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New DNA Science Could Help Solve New Brighton Cold Case

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By James Schugel, WCCO-TV

NEW BRIGHTON (WCCO)
— Ten years ago, a couple stumbled upon a woman’s body in a Twin Cities park. Despite a plethora of leads, police still can’t say who she was or who killed her. Now, a tiny clue just two centimeters long and crushed to near nothingness could help police finally crack a cold case.

“A lot of work over a lot of years, and we’re really no closer now than we were back then,” said Detective Gary Sykes with the New Brighton Police Department.

He remembers the 911 call that September 2000 afternoon. He investigated the case back then, and he’s still investigating it now.

The woman was found dead, likely murdered, Sykes said, in Long Lake Regional Park near Rush Lake. She was in a swampy area and Sykes believes she might have been there up to five years.

He’s compared her to some 350 missing women. He’s examined dental records and every other lead that’s come in. But now today, a decade later, he still doesn’t know who killed her. He doesn’t even know who she is.

“That’s what the crime scene looked like,” he said, as he showed WCCO’s James Schugel pictures of the scene and the woman’s body. “There was virtually nothing left of her — other than skin and bones.”

So decomposed, he’s got no fingerprints and very little physical evidence.

“We both at the time said, ‘It’s a body! It’s a body! It’s a body!” recalled Jennifer Leach and her husband Nathan.

The two were in high school that September day. Rollerblading through the park, they rolled up on a shoe still tightly tied and no one was around.

“It seemed really odd. It didn’t add up to us,” said Nathan.

They walked up a nearby deer path, and that’s when they found the woman’s body.

They called 911, and New Brighton Police showed up and started their investigation. But the investigation, now a decade later, is at a dead end.

“Any case where you can’t get to the conclusion that you want to get to is tough,” Detective Sykes.

He’s now hopeful he might be able to solve the case with what’s called Familial DNA. The new science is giving Sykes new hope.

At the Minnesota Bureau of Apprehension in St. Paul, forensic scientists have two ways they can find out who the woman is with her DNA. First, they could take her DNA and match it to someone in the public who comes forward claiming they could be a relative. They could also take her DNA and enter it into a national database of convicted criminals, hoping she’s a relative of one of them.

“As more samples get added, every day a new search is done, so every day we get more matches, so, hopefully, one day we’ll get a match to all these missing persons,” said Jim Iverson with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Forensic scientists described the process of Familial DNA. They’ll take a bone or possibly a tooth from the woman, completely clean it and cut off a two centimeter piece of it. They’ll put that bone or tooth sample inside a freezer mill, which is filled with liquid nitrogen. The machine will pulverize it into a small amount, less than a gram, and from that, scientists can extract the woman’s DNA.

Testing could take a few weeks or months. And it can’t come soon enough for everyone involved.

“It would definitely be nice to see closure,” said Jennifer.

Sykes hopes his plea is paid attention to. He needs help solving one of the hardest crimes he’s investigated in his 31-year career.

“I think that there’s somebody who knows how she got there and what happened to her,” said Sykes. “She deserves better than what she’s got.”

Police never found a murder weapon, but they think the woman might have been stabbed.

Sykes may have one of her teeth tested, too.

He urges anyone who might have known the woman or how she died to call the tip line and leave a message at 651-288-4137 or, during business hours, call 651-288-4100.

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