After DNA helps identify 1986 murder victim, California officials seek her killer: “A brand new mystery”
DNA testing has led members of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Homicide Unit to finally identify the body of a woman who was found dead in California in 1986. Now officials say they have a “brand new mystery” to find out who killed her.
The woman’s remains were found near campsites on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation in Warner Springs, a spot on the Pacific Crest Trail, on Feb. 16, 1986. But authorities had been unable to identify the victim until this week.
The sheriff’s office announced Tuesday that the remains had been identified as those of Claudette Jean Zebolsky Powers, who was born in Michigan in Jan. 1962. In the early 1980s, she lived with her husband in Washington state until she left him and moved to San Diego in 1983 or 1984, according to family. She was last heard from in Sept. 1984, after her father died. Police said she likely lived in the San Diego area until around Feb. 1986.
While Powers’ body has been identified, her killer remains at large, the sheriff’s office said. In the news release, they asked members of the public with any information to come forward and said that detectives had been working the case for the decades since Powers’ body was found.
Sergeant Tim Chantler told CBS affiliate KFMB-TV that detectives are now putting together a timeline of Powers’ life before her death to try to identify her killer.
“It took 37 years to identify who she was, to solve that mystery,” Chantler said. “Now we have to reconstruct her whole life. Where she lived, where she worked, and who she knew? Was she dating anybody? Who were her friends? That’s where we’re starting, a brand new mystery now, as opposed to the one we just solved.”
Powers’ youngest sister, Laura Freese, asked anyone with information to come forward.
“It’s been really hard on our family,” Freese said in the news release. “Somebody knows what happened. A neighbor, anybody that knew her knows what happened. If you are still alive and you knew my sister and you knew what happened to her, please come forward. Please, we need closure.”
It was only thanks to a technique called investigative genetic genealogy that Powers was identified, the office said. This technique is only used when all other methods, like combing through missing-persons records, have failed, and involves uploading DNA found at a crime scene to consumer genealogy websites to locate family members of victims. The method is also used when searching for suspects.
In Powers’ case, DNA information was taken from a sample of her hair and compared to available profiles on the commercial sites. Using this, as well as census records and other public information, detectives were able to build family trees and “track down an indiviudal believed to be a relative of Claudette.” Detectives spoke with that relative, and were eventually connected with Powers’ daughters, sister and mother.
DNA samples confirmed the match and allowed the remains to be positively identified. Police said that this is the seventh time the department’s homicide unit has used investigative genetic genealogy to solve such a case.
A second body was also found near where Powers’ body was. This second murder victim, who was found “around the same time and area” according to the sheriff’s office, has not been identified. The cases may be connected, police said.