More than two decades after a mutilated body was found in the woods of northern Alabama, police have identified the cold-case victim with cutting edge DNA technology.
The headless body, with hands and feet also removed seemingly to prevent identification, was discovered on April 15, 1997, along a creek in Union Grove, Alabama. Officials at the time were only able to conclude the victim was a White male and that he died by homicide, according to a press release from the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office.
“Investigators from the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office and the State Bureau of Investigation worked tirelessly to identify the individual and followed up on numerous leads; but were still unsuccessful in making a positive identification,” the sheriff’s office said. The case eventually went cold.
However, police announced a breakthrough Wednesday, identifying the remains as 20-year-old Jefferey Douglas Kimzey of Santa Barbara, California. The sheriff’s office also said there are persons of interest in the case and that investigators are actively pursuing leads.
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The turning point came in 2019 when Sheriff Phil Sims and then-Chief Investigator Keith Wilson partnered with Virginia-based Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company. Scientists used a process called DNA phenotyping to analyze samples discovered at the crime scene and “reverse-engineer” DNA to make a prediction of the victim’s physical appearance.
In 2021, authorities released an image composed by Parabon NanoLabs of what the victim may have looked like, including that he was light-skinned with blue eyes with dark blond or light brown hair and that he likely had freckles, local news station WHNT reported.
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Parabon NanoLabs continued its work, using genetic markers called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) to search for possible relatives in available databases, the company’s chief genetic genealogist CeCe Moore explained to the Los Angeles Times.
“With genetic genealogy and SNP testing, we can find second, third, fourth cousins and beyond, and we can use that information to reverse engineer someone’s identity,” Moore told the outlet.
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Over several years, the lab was able to identify genetic matches for possible relatives and compare that information with historical documents to identify the body. When Parabon NanoLabs had a match with “high confidence,” Moore took that information to the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office. Deputies then made contact with a relative living in Madison, Tennessee, who pointed them to Kimzey’s biological parents in California, according to WHNT.
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DNA testing of Kimzey’s parents confirmed the victim’s identity.
Investigators are now working with Parabon to identify DNA the sheriff’s office said it has recently become aware was related to items found at the crime scene. Police are encouraging anyone with information about the case to contact the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office.