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On a forensic mission to give Jane and John Does back their names

caption: Wendy Stephens
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Wendy Stephens
Courtesy of the KC Sheriff's Office

The family of Wendy Stephens finally learned what happened to her in 2020, decades after she went missing.

In 1983, then 14-year-old Wendy ran away from home in Denver, Colorado. A year later her remains were recovered in South King County.

But the identity of her remains were unknown for 35 years. They were referred to as “Bones 10.” What was known is that the remains were of someone murdered by a notorious serial killer. Her identity was eventually discovered through the work of Dr. Katherine Taylor, a forensic anthropologist for King County and the state of Washington.

KUOW’s Kim Malcolm spoke with Dr. Taylor about her work, and how she was finally able to learn the identity of Wendy Stephens.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Dr. Katherine Taylor: We've been trying for years and years to get her identified. We've tried everything. Her DNA was running. The dentals were in. We checked missing person sites.

Fortunately, there's a new technology that has come along. That’s forensic genealogy. King County employed a forensic genealogist through DNA Doe, which is a fabulous, fabulous group. They spent hours and hours working the DNA and building the family trees and narrowed it down to Wendy Stephens. We then sent DNA from mom and got the DNA confirmation that it was her.

Wendy Stephens is just one of several people who have died in King County over the years and don't know who they are. How does that happen? Why does it happen?

Well, not everybody dies with identification on them. We have quite a few that have died with absolutely no ID. They may not have fingerprints in the system. They may not have been reported missing.

We have quite a few unidentifieds that are likely transient. I suspect that the families just don't realize that they're actually missing because maybe they don't have a lot of contact with them. Maybe they only hear from them once a year. Maybe families also oftentimes think they’re somewhere else, they don't want contact, and they don't report the missing, or they report the missing and for whatever reason, they don't enter the system.

In Wendy's case, she was eventually identified using genetic genealogy. Before you're able to take that step, how do you go about discovering someone's identity?

There's a variety of things. We can chart their dentals. That goes into a national database. We also send fingerprints if we have them. We'll run the fingerprints through IAFIS, all the way up to the FBI.

Then, if we have the opportunity, we will send their DNA in. The DNA enters CODIS, which is a national database that has the DNA of the unidentifieds, as well as the DNA from what are called family reference samples of the missing. If you report somebody missing, you can give your DNA. All it is is a cheek swab. There's nothing invasive. We've made quite a few IDs that way.

We also enter all of our unidentifieds into NamUs, which is a national computer database that is actually accessible to the public. The public can log on to NamUs and start searching if they have a missing person. I've had IDs where family have called me and said my brother's missing. I saw a description of one of your unidentifieds on NamUs and I think it might be our brother. And sure enough, it ends up being that.

There's a lot of resources out there. It’s just, we really need the families of the missing not only to report them, and to follow up with law enforcement to make sure everything is in the system, but they can be proactive, too. They can go onto these websites and start searching. I have families that call me every time we find human remains.

I have five families that will call me and say is this is my loved one? So far, I've had to say no every time, but hopefully, their loved one is going to show up at some point.

Sounds like those can be difficult phone calls.

They are. I would much prefer to call somebody and say your loved one just walked through the door, but I have discovered over the years that the pain of not knowing where a loved one is, is indescribable. I can't even imagine, and these families have really educated me.

I had one Green River mom who told me that she really dislikes the word closure because she'll never have closure. What she has to do is shift her reality from being the mother of a beautiful, young teenage daughter to being the mother of a murdered child. Giving me that insight was invaluable. I have never used the word closure since then.

I consider my job about answering questions these families have, and hopefully helping them to shift their reality, and maybe be able to move forward.

If someone is never identified, where do their remains go?

If we have unidentifieds, we will bury them at county expense. We will not cremate them, or we try not to. There are situations where cremation is the most financially feasible, but we certainly try because we don't know what's going to be around the corner. DNA was a huge revelation for us in the late '90s. We thought, could there be another something coming around the corner?

And sure enough, here comes forensic genealogy, and that requires a completely different DNA profile than what is in CODIS. You have to have another sample to submit. So, we don't know what's going to be around the corner. We try to keep all of our options open on our unidentifieds.

It sounds like that's a way for you to keep hope in the system that there may be an answer someday.

Oh, I always have hope. I always have hope, because I'm just waiting for that one phone call. For example, I had a gentleman that was recovered in 2009 and was unidentified. We tried everything. We went through all of our resources. I posted him up at NamUs, and he had a very unique tattoo.

A couple of years ago, I got a phone call from a woman who had decided upon her retirement that she was going to try to find a missing brother, and had gone on NamUs and searched by what she knew to be his tattoo. Sure enough, my case popped up. She called me and said, I think this might be my brother. Once I had a name, I was able to obtain medical radiography, medical x rays, and did the comparison, and verified that in fact, it was her brother. Without that phone call, he would have remained unidentified.

So every day when my phone rings, I'm always hoping. There's something that goes through my head thinking, 'maybe this is a call, maybe this is a family, maybe this is going to get one of our unidentifieds IDd,' because that is so, so important.

The interesting thing too, is people think that unidentifieds are forgotten, and they're not. I mean, we don't forget them, but the families don't forget them either. When they're missing somebody and we get that ID, they claim them right away. They are on the road to a funeral home the next day once we make those IDs.

But, I also want to express that on the medical examiner side, we don't forget. We know our unidentifieds are important. We know somebody loves them, somebody misses them, and it's my personal mission. I want to reunite these families. I want to get these people IDd and returned.

I feel very strongly that the only thing that you own your entire life is your name. To have that taken away when you die, it's not fair. We have to give these people back their names.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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