She's called "Snohomish County's precious Jane Doe" by one of the Washington state detectives on the case, and the how and the whodunit of her death have long been established. David Roth spent nearly three decades in prison for killing the young woman, a hitchhiker he picked up on Aug. 9, 1977, shared some beers with, and then strangled and shot when she wouldn't have sex with him. But 40 years later, the authorities aren't much closer to knowing who Jane Doe is: Roth said he didn't know her name; she hasn't matched any missing-persons reports; her hands were removed and sent to the FBI in a failed bid to ID her via fingerprints; and DNA taken from her exhumed body in 2007 has been similarly fruitless. Now, as the Atlantic reports, there may be one other avenue: genealogy websites like like Ancestry.com.
Ciara O'Rourke describes the Snohomish County sheriff’s office as "cautiously optimistic" that someone submitted their DNA to one of these sites in order to map their family tree and unintentionally left "a genetic crumb trail that leads to Jane Doe’s identity." That's not to say there aren't challenges. Ancestry.com et al aren't exactly playing ball, understandably: Users aren't likely considering the potential for thrusting their family into the middle of a police investigation when trying to learn about their ancestors. But with the help of a forensic genealogist who uses a proprietary method to compare DNA and data from public genealogy sites, the Snohomish County sheriff’s office is hoping for an answer all the same. They're first trying to sequence Jane Doe's full genome, an effort that is underway now, though there are concerns the condition of the bones and grave may prove problematic. Read the full article, which ends with a twist about Roth, here. (Read more Longform stories.)