True Crime Arizona travels to Texas for the most high-tech DNA lab in the world

The most advanced DNA lab in the world is outside of Houston and True Crime Arizona got exclusive access to how they solve cold cases.
Published: Aug. 30, 2023 at 9:33 PM MST
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HOUSTON (3TV/CBS 5) — Normally, True Crime Arizona takes you behind the scenes of a true crime case, but the team went wheels up to the south for a different kind of behind the scenes. We traded in the desert for the Lone Star State because, in Texas, you’ll find the most powerful DNA lab in the world, solving the biggest cold cases in the nation, and we got unparalleled access inside for the first time.

“This isn’t like building a company or making an incremental change to something. This is like reinventing an entire field,” said Dr. Kristen Mittelman, Othram’s chief business development officer. “Is anybody else in the world doing what Othram is doing?” asked Arizona True Crime reporter Briana Whitney. “Not that I know of. Not to this extent,” said Mittelman. “I think we’re actually going to see cold cases converge to extinction.”

Kristen and her husband have a medical background and realized they could use their knowledge and expertise for forensic-grade genome sequencing and that’s what changed everything when it came to DNA identification. Just outside Houston in The Woodlands, you’ll find their lab, now sought after by law enforcement agencies across the world. “We’ve gone from people giving us the most impossible case to work because this sounded like crazy science a few years ago, to people actually giving us their entire backlog of cases,” said Mittelman.

How the lab works

Othram’s work is now in headline after headline, but we wanted to go inside the lab to learn how this works. “It starts here with DNA extraction. As they move down, they cannot come back. They have to go home and shower for the day,” Mittelman showed us.

Step 2 is in the feasibility room. “You can see they’re coming out of the DNA assessment room. They have more evidence in there right now,” Mittelman said. “We assess the properties of that DNA from that crime scene, and we decide on whether or not we’re certain that we can actually build a DNA profile.” If not, they’ll put it on a hold shelf and work to advance their own technology before trying it.

Step 3, which is one of the coolest parts, takes place in the bone room. New evidence had just arrived that morning. The lab tech pulled out a femur right in front of us. “You can see there’s a chunk of that bone missing, which means it probably was tested somewhere else and it probably didn’t work,” said Mittelman. They take pictures of everything. “These are all in case this goes to court, so she’s documenting the whole process, Mittelman explained, as we watched the lab tech take pictures of the femur.

Step 4 goes to the library prep room. “Now we’re going to get the best pictures we can from that DNA that came from that crime scene,” said Mittelman. DNA is transferred across the lab through a tiny door. “People don’t move because once they move, it’s unidirectional. They’ll have to go home and shower and come back,” said Mittelman,

The last step of the forensic side is the DNA sequencer. “That is one of the most powerful sequencers on earth,” Mittelman showed us. “It’s taken the most powerful genomics techniques and applied them to forensics for the very, very first time.”

It was lit up green and blue. “The blue is it’s running. There’s a cycle going right now. It’s sequencing, and the green is it’s pending the sequence,” she said. “It starts with building a DNA profile that has enough information in it for you to be able to get these relationships.”

Genealogy’s role to play

That’s where the next phase comes into play with Carla Davis, their chief genetic genealogist. “I got into genealogy, well, genetic genealogy, in 2016 when I was searching for my biological father,” said Davis. She took a DNA test and found a third cousin match. “I grew up not knowing my father, so I needed to learn his identity,” said Davis. “DNA is what brought him to life. Unfortunately, he’s deceased, but that’s what gave me the answers. After I identified my biological father, I was hooked.”

Now, Davis is the key to the next part of solving these cold cases after the DNA is sequenced. “Once it’s uploaded, then it comes to my department and that’s when the genealogists begin work on a case,” she said. “We use DNA to discover ancestors of the person we’re trying to identify.”

They use three ancestry databases: GEDmatch, Family Tree, and their own, DNA Solves. Davis showed us the visual process of trying to find a familial match. “Mapping out the matches and finding the common ancestors they share,” Davis showed us on the whiteboard. Sometimes, a distant match, even a sixth cousin, has cracked a case. “That was the one key match to pull the case together,” said Davis. “So, it can be that crazy?” asked Whitney. “It can be that crazy,” said Davis.

Davis then gives the match to the law enforcement agency investigating the case as a lead. And it’s up to them to confirm the identity Davis and her team have found of either a victim, or a suspect.

High stakes success

Othram has one shot to get this all right. “The DNA that’s on here is put on a slide. It’s fixed on a slide. It’s just liquid, and then that’s consumed. That’s why this test is a destructive process,” said Mittelman.

All the work is documented and tracked from beginning to end. “Does that make it much more likely to be admissible because you can show that chain of custody?” asked Whitney. “That’s exactly right,” said Mittelman.

In 2019, Othram made five identifications in total. Now in 2023, they’ve made more than 1,200 identifications, sometimes five a day. “There are perpetrators out there who have been arrested or are on trial right now that are not able to harm their next victim,” said Mittelman.

