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60-Year Cold Case Comes to a Close with Modern DNA Technology

By Jonny Lupsha, Current Events Writer

An unknown boy who died in a car accident in 1961 is finally known by name. Daniel Paul Armantrout died in Alabama while hitchhiking an abusive household but had no ID. DNA can be used for identification in forensics.

Sealing tubes with DNA swabs for forensic examinations
DNA information stored in genealogical databases is key to forensic genealogy in solving the long-unknown identification of deceased individuals. Photo by Couperfield / Shutterstock

More than 60 years ago, a hitchhiker tragically died in a car accident in Alabama with a pack of cigarettes in his pocket, a few pieces of jewelry and little else. The driver survived but confessed not to know the hitchhiker. The police searched in vain for his family for weeks. The victim was buried in a grave labeled “Unknown Boy” in a local cemetery and has remained there ever since.

Forensic genealogy, which compares DNA to genealogical databases, was used to identify the deceased last month as Daniel Paul Armantrout. In his video series Understanding genetics: DNA, genes and their practical applications, DR. David Sadava, Associate Professor of Cancer Cell Biology at the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte, California, gave a background on DNA identification and uses.

Sir Alec Jeffreys

“In the early 1980s, Alec Jeffreys, who because of [his work] became Sir Alec Jeffreys, who developed DNA fingerprints at the University of Leicester in the UK, ”said Dr. Sadava. “He examined genetic differences between individuals of different species and looked at different gene sequences – entire genomes had not yet been sequenced at the time.”

Jeffreys compared seals to humans and found that in each species there were common, short, repetitive sequences between parents and children of every species. The children’s species was a hybrid of that of their parents, and he thought the repeating blocks of DNA could be inherited.

“When Jeffreys realized he had a way to identify people, he published his results in the spring of 1985, and the genetic floodgates, they say, opened,” said Dr. Sadava.

Immigration and criminal proceedings followed. A criminal case involving two rapes and murders in Leicestershire resulted in Jeffrey’s DNA identification finding a murderer and the method having been used many times since then.

A cold case in more ways than one

“In 1918, during the Russian Communist Revolution, the last emperor of the Romanov dynasty, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife and three of their children were killed and were killed in a city in the Urals in what was then the Soviet Union, now Russia buried in a shallow, unmarked grave, ”said Dr. Sadava.

“In 1991, in a new Russia that was no longer communist, two amateur historians found what they thought was the grave – two older and three younger.”

Although the skeletons were too damaged to identify, their bones contained DNA in the bone marrow, and the short tandem repeats Sir Jeffreys first noticed were compared from the bone marrow to survivors of the Romanov family. The result was that the same alleles were present in the skeletal family, proving that they were indeed the Romanovs.

A Allele is one of two or more versions of a gene. Each person inherits two alleles for each gene – one from each parent – and helps narrow down the genetic identification.

“In the large skeletons, for one of the short tandem repetitions, the parents had alleles 15 and 16 in one parent and 15 and 16 in the other parent,” said Dr. Sadava. “The children were all 15 and 16 years old; it’s good.”

Seventy years after her death, Nicholas II and his family were rescued. Daniel Paul Armantrout may not have had such a promising background, but nonetheless, his family’s DNA identification finally helped end his death.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily