Enzymes, NGS, Black male and female scientists looking at mobile device in a laboratory setting
HID | ForenSeq Kintelligence

Forensic answers left by silent victims

The team at DNA Labs International identifies assailants who need to pay for their crimes and stopped from committing new ones. Most of their cases are current, so time is of the essence. But new technology has also made it possible to re-open cases long gone cold, providing closure to victims and their families who have spent decades looking for closure.

A lab technician carefully swabs a wallet for any traces of DNA. The wallet had been found with a young woman in her early 20s – a recent murder victim. Law enforcement officials had reached out to Rachel Oefelein, Chief Scientific Officer at DNA Labs International, and her team to review the item for potential DNA evidence left behind by the assailant.

During the sample purification and analysis step, the sample is carefully examined to tease apart the victim’s DNA from the suspect. But for now, simply gathering all the genetic evidence is crucial.

The wallet included a photo, identification, credit cards, some coins and bills. But also something unusual: a small slip of paper tucked into one of the pockets. A paper from a fortune cookie.

It read – You will live a long life.

Oefelein felt a surge of anger when she saw the message. She says "I thought, well, damn you, person, whoever did this–you screwed up her fortune."  She adds, “moments like these impact you so strongly that you go that extra mile in every case."

Led by the Chief Operating Officer (COO) Allison Nunes and her mother, the company founder Kirsten Charlson, the ultimate mission of this lab is to bring closure to victims and their families - and justice to the world. Their analyses are critical in uncovering unidentified remains, getting murderers convicted, capturing serial rapists and revealing the DNA trail of hands-on guns used for any crime. 

Founded in 2004 by a mother and daughter team, DNA Labs International is an accredited DNA lab specializing in forensic DNA and serological analysis. They work with hundreds of law enforcement agencies, attorneys and government forensic labs which send them samples to analyze. Operating Officer (COO) Allison Nunes, describes one particular incident that made her realize how important it is to close a case.

Think of people who have been victims of sexual assault and they have to go on living their life knowing that that person is still out there every day.

Rachel Oefelein, Chief Scientific Officer, DNA Labs International

Haunted by statistics

"The lab processes anywhere from 7,000 to 10,000 samples a month," says Nunes, whose mother created the lab over 18 years ago to help reduce the backlog of hundreds of rape kits across the U.S. Many have suffered untested for years. As a mother of daughters, Charlson was haunted by the statistics, but as a business entrepreneur, she thought, “We can do something about this. Today, about 40% of the samples our lab processes come from rape kits." 

Most of the cases that the lab handles are recent incidents. The lab is trying to identify assailants who not only need to be captured for their crimes but prevent them from committing new ones. 

In one recent international case, The DNA profile the lab reported allowed law enforcement officers to capture a serial rapist. Oefelein went to court as an expert witness to testify during the criminal trial for this case. "While it's routine, it's not easy. I have one case with a younger woman who was sexually assaulted as a child by her father. As I was walking out of the courtroom, she grabbed my arm and said, “I think you won.'' She was cognitively impaired and clearly had no idea what was happening in the courtroom that day. And I went back to the parking garage and cried in my car."

Rachel Oefelein, Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) at DNA Labs never gives up on a case. The team keeps running lists of cases that they think can be helped in the future by emerging technology “so that as soon as it does come about, I can go back and call that detective and say, ‘Hey, now it's time to resubmit your evidence,’ explains Oefelein. Imagine the impact a suspect on the loose has on community. On the surviving victims. This is why you can’t give up.

We process sexual assault cases that are 30 years old and we process sexual assault and that are four months old, two weeks old. It's across the board.

Allison Nunes, Laboratory Director & COO, DNA Labs International

The missing and the found

Before coming to DNA Labs International, Oefelein worked at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory for nearly five years, helping to ID American soldiers from conflict zones across the world, and dating as far back as the Civil War. Rachel has testified in thirteen Florida counties, seven states and U.S. Territories, and five countries as an expert witness for both the prosecution and the defense in misdemeanor and felony trials, as well as William, Frye, Daubert, and Arthur hearings.

She had also developed bone extraction protocols that elevated the chance of extracting salvageable DNA from extremely degraded samples. “One of my most challenging bone cases was actually a case from the killing fields - a place in Texas where a lot of bodies have been dumped throughout the years. And we had one case in particular where we had done six or seven extractions, and we just were not getting enough DNA to go forward for SNP testing. And I was so frustrated, " Oefelein says.

But then Oefelein had an idea. The victim was wearing artificial nails when she died. Fingernails are particularly resonant for Oefelein. "You'll get ones with boatloads of DNA from the assailant. In those moments, I always think, 'Good for you. You fought back. You did your part. Now let me do mine and try to help bring justice to this case."

Oefelein pried beneath them to find her natural nail. She sampled and pulverized the natural nail, processing it like a bone sample and managed to generate a DNA profile.

“Her family thought she had just gone off and lost contact with them, but she had been missing the whole time - and no one had ever filed her missing,” Oefelein says. “One of the biggest challenges with missing persons is when no one's looking for you.”

customer story, Rachel Oefelein, chief scientific officer, in her office at DNA Labs International

For people who work in forensic science, self-care is a way to stay healthy, balanced, productive, and sane.  “Self-care is actually fairly new to forensic science,” says Oefelein. “You might subconsciously be absorbing all the tragic events into your psyche.”  As for her own self-care, Oefelein turns to the water. “In my free time, I’m just obsessed with being in the water. I could sit in a pool for eight hours. I love swimming laps. I love being in the ocean,” she says.

