Grundy County Cold Case Remains Identified After 47 Years

Grundy County Cold Case Remains Identified After 47 Years

After more than 47 years, the remains of a young black woman found near Seneca, Illinois, have been identified as those of JoAnn “Vickie” Smith of Ohio by a dedicated team of volunteer genetic genealogist investigators with the DNA Doe Project.

Investigators on the scene in 1976 quickly ran out of leads to determine the identity of Jane Doe found in a ditch along U.S. Highway 6. They knew she had been shot in the head, and knowing her name was an important first step in solving her murder. After a two-month search, she was buried in an unmarked grave, but her case was far from closed.

In late 2017, the Grundy County Coroner's Office reopened the cold case, hoping to use modern DNA and forensics. On December 18, 2018, Jane Doe was then exhumed from her unmarked resting place of forty-two years. With the help of NamUs, the remains were sent to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification in Fort Worth, Texas. The DNA was then processed and entered into CODIS, a national DNA database, which returned negative results.

Brandon Johnson, chief deputy of the Grundy County Coroner’s Office, partnered with the DNA Doe Project to test a new technique to find her identity. The DNA Doe Project deploys teams of expert volunteer genetic genealogists who analyze matches in the unknown person’s DNA to build a family tree. It would take four and a half years of hard work to narrow down the search to the correct branch of Vickie Smith’s family tree and find her name.

“At one point, everyone was working on this case,” said Margaret Press, who founded the DNA Doe Project in 2017. “It was at the top of my list of cases that I wanted to see identified.”

In fact, the list of volunteers who worked on this case reads like a Who's Who of DNA Doe Project leadership, including more than 20 expert genetic genealogists and the entire original cohort of volunteers. Their work solves one of the DNA Doe Project's oldest and most intractable active cases.

African American Jane and John Does are often much harder to identify than people of Northern European descent, because African Americans are underrepresented in public databases that authorize police cases like this. This case was further complicated by the fact that Vickie was adopted. Her DNA profile matched that of a number of her distant biological relatives, but most of her biological family members did not know she existed. His name was finally found after the team located a branch of his tree with three sisters, one of whom was his biological mother. With the help of Cincinnati Health Department vital records, Johnson found his original birth certificate. After extensive research, Johnson sought assistance from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and subsequently the adoption records were located by the Hamilton County Probate Court based on the guidance provided by the DNA Doe Project team.

“The team really thought she would be identified last summer, once her grandparents were identified,” said Eric Hendershott, team leader on the case. “However, it was only after contacting his biological family that adoption was suspected. »

In addition to the DNA testing done on the case, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) also lent its support to the case, providing resources, facial reconstruction, and publicity in hopes of getting the victim recognized. NCMEC helped keep her face and story in the public eye, contributing to numerous news articles over the years.

“Many people have worked to keep this young woman’s story alive for 47 years so she can get her name back and give her family answers about her disappearance,” said Pam Lauritzen, executive director of media and communications for the DNA Doe Project. “It’s an honor for all of us to say her name – Vickie Smith – and know that she is coming home.”

The DNA Doe Project is grateful to the groups and individuals who helped solve this case: Brandon Johnson of the Grundy County Coroner’s Office, who referred the case to the DNA Doe Project; DNA Solutions for DNA extraction; HudsonAlpha Discovery for sequencing; Greg Magoon for bioinformatics; GEDmatch Pro and FTDNA for providing their databases; the team at NCMEC for bringing so much attention to the case; our generous donors who joined our mission and contributed to this case; and the dedicated teams of volunteer investigative genetic genealogists at DDP who work tirelessly to bring all of our Jane and John Does home.

Joint press release from the DNA Doe Project and the Grundy County Coroner

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