Forty-three years after berry pickers found the body of a young woman along a rural road in an unincorporated area of South Everett, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office identified the remains of a 17-year-old girl who ran away from her Oregon home in summer 1977.
A revolutionary technique to extract bits of DNA from shafts of hair coupled with genetic genealogy and decades-old adoption records led to her finally being identified June 16, according to a Thursday news release from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
Born Elizabeth Ann Elder in 1959 in Hood River, Oregon, she was renamed Elizabeth Ann Roberts when she was adopted around the age of 2 but went by the name of Lisa, the release says. She grew up in Roseburg and her father reported her to police as a runaway on July 25, 1977.
She called home from Everett a couple of weeks later and her parents begged her to come home and she said she’d think about it, the release says. Roberts’ parents sent her money to Seafirst Bank in Everett but she never picked it up.
Roberts was strangled with a bungee cord and shot in the head and face seven times with a rifle, rendering her unrecognizable, according to the release and news accounts of the case. She was killed Aug. 9, 1977, and her body was found five days later in the 11300 block of 4th Avenue West.
Roberts’ killer, David Roth, confessed to killing a hitch-hiker he picked up on Bothell-Everett Highway, strangling her in the front seat of his 1963 Chevy Nova, then dragging her from the vehicle and emptying his rifle clip into her head after she refused his sexual advances; Roth spent 25 years in prison before his release in May 2005, The Herald of Everett reported. According to the newspaper, Roth allowed detectives to question him after his release, hoping he’d remember something to help them identify her, before he died of cancer on Aug. 9, 2015, the 38th anniversary of Roberts’ killing.
Detective Jim Scharf, who has worked the cold case since 2008, called the girl “Precious Jane Doe” before her real name was known.
“This young girl was precious to me because her moral decision from her proper upbringing cost her her life,” Scharf was quoted as saying in the news release. “I knew she had to be precious to her family too, so I had to find them. We needed to give her name back to her and return her remains to her family.”
Identifying Roberts is the second case Scharf has successfully solved using genetic genealogy, using DNA to build a person’s family tree and identify a suspect or crime victim. The practice isn’t without controversy, with some scientists and ethicists expressing concerns about law enforcement identifying suspects through the DNA of relatives.
It’s the same technique that led to the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, the alleged serial rapist and killer known as the Golden State Killer in California, in April 2018.
A month later, William Talbot II was arrested and charged in Snohomish County Superior Court with the 1987 killings of Tanya Van Cuylenborg, 18, and her boyfriend, 20-year-old Jay Cook. Talbot was the first person to be convicted based on genetic genealogy and was sentenced to two life sentences, Scharf said in a phone interview.
“Genetic genealogy is speeding up our solvability rate. Any case now where you have good DNA evidence, you have the potential to solve it with genetic genealogy, where you couldn’t solve it before,” Scharf said.
Buried in an unmarked grave at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Everett, Roberts’ remains were exhumed after the case was assigned to Scharf and were examined by Dr. Kathy Taylor, the state forensic anthropologist who works in the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, according to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
It was initially thought the victim was a 25- to 35-year-old woman, but Taylor determined she was much younger, likely 16 to 19 years old.
In 2017, Scharf contacted Barbara Rae-Venter in Northern California and asked her to work on the case. Rae-Venter is the director of investigative genetic genealogy at Gene by Gene, a DNA-testing company headquartered in Texas, and a member of an informal group of volunteer investigators called Firebird Forensics Group.
Rae-Venter said Thursday there wasn’t any useful DNA in early samples from Roberts’ remains.
She turned to Richard “Ed” Green, an assistant professor of biomolecular engineering at the University of California Santa Cruz.
The duo helped New Hampshire authorities identify a woman and three girls found in barrels in a state park in a case that’s come to be known as the
“Dr. Green works on really old samples — dinosaurs and bison and all kinds of exotic stuff,” Rae-Venter said by phone.
(A phone message left for Green wasn’t returned Thursday and Rae-Venter said he is currently on sabbatical.)
In an odd twist, Scharf said Thursday that Roberts’ scalp wasn’t buried with her body for some reason, and so sat in the sheriff’s evidence room for decades, providing old but pristine hair samples for testing.
It’s long been believed DNA couldn’t be extracted from hair without a root. But when a hair shaft is growing, the cells go into apopotisis, a programmed cell death, Rae-Venter explained.
During that process, nuclear DNA from the cells’ nucleus “gets chopped up in little pieces,” 45-base pairs long, Rae-Venter said. Available technology only works with a minimum 200 base pairs, which are the building blocks of DNA, she said.
The Human Genome Project, formed by an international team of researchers who worked from 1990 to 2003 to map all human genes, used “shotgun sequencing,” taking intact DNA, breaking it down and then putting it back together, said Rae-Venter.
What Green has figured out to do is like a version of that, in reverse, she said.
“This was really totally revolutionary,” she said of his work, aligning genetic markers to spots where they should be on the human genome and generating a unique DNA profile.
From there, Rae-Venter set to work on building Roberts’ family tree.
With the surge in people using commercial DNA-testing companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe who have voluntarily uploaded their DNA profiles to GEDMatch, a public genetic-genealogy website, there is now a massive databank of DNA profiles to compare unknown DNA to.
There are 600,000 to 800,000 mutations in human DNA “and if you share a lot of those with someone, you’re probably related,” she said.
“A lot of people in the database are adopted” and are trying to find information about their biological relatives, Rae-Venter said.
In Roberts’ case, Rae-Venter was able to identify half-siblings who were born after Roberts’ mother remarried and one relative told Rae-Venter about another half-brother who, like Roberts, had also been adopted.
Usually the challenge is figuring out a suspect or crime victim’s birth name, but in Roberts’ case, “we ended up with a new situation — I identified her birth name but had no idea what her adopted name was,” she said.
It took a couple weeks, but Scharf, a major crimes detective who has been working cold cases since 2005, received the call last week from the Oregon Health Authority’s Vital Records Office and was given Roberts’ adopted name.
Roberts’ mother died several years ago and her father is now 82, Scharf said in a phone interview. Her father plans to hold a memorial service for his daughter, with members of both her adopted and biological families, and bury her in Hood River, where members of both families are interred.
“She’s got her name back and she’s going to get to go back home,” Scharf said.