• 9 Investigates: New technology could bring closure to cold cases

    By: Karla Ray , Jason Kelly

    Updated:

    LAKE COUNTY, Fla. - Cold case investigators in Lake County are about to get a new lead on a 30-year-old case, thanks to science.

    9 Investigates' Karla Ray traveled to Tampa to visit a lab where anthropologists are trying to help solve dozens of Florida cold cases.

    They're using information from bones to narrow down where John and Jane Does once lived.

    The basis of the analysis is simple -- you are what you eat.

    Information stored in bones, teeth and hair can show scientists where a person grew up and where they lived in the months before their death.

    Along the south side of County Road 474 sits the scene of a 30-year-old mystery.

    "It's a little surreal," Lake County Sgt. Tamara Dale said. "No ID, no purse, no jewelry; why would anyone be out here just walking in those conditions?"

    Dale keeps a case file on her desk of the person discovered dead there in 1988.

    The victim was nicknamed "Julie Doe" after testing proved the woman found here was actually born male and was likely transitioning when she died.

    "I think that she needs a break, basically," Dale said. "I don't envision her having an easy life."

    That break could come from a basement lab more than 60 miles away.

    "I think it's important to throw anything science has to offer at a case like this," said Kelsee Hentschel-Fey, lab manager for Forensic Anthropology Lab.

    University of South Florida forensic researchers have contracted with medical examiner's offices across the state to work about 100 cold cases in the last seven years.

    They use old bones to create facial imaging, and in the case of "Julie Doe," they also performed an isotope analysis.

    "It's essentially you are what you eat," Hentschel-Fey said. "So things you're ingesting throughout your lifetime -- your food, the water -- all of that gets incorporated into the tissues in your body."

    Samples from bones, teeth and hair can tell scientists approximately where a person grew up and where they lived in the months before death based on the amount of strontium, lead, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen found.

    Certain ratios indicate a person lived in a certain climate or geographic region.

    "Isotopes aren't going to identify a person," Hentschel-Fey said. "What they're going to do is be an investigative tool."

    In this case, the results will allow investigators to focus on one region to compare missing persons cases and try to find relatives.

    "Our haystack would get a lot smaller for us to look for our needle," Dale said.

    It could also possibly lead to a larger investigation into the circumstances of the death of "Julie Doe" whose body was discovered near a ditch.

    "Time is kind of a Catch 22 for cold cases," Dale said. "Things we can do today, like, the isotope analysis -- there is no way we could have done that 30 years ago when Julie passed away."

    Investigators expect to receive the results of the analysis soon. They will then work with law enforcement agencies in the region that is identified to look for missing persons cases matching the person's description.

    Deputies will also share the story with news media to try to drum up leads.

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