How one company's cutting-edge DNA technology could help end cold cases for good
06/01/2022 2:16 pm PDT
LOS ANGELES (TCD) -- From the Golden State Killer to children abandoned at birth, new DNA technology has transformed how cold cases are solved and perpetrators are brought to justice. What allegedly occurred between half-siblings in Massachusetts 20 years ago or during a domestic incident in California in the 1990s no longer has to stay hidden.
With the rise of genealogical databases and family trees linking suspects to past crime scenes, one company is taking DNA technology a step further and aiming to end cold cases for good.
Kristen Mittelman, who holds a Ph.D. in biomedical science and molecular biology, is the chief development officer at Othram, a Houston, Texas-based firm that specializes in the recovery and analysis of human DNA from trace quantities of degraded or contaminated forensic evidence.
Mittelman spoke with True Crime Daily about what sets Othram apart and how the technology they’ve created in their lab is the gateway to the future.
Mittelman has been working in the DNA world for over 20 years, but her goal for Othram now centers on seeking funding for technology that allows them to identify a crime’s perpetrator or victim — or both — using just the smallest quantities of cells.
"Because we’re purpose-built for this and this is all we do, we work with evidence that is otherwise intractable or was intractable in the past to other lab techniques," Mittelman explains. "We built methods that allows us to take the most degraded DNA, the most contaminated DNA, all types of inputs of forensic DNA, and build a profile out of it."
These profiles can then be used in genealogical databases for law enforcement to access and help provide identities. Othram can build a profile in less than 12 weeks, Mittelman says.
Over the last 30 years, standard CODIS (Combined DNA Indexing System) testing has been based on 20 markers, she says. These markers are uploaded to a perpetrator database, and if there’s a match, it’s possible to tell if the person identified from the DNA sample has committed a crime previously.
Mittelman explains that victims are rarely in the CODIS database, and often, there’s no match at all and investigators are left with a "DNA dead end."
What Othram does differently, she explains, is analyze "hundreds and hundreds of thousands" of markers rather than the standard 20.
"We build these pretty clean, complex profiles that, when uploaded to a DNA database, can infer much more distant relationships," Mittelman says. "You can figure out where people may belong on a family tree. When you hone into that identity, you don’t need to start a database of that person or have that person in the database to identify who they are."
Othram works with local, state, and federal law enforcement, and has assisted in more than 1,000 investigations since the company’s first case in 2019.
Over the last few years, Othram has also developed a solid reputation for working with skeletal remains — even identifying a victim from 1888. In another case, the company worked with the equivalent of 15 human cells from a sexual assault that occurred 32 years ago.
One major cold case they helped close involves a 30-year-old woman whose remains were found by a hiker in Mammoth Lakes, California, in May 2003. Mittelman says the Mono County Sheriff’s Office reached out to Othram for help identifying the victim after they located skeletal remains in the desert that had been buried in a shallow grave for years.
After going through Othram’s standard chain of custody process, authorities were able to identify the victim as Isabel Bernal Sanchez.
Mittelman says Sanchez’s family never knew she had died. They reportedly received a letter around the time she disappeared that said she had returned to Mexico and not to look for her. The Mono County Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation and ultimately arrested Diego Santiago Hernandez-Antonia in connection with her death.
Since DNA is consumable — which means each test destroys the evidence — Othram must be methodical in its approach, Mittelman tells True Crime Daily.
"Running the wrong reaction often destroys DNA that often could’ve been the last chance for someone to identify their loved one or the last chance for someone to get justice," she says. "We vowed to create a process that can one day become the standard that will allow people to know in advance whether the testing method will work."
So far, it has.
But most forensic technology is still lagging behind, according to Mittelman: "The technology that forensics is using now is over 30 years old. It’s based on equipment that was built in the '90s. You wouldn’t use a computer from the '90s, but people are running the absolute last bit of evidence on machines that weren’t purpose-built for this. There’s no standards or technology that’s purpose-built for identifying someone."
Mittelman founded Othram with her husband David Mittelman, who serves as its CEO. The pair met at Baylor College of Medicine and went on to open a medical lab, which they sold in 2018. They soon created Othram as a way to leave their kids with a "safer and more just world."
"I don’t think the science is a barrier anymore. I truly believe that education and people knowing that technology and knowing what’s possible, the federal funding to support this technology is what’s going to make it adopted by everyone," she reiterates. "Hopefully we live in a world where there are no cold cases."
Mittelman says working for Othram has been the most rewarding job she’s ever had, especially when there’s closure involved.
"Speaking to several family members when we identified remains, it’s like their life stopped when something happened. They’ve spent 40 and 50 years waiting for answers," she says. "Piecing these families back together, being able to tell Isabel [Bernal Sanchez’s] family that she didn’t run away to Mexico and never call them again, it’s giving them answers. It may not be the answer you want, but it’s the truth. Everyone deserves the truth and deserves their story to be told."
Another goal for the cutting-edge DNA technology is deterrence, Mittelman says. "We are helping people be a little safer. If people knew they would get caught with 15 cells of DNA, burned remains, I think we can one day become a deterrent for crime."
As for what the future of DNA technology looks like, Mittelman is optimistic Othram can become a new standard.
She says, "I hope that every time evidence is run, a case is solved. I think we’re going to live in a world like that."
You can read more about Othram here.
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