HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The Orange County Sheriff’s Office identified an unknown woman decades after her murder in 1990.
Using new technology and forensic genealogy, investigators identified a woman found by road crews 33 years ago. Experts believe someone strangled her. They said her body was dumped on the side of Interstate 40 East near the New Hope Church Road exit one week before she was found.
The sheriff’s office announced the victim was Lisa Coburn Kesler, 20, who spent most of her life in Jackson County, Georgia.
While law enforcement first used the emerging science of DNA to obtain a criminal conviction in 1986, the forensic applications of DNA were in the beginning stages in 1990 when Kesler was murdered. While experts could prove someone’s identity or involvement in a crime, DNA could not be used to identify an unknown person.
The sheriff’s office said investigators used traditional methods such as interviewing witnesses, pursuing leads, searching missing persons reports and creating a bust of the victim by applying forensic facial reconstruction techniques to model Kesler’s skull.
While the years went by, investigators and volunteers tried new methods such as creating a digital picture with a photograph and circulating it on social media. However, the victim’s identity became a mystery — until now.
“Throughout the decades, some of our finest investigators kept plugging away. When you can’t close a case, it gets under your skin,” said Sheriff Blackwood. You might set the file aside for a while, but you keep coming back to it, looking to see something you didn’t notice before, or hoping information gathered in ensuing cases has relevance to your cold case. Investigators also monitor new techniques and technologies in the field, which is what eventually led to the breakthrough in Ms. Kesler’s case.”
Investigator Dylan Hendricks took over the case in June 2020, and received assistance from agents with the State Bureau of Investigation. He eventually sent a degraded hair fragment to Astrea Forensics for DNA extraction.
After the DNA profile was returned, the sheriff’s office said Hendricks asked forensic genealogist Leslie Kaufman to help with the other tools. The sheriff’s office said Kaufman specializes in cases involving unidentified human remains and homicides.
She began working to identify family members using genealogy databases and other tools. After Kaufman linked the victim’s DNA profile to people she believed to be paternal cousins, investigators began interviews.
They learned about a relative, Lisa Coburn Kesler, whom no one had heard from in at least 30 years.
“Essentially, there was a Lisa-shaped hole on a branch of the family tree right where the DNA told us Lisa should be, and no one knew where she was,” said Hendricks.
Investigators then requested DNA from a suspected maternal relative. The genetic analysis positively confirmed the relation.
The results were enough to satisfy Clyde Gibbs, a medical examiner specialist in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. The sheriff’s office said he updated the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, reflecting that the DNA method resolved Kesler’s case.
The sheriff’s office said the Chief Medical Examiner is now able to amend her death certificate, providing Kelser’s correct name and other demographic information.
“I am very happy we solved the three-plus-decades-old mystery of this young woman’s identity, and I hope it provides solace to her family members. We are grateful to the many investigators, passionate volunteers, and talented professionals who assisted with this effort,” said Sheriff Blackwood. “I believe we collectively demonstrated the value of dogged determination, which we will now apply to the task of identifying her killer. There is no statute of limitations on murder, and no time clock on justice.”
If you have any information about this case, please call Investigator Hendricks at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office at 919-245-2951.