DNA lab reduces testing for missing people amid funding woes

Karen Stipes always believed her missing mother was "Mountain Jane Doe," buried unidentified in a paupers' cemetery deep in the woods outside Harlan, Kentucky. But without proof, it took nearly half a century and the development of DNA technology for forensic scientists at the University of North Texas to confirm her intuition.

Police didn't know who Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams was when a man picking flowers on a trail found her body stabbed multiple times in 1969. It remained a mystery to the locals until advances in forensic science prompted renewed efforts to identify the body and resume the hunt for her killer. While police have yet to solve the killing, Stipes said the restoration of her mother's identity has provided at least some closure.

But now the same Texas lab that handled Blair-Adams' DNA has had to stop testing samples like hers that come from outside the state due to a lack of funding, meaning family members of missing and unidentified people are waiting longer for their cases to be solved.

"Everyone deserves to have their unidentified found," Stipes said. "I feel my mother was disrespected being unidentified for so long. There wasn't DNA testing in 1969 when my mother died, but it's 2017. I think it has gotten overlooked."

For years, law enforcement looking for a breakthrough in a cold case could count on sending samples of unknown bodies to the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas. The lab is a world leader in mitochondrial DNA testing from decomposing and partial remains and provided testing for missing and unidentified people at no cost to investigators.

But this year the National Institute of Justice decided not to offer millions of dollars in grants for DNA technology to identify missing people and instead reallocated that money to programs that help state and local governments audit and track backlogged rape kits. The U.S. agency also introduced new grants to help medical examiners and coroner's offices meet accreditation standards and recruit forensic pathologists.

Agency officials said the university will receive supplemental funding in the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, but the drop in casework has brought new attention to the lab's value and the importance of DNA in solving missing persons cases.

"There was a lot of public tension," said Todd Matthews, a spokesman for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System at the university. "These are precious resources, and we can't take for granted something we don't know will continue."

The lab's funding situation isn't unique. The National Institute of Justice is the only federal agency that provides grants for labs analyzing DNA to identify the missing. Without those resources, investigators are left with fewer options for critical testing. Detectives have had to bust their budgets on expensive testing at private labs or submit remains to lengthy queues at local FBI labs. Others have stored their samples and suspended investigations until testing can resume.

"I've been sending letters and making phone calls to the NIJ on UNT's behalf. This is an absolute priority," said Sgt. Jason Moran, a detective with the Cook County, Illinois, sheriff's office. "It's hard to work if you don't know the identity of the victim."

Investigators say the university has become a crucial resource in the work to identify the 100,000 missing persons and 40,000 sets of unidentified remains across the United States. Over the past two decades, the lab has identified victims of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Last year, the lab received up to 4,000 out-of-state samples, which comprised half of all DNA testing in the country, lab director Bruce Budowle said.

But the U.S. also has a huge backlog of untested rape kits. The national nonprofit End the Backlog estimates that there are more than 185,000 in the 38 states for which data is available. Reducing that number has drawn approximately $131 million in federal funding for the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative.

"We had to make a tough decision to fund other programs," said Gerry LaPorte, director of the Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences at the National Institute of Justice. "It was very difficult because there are so many needs in the community."

Even without the influx of funding, the University of North Texas has continued to work cases, including testing of the state's backlogged rape kits. The lab has also had success reducing its own backlog. Last month, it helped the Cook County sheriff's office solve a 40-year mystery by identifying a victim of Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

"If we keep doing quality work, people will want us to be around," Budowle said. "This is a national lab, and that's a good investment. We're optimistic at this point that everything will be addressed. Hopefully sooner rather than later."

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