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Family of Wendy Stephens finds closure 38 years later, thanks to improvements in forensic genealogy

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Posted at 4:48 PM, Feb 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-10 01:31:08-05

DENVER — After nearly four decades, a Denver family finally has some answers about what happened to Wendy Stephens.

Stephens was just 14 years old when she disappeared in 1983 in Denver; the teen’s parents had filed a missing person’s report, but police were unable to track the teen down.

The teen’s body was found a year after her disappearance in Washington and was linked to the Green River killer, but investigators were unable to identify it.

For nearly 40 years, Stephens was known as Bones-10 and was placed in the storage of the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“Wendy was in my care from the time that I started in 1996,” said forensic anthropologist Dr. Kathy Taylor. “We had retained the remains in safekeeping hoping for that technology or something to come along.”

In the 1980’s, victims were identified using fingerprints, identifiable markings, dental records and more. DNA was an emerging technology at the time and was not well understood.

Taylor would reexamine the bones periodically over the years in an attempt to glean more information to identify them. In one examination, she was able to narrow the age range down and say definitively that the victim was a 12-to-15-year-old girl.

Over the decades, researchers began developing technology to sequence, understand and even use DNA to solve crimes.

“Back in the 1990’s and 2000s, sort of the infancy of DNA testing, law-enforcement was able to compare a one-to-one sample,” said Cairenn Binder, a forensic genealogist with the DNA Doe Project.

At first, researchers were only able to match DNA with the person it came from; the sequencing then evolved to allow researchers to match DNA with a person’s direct relative, such as a parent, child or sibling.

“Now, technology has increased to where we can look at third, fourth, or fifth cousins, and we can build family trees from those DNA matches,” Binder said.

Stephens was identified using forensic genealogy; the technique uses DNA and ancestry tracking to try to determine who the unidentified people are.

The DNA Doe project is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that is made up of volunteers. The proceeds from donations go to cover the lab fees for running DNA tests on the remains. Many of the volunteers have a background in health, law enforcement or private investigations.

Binder is a nurse by day and started getting serious about genealogy when she helped her mother start looking into her family tree.

“I think a lot of people listen to true crime podcasts or they watch documentaries and things like that, but we actually get to help solve these cases and it’s a really exciting thing to do it,” Binder said.

So far, the DNA Doe Project has helped identify nearly 50 people through forensic genealogy and Binder says they are getting more efficient each year. The oldest set of remains the team has been able to identify were from the early 1900’s.

Binder sees a future when every law-enforcement agency employs a genetic genealogist to help solve cold cases.

The work is tedious; it requires hours about hours of research, constructing family trees, looking for areas where different trees align and then rebuilding them. The researchers get the ancestry DNA information from GEDMatch.

People upload their DNA profiles voluntarily to GEDMatch to try to find matches with other people around the world. They are able to find those matches and build more comprehensive family trees regardless of what company their distant relatives used.

Those who choose to upload their genetic profiles to the site can opt-in to a law-enforcement feature, which means the DNA could be used to identify John and Jane Doe’s, but also to match DNA with perpetrators.

People who do not opt-in to the law enforcement feature can be matched to John and Jane Doe’s but their DNA cannot be used to match with perpetrators.

In Wendy Stephens’ case, a combination of DNA matches with third and fourth cousins who helped the DNA Doe Project positively identify her.

“We didn’t really think we had the right person at first because the person was so young, 14,” said Binder.

The team turned over their findings to police, who were able to find a missing person’s report filed for Stephens back in 1983.

“It’s a sense of feeling accomplished that the work is done, but also feeling a little upset because you know that identification is going to be made and it’s not what that family wants to hear,” she said. “We’re here to give Wendy her name back, to restore her power, to restore her name and to make sure that her family has answers.”

Dave Reichert, who was the lead investigator on the Green River Task Force, says he wants the family to know that the team never stopped trying to solve the case.

Gary Ridgway eventually pled guilty to 49 murders but claimed to have killed many more women, leaving many of their bodies along the Green River in Washington state.

“The sad part is there were so many unidentified names that you had to put numbers to the bodies instead of names,” Reichert said. “It sounds very dehumanizing, but it’s the only way we can keep track.”

Ridgway even took investigators to several areas where he had dumped bodies in an effort to try to locate them. In exchange for cooperating, he was sentenced to life in prison rather than the death penalty.

All these years later, Reichert still remembers the smallest details of each scene where remains were found and he still gets choked up when he talks about the case and all the lives that were lost.

“I think we all wonder what we could’ve done to solve the case earlier so that fewer people died,” he said.

He hopes Stephens’ family will find some peace in knowing what happened to their daughter and having the chance to give her a proper burial.

“People talk about closure and there’s never closure. The most you can expect, or that parents can expect, is some answers to questions they’ve had about what happened and why,” he said.

One of the problems with identifying Stephens’ remains was that, back in the 1980’s when a missing juvenile chronologically turned 18, they were dropped out of the FBI’s NCIC database.

Taylor says Stephens went missing when she was 13 and was dropped from the system when she turned 18, regardless of the fact that no one had seen her in years.

“I’ve been trying for almost 25 years and hoping and hoping and hoping to get this young lady ID'd,” she said. “From the moment that I got to stop referring to her as Bones-10 and refer to her as Wendy, that was a big moment for me.”

In an effort to solve more cold cases, Taylor encourages anyone who has reported someone missing during the 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s, to follow up with law enforcement and make sure that those reports are still in the system.

Taylor still has two more sets of remains in her care of women who were killed by Ridgway that have never been identified, Bones-17 and Bones-20.

Both Taylor and the DNA Doe project are hoping to have similar luck in identifying them using genetic genealogy.