July 16, 2010 in Idaho

An old-school DNA detective

Researcher uses new, old methods to identify bodies
By The Spokesman-Review
 

While the 50-year-old human remains discovered at the bottom of Priest Lake undergo DNA analysis in Boise, historical researcher Silvia Pettem is using her gumshoe style of research to help identify the bones and bring resolution to relatives.

The remains were found in 2004 by Ralston & Associates, a consulting biology company out of Idaho. They didn’t extract the remains until late May, using a remote-operated diving vehicle.

Boise State professor of biology and criminal justice Greg Hampikian will profile the DNA, and then relatives with missing family members will be tested for a match, Pettem said.

“These families are waiting,” she said. “Even several generations removed, they want to know.”

Pettem, who lives in Boulder, Colo., and the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office have identified about a dozen possible matches. Roughly half of the potential relatives are from Spokane, she said. They must be tested through a blood relative on the mother’s side. Pettem said she will do genealogy research to help families find test candidates.

“Priest Lake captured my imagination. I hope we can bring resolution to one of the families,” she said.

While in Spokane, Pettem visited a family that believes the remains are their relative. Fifty years ago, Mike Katke’s father Donald left a cabin he was building on Pinto Point to go to dinner, but was never seen again. Linda Katke, Mike’s wife, showed Pettem pictures on Thursday afternoon.

“For 50 years Mike has not known what happened to his dad and it’s been really hard on him,” Linda said.

Pettem is in Spokane this week for the International Association for Identification conference. The gathering features presentations and workshops on trends and technologies in forensics, said Glen Calhoun, a conference spokesman.

Pettem is presenting on her research methods as well as an old homicide case she helped solve in Boulder.

“Silvia is an interesting presenter because of the research she’s done. Her topic is of general interest to everybody,” Calhoun said.

Pettem describes her research style as a mix of old and new – both using the Internet and digging through old court records and archives.

Pettem cracked another identification case in Boulder. One day in the cemetery she spotted a tombstone marked “Jane Doe.” A mother with two daughters, she decided to find the girl’s identity. She worked on the case for 14 years and wrote a book, “Someone’s Daughter: In Search of Justice for Jane Doe.”

“It’s hard to put it away after all this time. I still go by the cemetery and take her flowers,” Pettem said.

She plans to go to Priest Lake today to meet with Bonner County sheriff’s Sgt. Gary Johnston, who is in contact with potential relatives.

“I saw in the Jane Doe case people don’t forget. They have a void and they need the closure,” Pettem said.


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