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How new tech helped ID a woman killed, buried near the Everglades 46 years ago

The Collier County Sheriff's office partnered with the FBI and a Texas-based forensic company known as Othram to identify Joan Shirley Joyce Waters who was killed nearly 46 years ago.
Posted at 10:37 PM, Jul 03, 2024

COLLIER COUNTY, Fla. — After 46 years of mystery, investigators have identified the name of a woman whose remains were found near a remote dirt road. Using modern DNA technology, detectives determined it was Joan Shirley Joyce Waters who had been killed in 1978 just a half mile south of Alligator Alley in Collier County.

 Joan Shirley Joyce Waters Digital rendition
Digitally generated image of Joan Shirley Joyce Waters (middle)

The skeletal remains of the woman were discovered with blunt force trauma in a shallow grave. The case had gone cold due to little evidence until advancements in forensic genetic genealogy provided a breakthrough.

"We built a DNA profile and used this profile to do what people call forensic genetic genealogy," said Othram CEO David Mittelman, whose company specializes in forensics.

Mittelman explained, "Her relatives that live on today... If anyone even distantly related to her is in a database, then we can piece together the clues from public records, family trees, and genetic profiles."

Othram CEO David Mittelman
David Mittelman, CEO of Othram, the company helped identify a woman killed and buried near the Everglades in Collier County 46 years ago.

The collaboration between Othram, the FBI, and the Collier County Sheriff’s Office successfully traced Joan Waters’ family. This despite her not being reported missing.

Detective William Still of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office said he spoke to Joan Waters' sibling when they made the match.
"And that sibling of hers, he'd been out of touch with her, didn't know what had happened. The last time he had seen her was in the early '70s," Still said.

Despite identifying Joan Waters, Detective Still said that the case remains open as they work to confirm the person responsible for Joans' killing.

Detective William Still of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office
Detective William Still of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office

"I can tell you that person is no longer a threat. The one person we're looking at right now is deceased," said Detective Still. "But there's a little bit more work to be done before we can say the case has been solved definitively," he added.

Meanwhile, Othram is uncovering more cases by the week. While the full circumstances of Joan's death may never be known, Mittelman says helping identy the victims brings some closure to the family.

"It's terrible to die and to be murdered, but even worse that your family doesn't even know something happened to you," Mittelman said. He added, "Being able to provide some answers, even if we can't rectify the situation, means the world to us.