9 Investigates controversial test that could ID cold-case victim

LAKE COUNTY, Fla. - 9 Investigates the controversial DNA search that Lake County deputies hope will help them identify a victim from a 30-year cold case.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is currently reviewing the agency’s request to run the victim’s DNA through a database to help identify potential family members through “close” matches.

Investigative reporter Karla Ray learned Florida is one of only a few states that even allow that type of search, and locally, it’s extremely rare.

Cold Case Victim
An area of brush 30 feet off Highway 474 near the Lake-Polk county line marks the spot where a 30-year mystery began.

“We've been on the wrong track for 30 years. Now it's almost like a new case; we have an entirely new pool of people to look at,” Sergeant Tamara Dale of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said.

A body, already decomposing, duped Lake County detectives in 1988. The person had on a denim skirt and top, along with breast implants, deputies said, implying that the victim was born a woman. However, in 2015, investigators learned their Jane Doe was born a man, who they believe was transgender and transitioning. A composite sketch was created based on the shape of the skull and hair found at the scene.

“It pains me to know she’s been in a lab for 30 years, unidentified,” Dale said.

9 Investigates learned the sheriff’s office is hoping to identify who they call “Julie Doe” with the help of a rare search. The agency sent a letter to FDLE requesting a “Familial DNA" search, using the same criminal DNA database detectives use to track down murder and sex-assault suspects.

Julie Doe’s DNA would be compared to close matches to identify possible family members in hopes of identifying the cold case victim.

“I think she deserves that, and I think her family, wherever they are, deserves to know what happened to their family member,” Dale said.

Familial DNA
Familial DNA searches are controversial. They raise questions about privacy rights of family members who may have nothing to do with a potential crime.

Florida is one of only a few states that allow this type of search; the others are including California, Colorado, Michigan, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

FDLE requires cases to be a matter of public safety or a violent crime in order to perform the search. In the request by Lake County, detectives indicate they believe the unidentified person may have been the victim of a hate crime.

The state has only ever performed 19 familial DNA searches in Central Florida, and only four of those cases had a hit of a possible family member related to the suspect or victim.

“It’s kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Dale said.

FDLE is still reviewing Lake County’s request, and in the meantime, detectives are also awaiting isotope analysis from the University of South Florida.

Bone, hair and teeth samples will help USF identify where the victim was living before death, and even where they lived during childhood, which could narrow down a review of missing persons cases.