All of the sudden, what they do behind the scenes is launched into the public spotlight, and the emotional journey begins. “That’s the purpose. Can you give someone their name back? Can you piece them back to their story to what happened to them and give their families the answers they need to move on?” said Mittelman.

Cracking high-profile cases

Seeing the lab itself is astounding. But it’s what happens after the lab work is done at Othram that brings purpose to Mittelman. “These are stories that aren’t fictional. They’re real,” she said. In a matter of several years, they’ve gone from being a subject of skepticism to now working the most notable cases, like the Gilgo Beach murders and suspect Rex Heuermann. “We helped with the Long Island serial killer. That’s big buzz right now as the trial goes on,” said Mittelman. “A few years ago, when Othram started, this technology would have never have been used for these types of cases, especially these contemporary investigations.”

But Othram proved their technology worked, solving some of the most gripping cold cases in the United States, like Arizona’s “Little Miss Nobody.” “Little Miss Nobody is a case where the extreme heat affected the DNA in those bones,” said Mittelman.

A little girl was buried in a shallow grave in the desert in 1960, with remains nobody could build a DNA profile from until Othram did, identifying her in 2022 as 4-year-old Sharon Lee Gallegos from New Mexico, who was kidnapped from her front yard. “Little Miss Nobody had no hope of getting her case solved as Little Miss Nobody. And no one should ever be Little Miss Nobody, or these Jane Doe or John Doe names that are out there,” said Mittelman.

Uncovering deception

And it’s these cases, and these kinds of victims, where Othram has not only uncovered answers but details so sinister that have been schemed and hidden for decades. “I think she was known as Beth Doe. We identified her as Evelyn Colon. She was a young girl, pregnant, chopped into pieces, and thrown in the bottom of a lake in suitcases,” said Mittelman. “And law enforcement said, ‘Well she’s not even missing.’ So, they contacted her family and they said, ‘Are you missing someone?’ And they said no. And they said, ‘Well, can you account for Evelyn?’ And they said yeah, she sends us letters, she just had a baby, she is living in the state. And they were like, ‘Have you seen her?’ And the answer was no. The perpetrator was sending letters home. And the perpetrator was actually a taxicab driver and now he’s in court for this crime,” said Mittelman.

That wasn’t the only case of deception that Othram’s work brought to light. “We worked the Opelika Jane Doe case out of Alabama. The skeleton was between 3 and 6 years old and she was found. She was brutally bruised, and bones were broken at different times, over 15 fractures. She was under a riverbed, so the DNA was horrible. She was malnourished. She had no teeth,” said Mittelman.

Incredibly, they were able to build a DNA profile and identified her remains as Amore Wiggins. “First, it led to the father who said, ‘Oh no, I don’t have a child. I don’t know anything about this,’” said Mittelman.

So, they used genealogy to find Wiggins’ mother. “She had lost custody of her daughter. She was 19. He was much older, Navy, married. This was a child out of wedlock. The court thought the child was safer with him,” Mittelman said. “She was still paying child support to the father because she thought her child was still alive.”

A police investigation found the unthinkable about the man who claimed he didn’t have a daughter. “He brutally beat that child and killed her and continued to collect child support for 11 years after that,” Mittelman said. The father ended up confessing to murder. “As a mother, that case got to me in a way that I can’t describe,” Mittelman said.

Memorable case for Mittleman

There’s one case in particular that stays front of mind for Mittelman, a case that seemed unsolvable in Texas with an unexpected link across the country. “Sherry Ann Jarvis. She was the Walker County Jane Doe. People knew her because this was one of the most horrific crimes of a child,” Mittelman said. “Her body was found on Halloween day, but she was mutilated so much that she was unrecognizable. She was found dumped on the side of a Texas highway,” she added. “There were no remains left by the time that we got involved in this case.”

All they had was a small slide left from the autopsy that had a tiny amount of human tissue on it, treated with chemicals. “That’s all that was left. Formaldehyde is a chemical that treats DNA by cross linking it. No one in the world had been able to sequence after it had been treated by that,” said Mittelman. “That’s something we put on pause. We worked diligently for almost a year on the research side of the lab with mock case work, mock DNA, to try to be able to work with that kind of input until we could. Then we moved it over to the forensics side of the lab and were able to give Sherry her name back.” Now, the investigators are working diligently to identify her perpetrator. Sherry’s family was from Michigan. They had been looking for her forever all these years. And there was no link between Texas and Sherry in Michigan. “Without this technology, her family could continue to not have had answers.”

Othram expands

Now Othram has gone worldwide, making identifications in Canada, Australia, the UK, and other places in Europe. Not only are victims getting their names back, but suspects are getting caught faster than ever. “We have a crime out of South Carolina. When we identified him, it linked to 12 other crimes. We have one in Maine that linked to six other crimes,” said Mittelman.

It begs the question, is this the end of serial killers for good? “We can’t stop someone from being a perpetrator, we all know that. But if they could get caught the first time, we would all live in a much better world, and I think it’s coming,” said Mittelman.

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