In December 1988, two employees from the North Georgia Department of Transportation found the body of a young woman on Interstate 59 in Dade County, about five miles from the Alabama state line. The woman had been strangled and abandoned on a northbound road.
Her identity and that of her killer remained unknown for almost 34 years.
Now, with information obtained from forensic genealogical testing, authorities believe the victim is Stacey Lyn Chahorski, a 19-year-old who was hitchhiking across the United States and making her way home to Norton Shores, Michigan. made.
They also identified the killer, in a rare case where investigative genetic genealogy was used to identify both the victim and killer in the same case. Henry Fredrick Wise, a truck driver who regularly drove the I-59 corridor, was the person who killed Ms. Chahorski, authorities said at a news conference Tuesday.
“She was just a free spirit. She liked to travel,” said Joe Montgomery, an acting special agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, who was in close contact with Ms. Chahorski’s mother, Mary Beth Smith. “She hitchhiked despite her mother warning her not to. She wanted to see parts of the country.”
Ms. Chahorski called Ms. Smith in September 1988 to let her know that she was going home.
Agent Montgomery said Mr. Wise most likely picked her up at a rest stop. Mr. Wise, who was also a stunt driver, died in a car accident at Myrtle Beach Speedway in South Carolina in 1999.
Ms Chahorski’s identity was established in March. Her killer was only identified a few days ago and announced on Tuesday.
The use of genetic or forensic genealogy, which uses DNA databases to match unidentified remains, like that of Ms. Chahorski, to a large network of people, has increased in recent years. The method has been increasingly used to solve violent crimes as the technology has been refined, said David Mittelman, founder and chief executive officer of Othram Inc., the private DNA lab that created the profiles used to solve Ms. Chahorski’s case.
Ms. Chahorski’s skeletal remains degraded and became damaged over time, he said, a common challenge in decades-old cases. Sometimes older remains can provide very little DNA to work with. Ultimately, modern techniques were used to solve Ms. Chahorski’s case. Body fluid found near Ms Chahorski’s body was eventually traced back to Mr Wise.
Othram only performs victim identification work, unlike other genetic genealogy companies who may also do adoption matching, genetic research, or medical testing. The organization is working with law enforcement agencies at the local, state and federal levels to get answers, Mr. Mittelman said.
Othram worked with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Dade County Sheriff’s Office, who funded the work to identify Ms. Chahorski. But funding for identifying the killer came from true crime media company Audiochuck, which sponsors Othram.
The company, which produces the popular Crime Junkie and Anatomy of Murder podcasts, helps fund Othram’s work, preferring to use the money to solve cases or murders with unidentified victims, said Ashley Flowers, founder and CEO of Audiochuck. Otherwise, she has no say in the use of sponsorship money, which she has been providing for at least a year and a half.
“We make a lot of our living by taking these stories from the real crime community,” Ms. Flowers said, “and it’s really important for us to make sure we’re giving back in a really tangible way and actually helping to solve cases .”
After Othram completed the DNA profile, the information was turned over to Georgia law enforcement, who conducted the genealogy research. At Tuesday’s news conference, Agent Montgomery said the genealogy test “doesn’t tell you exactly who it is,” but does develop a profile. “It’s almost like a tree and you work your way back to the trunk,” he said.
Genetic genealogy has been used to solve high-profile cold cases, including in 2018 to identify Joseph James DeAngelo as the Golden State Killer, linked to more than 50 rapes and 12 murders in California between 1976 and 1986. Agent Montgomery said that the successful conclusion of this case “became the driving force behind what we accomplished today.”
The resolution of a cold case like the double homicide of Ms. Chahorski is “extremely unique,” said Agent Montgomery, who took on the case in 2005.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “As an agent, you live with these cases. It was overwhelming.”
In genetic genealogy, some of the databases used to come from people who independently submitted their DNA to sites like Ancestry.com or 23andMe to find relatives or trace their genetic history. Two databases – Family Tree DNA and GEDmatch – enable use by law enforcement agencies or ask users to consent to law enforcement accessing their profiles.
This has raised some questions about genetic privacy. Many experts say advances in science have outpaced the ability to regulate the field. Experts discuss privacy concerns and the best ways to address them while doing this important work, said Mechthild Prinz, director of the forensic science program at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Genetic genealogy is “so successful, but it would be good to introduce some regulations,” said Dr. Prince.
Mr. Wise worked for Western Carolina Trucking and lived in both the Carolinas and Florida, Agent Montgomery said. His trucking route would have taken him through Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Birmingham, Alabama, “which would have put him on the direct path to where Stacey was found.”
Authorities “believed the entire time” that the killer was a truck driver, Agent Montgomery said. “We just couldn’t figure out who it was.”
Mr. Wise had a multi-state criminal history that included charges of theft, assault and obstruction of a police officer. If Mr. Wise committed other unsolved crimes, Agent Montgomery said, “They should come to light now.”
Keri Farey, an assigned special agent at the FBI’s Atlanta field office, said investigators found what was believed to be the killer’s DNA at the scene, “but for years it could not be linked to an individual .” Agent Montgomery said the DNA was body fluid, adding that Ms. Chahorski was found partially clothed.
Agent Farey said after law enforcement “exhausted” all other leads, “funds were secured to use forensic genealogy to generate some new leads.”
“It didn’t take long,” she said. Mr Wise had a living family member who “cooperated” and a DNA match was confirmed.
“We know that solving this horrific crime will not ease the pain of Stacy’s family,” said Agent Farey. “Nothing can. But hopefully it answers some questions.”
Alain Delaquérière made a research contribution.