The body of a 19th century serial killer is being exhumed in suburban Philadelphia at the request of his great-grandchildren, who hope identifying his remains will quell centuries-old rumors that he conned his way out of his execution and escaped from prison.
A Delaware County judge gave the go-ahead to exhume the remains of Dr. H. H. Holmes in a court order dated March 9. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which owns Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon where the body was located, confirmed the exhumation was to take place but it wasn't immediately clear when the process started. WCAU-TV in Philadelphia showed footage for a front-end loader removing dirt from a grave at Holy Cross Cemetery on Friday.
Holmes, the pseudonym of New Hampshire-born physician Herman Webster Mudgett, is believed to have killed an undetermined number people at his hotel of horrors during the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. It featured a bizarre labyrinth of windowless rooms, secret passageways, false floors, trapdoors, and a vault. Most of the rooms had gas vents, which were controlled from Mudgett's bedroom. Many of the rooms were soundproof and could only be locked from the outside.
But it was the murder of his business partner in Philadelphia that led to his conviction and hanging in 1896.
The exhumation and DNA analysis will be performed by the Anthropology Department at the University of Pennsylvania. The great-grandchildren — John and Richard Mudgett and Cynthia Mudgett Soriano, all of California — submitted DNA samples to the university, according to their petition seeking the exhumation.
Judge Chad Kenney's order states that the remains are to be re-interred in the same grave after testing, whether or not they belong to Holmes.
A humanitarian tragedy continues to unfold along the U.S.-Mexican border.
As American border security has tightened since the 1990s, a “funnel effect” has pushed people seeking to sneak into the U.S. into more remote areas, particularly the inhospitable Arizona desert. Thousands have died from heat and exposure, and occasionally homicide. Hundreds remain unidentified.
But a new deep dive into the DNA of these nameless dead has indicated they have disproportionately greater Native American ancestry rather than European genetics, a team reports this week in the journal American Anthropologist .
The work makes new forays into how much traditional DNA databases can tell us about the most desperate, and desperately unknown, persons of all.
PULLING ANCESTRY FROM CODIS
The paper looks at 238 unidentified persons and 118 identified people based on the 13 CODIS markers in their genetic profiles. Those profiles were compared to a reference samples of some 1,200 predominantly indigenous people, as well as approximately 1,000 people of mostly European background, along with nearly 100 African-Americans.
Ancestry is not supposed to be encoded in the simple set of CODIS markers, which was intended in the 1990s to be a series of simple individual identifiers without any other information attached.
But some of the authors, including Bridget Algee-Hewitt of Stanford University, dropped a bombshell analysis last year in the journal Current Biology : CODIS markers do indeed tell a story of ancestry that is just beginning to be understood .
The latest exploration of the unidentified border crossing (UBC) dead is external validation of those revelations, said Algee-Hewitt.
The DNA showed these dead of the Arizona desert, examined at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner from 1972 to 2013, fit a trend. The UBCs were mostly from native populations in the southernmost states of Mexico.
"Identification bias" is shown in the ongoing years of anthropological work, said Algee-Hewitt. Increasing numbers of people with more European genes are successfully identified, while the indigenous people continue to go unnamed.
Because the people were generally disenfranchised and desperate in life, their deaths left an unanswerable riddle for authorities on both sides of the border.
The complex racial history of Mexico complicates what is happening along the border, added Cris Hughes, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois who is another of the authors.
“In Mexico, indigenous populations are concentrated in southern states, and poverty is more prevalent in the south,” said Hughes. “There is a deep distrust between indigenous peoples in Mexico and their government, founded on a history of oppression by those in power.”
Further breakthroughs were also made by Algee-Hewitt, well-known for her work in craniofacial measurements and bone aging through pelvic observations. The Stanford anthropologist told Forensic Magazine that applied craniometry also backed up the DNA findings— preliminary results of which were presented at the annual February meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences .
“The quantity of Native American ancestry has increased in recent years, is distributed along a Northwest to Southeast geographic cline, and is greatest among individuals for whom ID status is low and identification-related information (e.g., place of birth or origin) is incomplete,” said Algee-Hewitt.
The work is ongoing, she added.
‘THE DESERT DOESN’T DISCRIMINATE’
These people die along the border mostly as they seek specific blue-collar jobs in the United States, according to Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, and one of the authors.
Nearly 3,000 people have died along the border over the last 18 years, Anderson told Forensic Magazine . The environment is unforgiving, even among the younger males who attempt to make the crossing.
“The desert doesn’t discriminate based on ancestry,” Anderson said. “It’s always been a deadly crossing, and it’s only gotten more deadly since the INS changed their policies in the 1990s.”
Anderson and others have demonstrated in a series of papers how the so-called “funnel effect” of tightening border security in California and Texas had driven smugglers and the immigrants to the more desolate deserts of Arizona—and increased danger.
A separate 2014 investigation in the Journal on Migration and Human Security found that most border crossings were made during the summer months. That was exactly why most of the hundreds of deaths annually were due to hyperthermia and other heat-related environmental causes, they found.
