CSI Houston Solves Very Cold Case

A forensic anthropologist at the Harris County Medical Examiner’s office has used the same high-tech DNA matching technology we see every week in those CSI TV shows to identify one of the victims of one of the worst mass murder cases in the country’s history. Jim Bell reports.


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Between 1970 and 1973, 27 Houston teenage boys disappeared. Most were runaways. No one knew it then, but they had all been tortured and murdered by a group of sexual predators. Their bodies were later found buried in mass graves all over southeast Texas. The bodies were identified slowly over the years, but three sets of remains went unidentified, until recently.

Forensic Anthropologist Sharon Derrick used mitochondrial DNA to identify one set of remains as those of 15 year old Randell Lee Harvey, who disappeared in 1971. Derrick says this boy’s family always suspected he was one of the victims.

“His name had shown up in early HPD records as a possible victim.”

Derrick says even so, it took until just two years ago for a laboratory to get enough usable DNA from the bones to make a positive identification. 

“We were able to send off samples of the skeletal remains to have DNA extracted at the University of North Texas, and it took several tries, but then they were able to pull both mitochondrial DNA and nuclear DNA from the remains.”

The boy’s two sisters provided DNA samples that matched the mitochondrial DNA from the remains, and they recognized their brother’s clothing, so the identification was confirmed.  She also says it took a long time for the science of DNA extraction and matching to develop to the point where this kind of identification is possible.

“Back in 1991 they tried, they tried 2004. The DNA analysis has taken such grand leaps since then that even since I submitted the DNA in May they have some new techniques they were able to apply in the summer.” 

Derrick says her reward is helping a family learn the truth and get closure after more than 35 years of not knowing what happened to their brother. There are still two sets of unidentified remains from the Houston mass murders, and Derrick says it’s going to take a long time, but she’s convinced that they too will be identified some day. 

Jim Bell, KUHF, Houston Public Radio News.


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