, eventually referring to a family tree and requesting follow-up DNA testing with people from that tree to confirm a match.

“As you build the (family) trees and connect the matches, we will notice that there is probably someone missing or not accounted for in the tree,” Mittelman said. . “And that’s usually a good candidate to be the person whose remains we found but who isn’t identified.”

Who is the “Christmas Tree Lady”? The lab is looking to identify a woman who committed suicide in 1996.

Miller’s only problem? The Mohave County Sheriff’s Office was unable to pay the $7,500 bill for the company’s services. That’s not uncommon, Mittelman said, among agencies that lack funding or whose funds are tightly controlled and earmarked for specific uses. Awareness of genome sequencing grew in 2018 after it was used to identify the Golden State Killer, Mittelman said, but it’s still proven investigative techniques.

“Unfortunately, because it’s a newer method, there isn’t always grant funding left or even available in the first place, especially for smaller agencies, to do the job,” Mittelman said.

Othram instead runs a website to fund investigations proposed by authorities. To investigate Rice, the Mohave Sheriff’s Office paid $1,000 and the company demanded $6,500. Miller was shocked at how quickly the donations arrived.

“We were able to fund it in five days,” she said. “There are people out there who felt the same way we (did), that this woman deserved a name.”

Over the rest of the year, Miller and a genealogist Othram searched through family trees, eventually finding a strong match in Ohio. Miller sent a DNA test to a man they believed to be a distant relative of Rice. The man provided a yearbook photo of Rice – a strong resemblance to the sketch drawn over 50 years ago. The breakthrough finally came on Monday, when the genealogist called Miller and confirmed the test matched.

Miller’s investigation continues, she said – Rice’s extended family lost contact with her after she graduated from high school, and the sheriff’s office is now looking for leads to bring the rest of them together. her life and find out how she ended up in Arizona at the time of her death, when she was estimated to be in her late thirties.

But at the very least, Colleen Rice now has a name.

“When (the genealogist) called to say it was her, there was a moment of silence between us,” Miller said. “There were no words. After working so long, to finally have a name for her, I mean, you just can’t describe the feeling.