In a 1988 murder, DNA is used to identify both the victim and her killer
By April Rubin and Remy Tumin
In December 1988, two Department of Transportation workers in north Georgia found a young woman’s body on Interstate 59 in Dade County, about 5 miles from the Alabama state line. The woman had been strangled and abandoned on a northbound lane.
Her identity and that of her killer would remain unknown for nearly 34 years.
Now, with information from forensic genealogy testing, the authorities believe the victim to be Stacey Lyn Chahorski, a 19-year-old who was hitchhiking across the United States, making her way home to Norton Shores, Michigan.
They have also identified the killer, in a rare instance in which investigative genetic genealogy was used to identify both the victim and the killer in the same case. Henry Fredrick Wise, a truck driver who regularly drove the I-59 corridor, was the person who killed Chahorski, the authorities said at a news conference Tuesday.
“She was just a free spirit. She liked to travel,” said Joe Montgomery, a special agent in charge at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, who has been in close contact with Chahorski’s mother, Mary Beth Smith. “She was hitchhiking, even though her mother warned her against doing that. She wanted to see parts of the country.”
Chahorski called Smith in September of 1988 to let her know she was making her way back home.
Montgomery said Wise most likely picked her up at a truck stop. Wise, who was also a stunt driver, died in a motor vehicle accident at the Myrtle Beach Speedway in South Carolina in 1999.
Chahorski’s identity was established in March. Her killer’s was determined just days ago and announced Tuesday.
The use of genetic or forensic genealogy, which uses DNA databases to match unidentified remains, such as those of Chahorski, to a large network of people, has grown in recent years. The method has increasingly been used to solve violent crimes as the technology has been fine-tuned, said David Mittelman, the founder and chief executive of Othram Inc., the private DNA laboratory that built the profiles used to solve Chahorski’s case.
Chahorski’s skeletal remains had degraded over time, he said, a common challenge with cases that are decades old. Sometimes older remains can yield very little DNA to work with. Ultimately, modern techniques were used to help solve Chahorski’s case. Bodily fluid found near where Chahorski’s body was discovered was eventually traced to Wise.
Othram conducts only victim identification work, unlike other genetic genealogy companies that might also work on adoption matching, heritage research or medical testing. The organization works with law enforcement at local, state and federal levels to help get answers, Mittelman said.
Othram collaborated with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Dade County Sheriff’s Office, which funded the work done to identify Chahorski. But funding for the killer’s identification came from the true-crime media company Audiochuck, which sponsors Othram.
The company, which produces the popular “Crime Junkie” and “Anatomy of Murder” podcasts, helps fund Othram’s work with a preference that the money be used to solve cases or homicides with unidentified victims, said Ashley Flowers, the founder and CEO of Audiochuck. But it otherwise does not have a say in how the sponsorship money, which they’ve provided for at least a year and a half, is used.
“We make a lot of our living by taking these stories from the true-crime community,” Flowers said, “and it’s really important to us to make sure we’re giving back in a really tangible way and actually helping solve cases.”
After Othram built the DNA profile, the information was turned over to law enforcement in Georgia, who did the genealogical research. At the news conference Tuesday, Montgomery said the genealogy testing “does not tell you exactly who it is” but develops a profile. “It’s almost like a tree and you’re working your way back toward the trunk,” he said.
Genetic genealogy has been used to solve high-profile cold cases, including in 2018 to identify Joseph James DeAngelo as the Golden State Killer, who had been linked to more than 50 rapes and 12 murders in California between 1976 and 1986. Montgomery said the successful conclusion of that case “became the driving force behind where we got to where we are today.”
Solving a cold case like the killing of Chahorski twice over is “extremely unique,” said Montgomery, who took over the case in 2005.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “As an agent, you live with these cases. It was overwhelming.”
In genetic genealogy, some of the databases used to come from people who had independently submitted their DNA to websites like Ancestry.com or 23andMe to find relatives or track their hereditary history. Two databases — Family Tree DNA and GEDmatch — enable law enforcement use, or ask users to consent to having their profiles accessed by the authorities.
This has raised some questions regarding genetic privacy. Many experts say the advances in science have outpaced the ability to regulate the field. Experts are discussing privacy concerns and the best ways to address them, while still doing this important work, said Mechthild Prinz, director of the forensic science program at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Genetic genealogy is “so successful, but it would be good to put some regulations in place,” Prinz said.
Wise worked for Western Carolina Trucking and lived in the Carolinas as well as in Florida, Montgomery said. His trucking route would have taken him through Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Birmingham, Alabama, “which would have put him in the direct route where Stacey was found.”
The authorities believed “all along” that the killer was a truck driver, Montgomery said. “We just could not figure out who it was.”
Wise had a criminal history in multiple states that included charges of theft, assault and obstruction of a police officer. If Wise committed other unsolved crimes, Montgomery said, “they should come to light now.”