THE WOODLANDS, Texas (KXAN) — On Thursday, the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) held a press conference announcing they had identified the body of a 1979 Jane Doe, the victim in a 44-year-old cold homicide case.

“Wish we could stand up here and say that they all go that way, but they don’t,” said Bastrop County District Attorney Bryan Goertz at the press conference, “This is CSI: Bastrop!”

But it was Othram, a DNA testing lab in The Woodlands, Texas, that linked the exhumed remains to missing person Kathy Ann Smith. BCSO connected Smith’s death to deceased serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who they said had confessed to her murder in 1984.

Othram’s involvement

Othram’s Chief Development Officer Kristen Mittelman said that the lab became involved in the case in September 2022. This was after BCSO exhumed the remains a second time to collect DNA samples — the first attempt in 2019 yielded insufficient samples.

The samples that did arrive were “contaminated and degraded,” which she said is common in these cases.

But by the start of 2023, Othram scientists had a DNA profile. By April, they had a lead on the body’s identity.

“It’s incredible every single time we get involved in one of these investigations,” Mittleman said. “We’re giving back an answer to family that has waited for a very, very long time, almost always decades at this point, on these cold cases.”

According to Mittleman, Othram has completed over 1000 cases since it was founded in 2018, getting faster and better at the work each time.

How Othram differs

The key difference, according to Mittleman, is purpose-built forensic tools that the company calls “forensic grade genome sequencing.”

An Othram worker examines a human femur. (Courtesy Othram)

“What’s amazing about this technology is he can take the stalled cases from traditional forensic testing,” Mittleman said. “We use forensic grade genome sequencing to build DNA profiles that have hundreds of 1000s of markers, up to almost a million markers.”

Before accepting a case, the lab’s quality control team looks at the available DNA samples to ensure that a DNA profile is possible. Only then will the lab take funding for the case.

Once a profile is built, an in-house genealogical team takes over, looking for close matches in “databases consented for law enforcement use.” The goal at this stage is to find close, but not exact matches; finding a distant relative allows the team to map a family tree, looking for missing people.

That lead is given to detectives involved in a case, who can then contact those family members for follow-up.

An Othram worker in a lab. (Courtesy Othram)

“If they say yes, then they ask the family to provide DNA to make that confirmation that the closest relative is the relative to that person,” Mittleman said. “If we’re looking for a perpetrator, then law enforcement is given the person’s name…to contextualize within their investigation.”

The amount and quality of samples are factors in DNA testing, but it’s one that Othram claims to be decreasingly relevant.

“If I touch my hand, I’ve left hundreds of cells,” Mittleman said. “We had 15 human cells from 32 years ago, it was a mixture of perpetrator and victim, and that was enough to identify [a perpetrator] and link him to yet another crime three years before.

Mittleman claims that Othram has also identified remains found in a sewage tank, from explosions and fires, the bottom of lakes and “chemically treated” remains.

Scaling up

State and local law enforcement crime labs often have backlogs, which delay the addition of perpetrator DNA into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). This necessitates millions of dollars in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Justice.

It’s a problem that Mittleman hopes Othram can solve. One day, the company’s technology may become available to every law enforcement agency.

“We hope to democratize it to everyone so that all these state labs and everyone would have the ability to do this at scale,” Mittleman said. “People shouldn’t have to wait decades to find out what happened to their loved one, and perpetrators should not get away with crimes time and time again.”

For now, she hopes that the public contributes their DNA and funding to help find answers in other cases.

“I think if people really realize that if they leave this much DNA, that they’re gonna get caught no matter what, I think will become a deterrent for crime, and we’re all going to live in a safer world because of it,” she said.