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Woman's Identity Remains a Mystery

Without anything to compare to her DNA, investigators have been unable to identify the headless body found off Ortega Highway.

January 18, 2003|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

It sounds like a ploy straight out of film noir: A killer cuts off the head and hands of his victim and successfully prevents an identification that could point to him.

One would think that in this day of modern forensic science and DNA testing, such a ploy wouldn't work.

But Wednesday's discovery of the dismembered body of a woman along Ortega Highway confronts authorities with one of the toughest tasks in the art of homicide investigation.

With no face or fingerprints to work with, experts say Orange County sheriff's investigators will probably need clues beyond a sample of the headless, handless woman's DNA to identify her.

"DNA can't do anything for you without something to compare it to. It's a comparison science," said Alan Keel, a DNA expert with Forensic Science Associates, a Bay Area private crime laboratory. "You almost always have to have some clue of the identification of the person first, something to point you in the right direction."

The only national DNA database is the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, which began collecting genetic profiles from crime scenes and prison inmates in 1990. If the victim had been in the military since the mid-1980s, a sample of her DNA would be available in raw form and could be used to confirm an identification.

The same is true for DNA samples collected as part of any missing person investigation, authorities say. Such data isn't centrally kept, but, if available, could be used to confirm the victim's identity.

"There's no place where you can just throw information in and the possibilities come out," said Jerry Nance, a case manager with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "There has been a lot of discussion about it, though."

The center plans to begin gathering and analyzing DNA of missing children, Nance said. But the volume of missing persons cases has made the cost of starting a comprehensive database prohibitive, he said. Each year, between 850,000 and 1 million people are reported missing in the United States.

Orange County investigators have received hundreds of calls from people offering leads. But sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino said the woman's description -- late 20s to early 30s, red or strawberry-blond hair, about 5 feet 9 and 170 pounds -- matches no known missing person case.

"She has no identifying marks, like a tattoo or a scar. Nothing," Amormino said. "Obviously, identification is going to be difficult. Hopefully, someone will notice that someone they know has gone missing. That's how it's going to be solved. But it may take some time."

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