‘We are throwing everything at it’: Genetic genealogy may help ID girl found off Oregon highway – OregonLive

DNA

Oregon State Police are awaiting the results of detailed – and promising — forensic testing that they hope will help break the case of the young girl whose remains were found last month along a riverbank off Oregon 18.

The suite of tests will provide details about the girl’s eye and skin color, her ethnicity and the geographic origin of ancestry, said Dr. Nici Vance, the state’s forensic anthropologist.

Little is known about the child, whose remains were discovered Dec. 10 near the rest area along the H.B. Van Duzer Forest State Scenic Corridor in Lincoln County. A person who had stopped by the rest area came across her remains along the muddy banks of the Salmon River.

Vance said forensic scientists and investigators feel a sense of urgency to identify the girl.

“It’s hard to verbalize how weighty that is to us,” she said.

“We are throwing everything at it.”

The analysis could take between three and five months, Vance said.

The sketch was released by the Oregon State Police and shows what the child might have looked like.

Analysts will use the DNA data they collect from the remains to carry out a genetic genealogy investigation that will mine open-source databases for potential links to the girl. Researchers will use death and marriage records, data from family trees and home-based DNA tests that people upload into a public site.

The same approach has so far helped identify seven cases of unidentified remains in Oregon, including those last year of Anne Marie Lehman, a teen found in 1971 in the Josephine County woods.

For more than a decade, state police have relied on the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas to help identify missing persons and unidentified remains like the Van Duzer case.

Last month, Oregon authorities learned the center is limiting its out-of-state work, leaving Vance’s team without a key resource the state has used to help solve an estimated 50 cases.

For now, Vance said Oregon is relying on a $400,000 federal grant to cover the costs of detailed DNA and genealogy analysis by private labs.

She estimates that the Van Duzer testing will cost about $5,000 to $7,000.

Those federal dollars dry up next year, she said.

After that, Vance isn’t sure how the state will work these difficult cases.

“It really is a very disturbing situation,” said Vance, who coordinates the Human Identification Program in the Oregon State Police Forensic Science and Pathology Bureau.

“We are going from really a cohesive, comprehensive laboratory system in which we sent all of our samples down and was really kind of a one-stop shop,” she said, “to having virtually no access to any of those services for our unidentified cases and our missing persons cases.”

GIRL’S AGE PRESENTS CHALLENGES FOR ID

In the Van Duzer case, investigators face significant hurdles, Vance said.

The girl – estimated to be between 6 ½ and 10 years old — probably hadn’t been fingerprinted, may not have seen a dentist or broken any bones.

“The fact that she wasn’t on this Earth long enough to have a driver’s license or have her fingerprints taken or have maybe even a school picture – that does definitely pose a challenge,” Vance said.

The child was about 3-foot-10 to 4-foot-6-inches tall and had long dark brown or black hair, police said.

The condition of her remains suggests she had been dead for at least 30 days when she was discovered.

State police have not released the cause or manner of death.

SOME MISSING GIRLS ALREADY EXCLUDED AS POSSIBLE MATCHES

Six state police detectives and a sergeant are working full time on the case, which has generated more than 150 tips.

This week, the agency took the step of releasing the names of girls it had eliminated as potential matches “to refocus the public’s attention and reduce duplicative tips.”

Investigators have excluded: Dulce Alavez, 6, of Bridgeton, New Jersey, Niayah Bylenga, also known as Niayah Crawford, 7, of Pendleton or Ritzville, Washington, Tarie Price, 8, of Gretna, Nebraska, and Breasia Terrell, 10, of Davenport, Iowa.

They’ve also ruled out sisters Addyson Gibson, 12, and Noelle Johnson, 7, both of Portland, as possible matches. The girls went missing from Portland on Sept. 28 and are thought to be with their mother Kashia Vann and Noelle’s father Gary Johnson.

Dental records helped eliminate potential matches, Vance said.

She said each day investigators obtain dental records from cases of missing girls nationally and compare them with the Van Duzer girl’s teeth, which have been X-rayed by a forensic dentist.

“You can imagine how seeing a case like this come into our lab, it tends to affect you,” Vance said. “I think we are all very committed to trying to figure out who this little girl is and ultimately what happened to her.”

— Noelle Crombie; ncrombie@oregonian.com; 503-276-7184; @noellecrombie