As much as we try to separate ourselves from the cases that we work on, there are going to be those ones that sneak through and pull your heartstrings and remind you you're still human.

Rachel Oefelein, Chief Scientific Officer, DNA Labs International

Identifying assailants via FGG

As per their regular process, DNA Labs promptly returned the sample results to the contracting agency who uploaded them into CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), the FBI-operated national DNA database for criminal justice. When there are no CODIS hits, as in this case, DNA Labs turns to the frontier of forensics: Forensic Genetic Genealogy, or FGG. FGG applies the same technology platforms like 23andme, Family Tree and GEDmatch to find genetic family relationships in criminal casework. "Essentially, we are building out these big family trees and working our way down to try to find that person of interest," Oefelein says. 

“FGG analysis involves analysis of large numbers of SNPs or even whole genomes for comparison with genealogy databases, but recently Verogen launched a dedicated DNA profiling kit for FGG: the ForenSeq® Kintelligence Kit, our tool from the QIAGEN–Verogen partnership portfolio. 

While commercial kits look at as many as 300,000 SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms), the Kintelligence targets 10,230 SNPs which are the most useful markers for kinship. Because they are homing in on a smaller area, we need significantly less DNA, which means that samples that were previously not suitable for genealogy are now ideal for this type of analysis," Oefelein says. 

A cold case out of Oregon involving a male individual who had gone missing after a fishing trip in 1998 would be the first case solved using Kintelligence. 

The case was re-opened in 2020, when Nici Vance Ph.D., a Forensic Anthropologist from Oregon State, sent a single tooth to the DNA Labs for analysis. Her office had received a federal grant to address the backlog of unidentified human remains in the state. "They were very well versed in extracting degraded bone and decomposed tissue samples and we liked the fact that they had developed some robust methodologies," Vance says. 

In the GEDmatch analysis, DNA Labs hit upon the family members of a man, Kenneth Heasley. He drowned in 1998 along with his friend, Gary Gelsinger when their boat capsized. Both their remains washed ashore soon after, but only Gelsinger had an ID on him. It took nearly a quarter-century before forensic technology advanced enough to identify Heasleys remains.
customer story, Rachel Oefelein, chief scientific officer, DNA Labs International, bone
The most famous criminal case solved by Forensic Genetic Genealogy (FGG) is that of the Golden State Killer, who was responsible for more than 100 violent crimes, including home invasions, rapes and murders. Investigators uploaded DNA taken from a rape kit semen sample to MyHeritage, which led them to the relatives of Joseph James DeAngelo, an ex-cop turned truck mechanic. DeAngelo was arrested in April 2018 at the age of 72 and is serving multiple life sentences.
I think, ‘You fought back. You did your part. Now let me do mine and try to help bring justice to this case’.
Rachel Oefelein, Chief Scientific Officer, DNA Labs International

Closure for families

DNA Labs International also works with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). “I love partnering with NCMEC,” says Nunes. “They have a great mission. And travesties that happen to children are close to my heart. I have children myself, and I never want to imagine that happening to them, but I have to see past that and just look for evidence. You just want to help”. 

“NCMEC maintains two dotted maps, one representing all the missing children and the other representing all the unidentified remains. I always say, if we could just literally connect the dots, we would solve so many cases and bring closure to all those families," Oefelein says. 

One case was "Beth Doe, a pregnant teenager whose dismembered remains were discovered in three suitcases near the Lehigh River in Pennsylvania in December 1976. In 2020, Oefelein and her team extracted DNA from her femur, while another lab was involved in profiling the DNA. The DNA profile was uploaded to GEDmatch and the report identified the victim's nephew. The victims name was Evelyn Colon. At the time of her disappearance, it was assumed she had run away after discovering she was pregnant to raise the child with the father.

The truth was out. The father of the child, Luis Sierra, had killed her in 1976, when he was 19 years old. In 2021, now 63 years old, Sierra was charged with murder.  

Sometimes futures are stolen and a DNA profile isn’t found. The victim whose wallet was found, for example. That case is still open. But Oefelein knows that she may just have to wait a little longer for answers. “Even if I can't get a DNA profile today, it's not done”, explains Oefelein. “It's never done in my mind. There's always something you can go back to and technology can always get better. And so to me, it never feels like I'm letting a case down or letting a victim down or anything like that…I’m definitely looking forward in the future to see resolution in a lot of these missing persons and unidentified human remains cases because it's only going to get better.”

customer story, Rachel Oefelein, chief scientific officer, DNA Labs International, laboratory
“We use and abuse our QIAGEN instruments,” says CEO Alison Nunes. That includes Kintelligence, the NGS sequencer MiSeq, the QIACube Connect for differential wash protocol and the EZ1 DNA Investigator for sample purification. “They are running all day, every day. They perform great, have very little maintenance that we've had to handle and are very user-friendly. All the serologists who are new to the job learn how to use these instruments fairly quickly. This way, they can positively impact solving crimes soon after they start training.”

January 2023