But often the cause is not known—especially if only bones are left, Anderson said.
The populist campaign of Donald Trump that won the U.S. presidency last November was based on a promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico, at Mexico’s expense. Anderson said knowing the realities of the smuggling along the border has shown that a complete wall will be an impossibility, due to geography and the persistence of people seeking a way under or around it.
The end result of building a new wall will be more bones out in the desert, Anderson added.
“If you put a wall between a desperate person and their goal, they will find a way around it,” said Anderson. “Probably more deaths will occur.”
Forensic investigators could get a head start on tracking down suspects, using a new technology to assess saliva for gender, according to a new study.
The technique is part of a growing body of work at the University at Albany intended to assist detectives in real-time, using tools directly at a crime scene, right from the moment of discovery.
“This would be done entirely on site with the use of a portable Raman instrument, all without risking any damage to the sample,” the authors write. “It would allow investigators to immediately develop a preliminary suspect or victim profile at a crime scene.”
Currently, saliva can be collected and then processed at a laboratory using intensive techniques. But that is time consuming, and it also potentially destroys the sample.
The Raman spectroscopy method, which essentially uses lasers to vibrate molecules and measured the scattered light, can be taken directly to the sample instead – and then used without destroying it, the scientists report.
The 48 samples assessed with the technique determined the chemical signatures that differed between males and females. They accurately identified the sex of 45 of the donors, they report.
Scientists at the school have been incrementally working toward a chemical toolkit for criminal forensics to deploy at scenes. Much of the work has been helmed by Jan Halamek, a biochemist focused on the chemical clues in bodily fluids. Halamek and his team have about a dozen papers recent published or pending on the forensic applications of the secrets held by bodily fluids. (Though Halamek did not take part in this latest paper).
Late last year, Halamek and his the team published a paper in the journal Analytical Chemistry in which they found the amino acids within a fingerprint were more than 99 percent accurate in determining sex, since females have higher concentrations of them. Earlier this year, the Halamek team published their findings on blood markers – how a single chemical marker in the blood – alkaline phosphatase, or ALP – not only indicates what age a person is, but also can determine how long ago a sample was deposited at the scene.
“It’s all about the biomarkers, looking for the attributes of a person,” Halamek told Forensic Mag earlier this year in an extended interview. “It’s pure chemistry.”
The latest saliva findings appear to further that concept – though more validation needs to be done on larger segments of the population, write the scientists.
“This study brings us one step closer to the successful completion of developing a universal method for the analysis of body fluid traces at a crime scene, and should be considered a proof-of-concept since it still needs to be expanded to realistic crime scene samples of saliva on common substrates,” they add.
Crime scene technicians are responsible for photographing, looking for latent prints, and collecting evidence at crime scenes. Because of crime volume, crime scene technicians do not respond to all crime scenes. Many departments rely on specially trained officers or public safety aides to handle crime scene processing of less violent offenses, such as motor vehicle thefts and burglaries of homes and vehicles.
Training of officers for this time-consuming and methodical work is often a limited, one-time event. Refresher courses on crime scene processing are typically not offered, providing minimal assurances that officers are following protocol or handling evidence properly. Without periodic training, officers are also not exposed to changing technology or more efficient methods of crime scene processing and evidence collection.
Challenges of Crime Scene Processing
Every crime scene is different and involves decisions such as whether to process evidence at the scene, collect evidence for later processing at the crime laboratory, or request assistance from the crime scene unit. When deciding how to approach latent print processing, factors that may affect the method include weather conditions, contamination of evidence, and whether the evidence is on a porous or nonporous surface.
Weather becomes an issue when it is raining and the officer is faced with processing a soaking-wet vehicle. The best course of action is usually to tow the vehicle to a police facility to allow the vehicle to dry before processing. If this is not an option, the second-best option is to ask the victim to call for processing when the vehicle is dry. If neither of these options is available, the officer is often limited to processing items inside the vehicle for latent prints and possible DNA. Touch, wear, or saliva DNA can often be found in a burglarized vehicle.
DNA should be the officer’s first focus. Collecting it would involve taking a sterile swab lightly dampened with distilled water and swabbing the steering wheel, turn signal, gear shift, and edges of the rearview mirror. Inside the vehicle, there may be other miscellaneous items that the officer may decide to swab such as drink cups or cans, cigarette packs, or cell phones. If the victim is available, the officer should ask him or her to carefully look inside the vehicle to see if they see anything that does not belong to them, and therefore may have been left by the perpetrator.
After carefully collecting possible touch DNA swabs, the officer should process the following locations for latent prints:
The decision whether to process items found inside a burglarized home or vehicle often hinges on whether or not the item is porous or non-porous. Porous evidence consists of items that, when touched, will absorb fingerprint residue like a sponge. Examples would be unfinished wood, paper, cardboard, and fabrics. Non-porous evidence consists of items that, when touched, will preserve the latent print on the surface unless disturbed. Examples of these would be glass, metal, and plastics.
