COVERT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — When Michigan State Police began submitting DNA from unidentified remains for genealogy testing, the agency was elated by how quickly the process achieved results.
“We knew she was a white female, but we didn’t know who she was,” Lt. Scott Ernstes with Michigan State Police said about the remains found on October 12, 1988, in Van Buren County’s Covert Township.
“Within six weeks, we had her identified. She was from Oklahoma. And with the other 2010 case out of Wayland, same thing. White male, (and) we had it identified very quickly,” Ernstes said.
But that wasn’t the case when it came to three other sets of unidentified remains found over three decades in Covert Township.
“It was quite shocking that (the genealogy testing) was taking so long,” recalled Ernstes.
“That’s where conversations with DNA Doe (Project) came in. They said, ‘this is why. The populations you’re looking for are underrepresented in the system,’” he said.
In the three Covert Township cases for which no DNA family-tree connection emerged, the unidentified remains were those of two men of Hispanic or Latino origin — both victims of homicide — and one man of Asian descent believed to have drowned in Lake Michigan.
In 1979, the remains of one of those men was found in a debris pile, charred beyond recognition.
He was a Hispanic man, early to middle age. He wore a religious medallion with Spanish writing on the back that translated to “our lady of Guadalupe – pray for us.”
Despite police efforts, including a clay reconstruction, the case remains unsolved. In 2018, MSP submitted the details to a national missing persons database, and in 2019, the man’s DNA to a public genealogy database.
But the remains have yet to be identified.
Neither have the remains of the Asian man found in 2010, or the Hispanic man found in 1987 in the woods.
Margaret Press, Co-founder and CEO of DNA Doe Project, told News 8 there are many reasons genealogy databases include fewer DNA samples from people of Latino or Hispanic descent, as well as black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC).
Press, who was careful to note she didn’t want to speak for any group, said her impression is that it’s often a question of “economics and mistrust,” at least in the United States.
“In (America) particularly, it’s partly a matter of economics. Testing costs money. So, people who are economically disadvantaged are not likely to test,” Press said. “Those often impact African Americans and Hispanics more than Caucasian — European — people. So there tends to be a bias in the database because of the economics associated with testing, and, again, distrust. “
Press also noted that DNA-testing itself is predominantly U.S.-based.
“We have the big testing companies, Ancestry, Family Tree DNA and 23andMe, and it’s been marketed to the U.S. It’s only been marketed to a few countries outside,” explained Press.
“There are different countries where, culturally, people just aren’t interested. They feel they’ve got great records. They feel they know who they are,” Press said.
Ernstes hopes more people with diverse origins will begin submitting DNA to public genealogy databases.
He also hopes they will check the box that allows police agencies to access their DNA sample and potentially use it to solve a cold case — giving someone’s family the answers they desperately seek.