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Bones Kept in Trash Bags Are Finally Identified

The 'New York Times' looks at how forensic genealogy is being used in a widespread way
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted May 9, 2021 4:20 PM CDT

(Newser) – The Golden State Killer's case brought national attention to forensic genealogy as a way to identify long-unknown killers—but the same techniques can put names to long-anonymous victims as well. And as the New York Times reports, that's increasingly being done by smaller jurisdictions. As Virginia Hughes writes, rural Newton County, Indiana, is home to just 14,000 people—and three lingering cold cases that dated to the '80s. Two males killed in 1983 were known but unidentified victims of Larry Eyler, the "Highway Killer"; the woman was found burned with a bullet to her head in 1988. "Their bones, stored in tattered cardboard boxes and black trash bags, had been passed down from one county coroner to the next," writes Hughes. Then came Scott McCord, who became coroner in 2009.

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He named the remains Adam, Brad, and Charlene; ordered DNA and other tests; and then held a burial. Fast-forward 10 years, and McCord was alerted to genetic genealogy by Rebecca Goddard, the county's chief deputy prosecutor, who had learned of it via a podcast. "I understood very little," says Goddard. "I just sort of understood the concept of using ancestry to create a family tree." McCord quickly learned he didn't take to the painstaking detective work, but Goddard did. Hughes tracks her progress through Charlene's case, which took about 8 months to crack. The woman was Jenifer Noreen Denton, who was a 24-year-old mother of one when she went missing in 1988. Encouraged by their success, McCord pushed forward on getting Brad's DNA sequenced. He turned out to be John Ingram Brandenburg Jr., who vanished at 19. (Read the whole story for more, including how Brandenburg's mom took the news.)

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