Non-porous items can be processed at the crime scene using black or gray powder and a fiberglass brush. More advanced methods of chemical processing for non-porous evidence include superglue fuming and enhancement with powder or fluorescent dyes. If the officer suspects the object may have belonged to or been touched by the suspect, the best decision would be to collect and preserve the evidence for latent print processing in the crime laboratory.
Porous items usually respond better to chemical processing methods, such as iodine or ninhydrin, than the application of fingerprint powder. Vehicles that have been exposed to rain or heavy humidity will often have damp miscellaneous paper items scattered in the vehicle or in the glove box that will need to be dried before processing. There are some chemicals, such as Oil Red, which develop prints on damp paper more efficiently than ninhydrin or iodine. Paper items that have recently been touched react well to processing with magnetic powder; however, as a basic rule officers should collect paper items and submit the evidence for processing in the crime laboratory.
Specially trained patrol officers and public safety aides play a crucial role in solving crimes by assisting the crime scene technicians with less violent offenses. Periodic training in crime scene processing can assist these officers, which is beneficial to any police department. Citizens in the community who are victimized expect law enforcement to respond to burglaries and motor vehicle thefts and identify suspects. The more efficient officers are in processing evidence, the more time they will have to answer other calls.
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Although Jan Cornell never stopped hoping for closure in the brutal 1990 murders of her daughter Robin Cornell and roommate Lisa Story, she calls the arrest of a suspect
nothing short of a miracle.
Cape Coral police Chief David Newlan announced Wednesday that Joseph Zieler, 54, of North Fort Myers, was arrested for the murders of Story and Cornell. “It was like winning the lottery of justice,” Cornell said. “Every prayer, every word, everything, came full circle.”
Cornell was at her boyfriend's home on the evening of May 9, 1990, watching television when she fell asleep. When she returned home she discovered that her daughter, 11, and roommate, 32, had been killed inside the apartment. Zieler was in Lee County jail on a felony aggravated battery charge for shooting his son with a pellet gun in August when a DNA test matched him to evidence found at the scene of the murders 26 years ago.
Zieler, who was 28 at the time of the double murder, will face five charges, including two counts of sexual battery, one count of burglary and two counts of first degree murder. He is scheduled to have his first appearance for these charges Thursday morning in Lee County court. Jan Cornell said there was no way to describe how she felt when police came to her home Monday to give her the news.
“It was a miracle,” she said.
Cornell said she has no idea who Zieler is, has no connection and no information on the man who has been implicated in the double murder. “I’ve looked at every outlet to see where there might have been a connection,” she said. Cornell credited the 2009 law that requires DNA testing for those arrested for felonies for helping break the case.
“When you are looking for someone who killed people you loved you just get more hope,” she said. ”If (Zieler) never got in trouble this case would never be solved. This is the beginning of the end.” The Lee County Sheriff’s Office notified Cape Coral police when Zieler's DNA received a hit on CODIS, Newlan said. Further DNA from Zieler was obtained and tested by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The results came back positive with evidence collected in the apartment at Courtyards of Cape Coral Condominiums.
"We got him," Newlan said. “This brings closure to the family. Twenty-six years is a long time.”
The arrest closes the city's longest open homicide. The case has drawn attention over the years airing on America’s Most Wanted three times as well as on other similar crime shows and in dozens of publications. Police officers and others involved in the case shared Cornell’s elation. “To tell you the system works is the best thing ever,” said Christy Jo Ellis, chief investigator for the Cape Coral police. “I’m over the moon. It was so surreal when I got the phone call. I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Ellis said that the case is on track to being solved makes her feel great as she approaches the 25th anniversary of her police career, adding that she always believed the case would be solved. “It’s just phenomenal,” she said. “We have the lock, we just need the key.”
She said Zieler's arrest was a welcome surprise.
“This guy has been off the radar for 26 years,” she said, noting Zieler has been in the community the entire time, 20 years at his North Fort Myers address, seeing the yearly updates. “Because he had an arrest in 2016 and due to a DNA swab it just shows that the system works.” Barrett Walker, Ellis’ supervisor in the major crimes unit, said that the department is building a case.
“Now we have to organize the case. We have other evidence,” he said, adding that Zieler has not confessed to the crime. “We still have a lot of answers we need to get to.” Walker said those who knew Zieler in the 1990s or knows him now need to contact the Cape Coral police. Steve Russell, the 20th Judicial Circuit State Attorney, said the arrest of Zieler and subsequent prosecution should give hope to victims’ families and fear to those who commit crimes that cases can be solved at any time.
“The Cape Coal Police Department never let this go away,” he said.
Newlan, Walker, and Ellis all stressed that the double murder was not a cold case and that it never became a case that languished. “A lot of detectives have kept in touch, different generations of law enforcement,” Newlan said. Walker cited the evidence-gathering chain from the initial investigation. “It makes us proud of what we were and proud of what we are,” he said. “They documented and preserved evidence the right way.”