1 month ago

South Alabama sophomore solves cold cases using DNA, forensic genealogy

From a Grand Bay bedroom decorated with posters from forensic TV shows such as “Bones” and “Dexter,” Olivia McCarter spends long hours on her laptop working to identify people and solve crimes.

Though just a sophomore at the University of South Alabama, where she’s studying anthropology and criminal justice, the 19-year-old is a senior intern with a Massachusetts company called Redgrave Research Forensic Services. Her team uses DNA analysis and online genealogy databases to match chromosomes, build family trees and identify suspects and victims.

Just in the last year, McCarter helped solve three cases.

In April, she joined a Redgrave team that identified the body of a man found along the Missouri River back in 1979.

“That was Harry – Harry was my first forensic case,” she said. “We worked nonstop for three days and solved it on the fourth day, which is really fast. I basically did not go to sleep, because I didn’t want to miss anything. It was exciting because we had such great matches. We found this man and he was perfect. He fit into the tree so perfectly. We knew it had to be him.”

Her second case was the 1984 rape and murder of Christine Jessop, a 9-year-old girl from Queensville, Ontario. Years before, DNA evidence freed the man charged with her death in one of Canada’s most notorious wrongful conviction cases.

Redgrave researchers worked for months this summer before genealogy and DNA records pointed to Calvin Hoover, a man who had been a friend of the Jessop family, as the likely killer. Hoover committed suicide in 2015.

“I found his name at 2 a.m. one night,” McCarter said. “That genealogy was so hard, compared to Harry’s. All of these people had 12 kids, and their kids had 12 kids, and then I had to keep going until I found Calvin. I knew he had to be from these parents, but I could not find any kids until I found three, all at once. I found them through a voting record, because they all lived in the same household in Ontario.”

Her third case was the one that hit closer to home.

In 1982, the body of an 18-month-old girl was discovered in the Escatawpa River just across the state line in Mississippi. The girl became known as “Delta Dawn,” or “Baby Jane Doe,” but she was never identified and what happened to her remained a mystery.

When the case was reopened last year, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department turned to the Othram DNA laboratory, where a team of Redgrave forensic genetic genealogists worked. A fresh DNA sample and genealogy records led police to a child and mother reported missing from Joplin, Missouri. Family there said the mother had met a man and was moving to start a new life in Florida. She remains missing and her body has never been found. Her child was identified as Alisha Ann Heinrich.

While working to identify the girl, McCarter would visit her grave in Jackson County Memorial Park. She would clean the gravesite marked “Baby Jane, Known Only to God.” She would bring flowers.

“Somebody had to remember,” she said. “Until her name was returned to her.”

The “Delta Dawn” case helped her make contacts in Mississippi law enforcement. She met everyone from FBI agents to sheriff’s officers.

Lt. Eddie Clark, one of the Jackson County investigators, remembers when McCarter visited the department to explain what Redgrave Research had found and how they had found it.

“We were floored by her skill set and how deep she could dig,” Clark said. “Excellent job, she did an excellent job. It was crazy how they did this, how they went back and built a family tree. I didn’t think it was going to be a college-age student who broke this case. Thank God for her.”

“I didn’t think it was going to be a college-age student who broke this case. Thank God for her.”

The ‘Wizard’ and the Intern

McCarter was born in Texas but grew up in Alabama. Her parents own several feed stores near Grand Bay, where she works part-time and saves money to pay her own tuition at South.

Olivia – “Liv” to her friends – was home-schooled by her mother. Her independent study included genealogy and then forensics, though no one in the family expected her research to go so far and so fast.

“We’re extremely proud of our daughter,” said Tracy McCarter. “She showed an aptitude very early on. She’s an excellent online researcher. What’s she’s doing now is outside our experience, our areas of expertise, so we’re kind of learning right along with her.”

She describes Olivia as an introvert who goes her own way. After years of home school, the McCarters were worried that she might have trouble adjusting to college in Mobile. Instead, she thrived.

“It was very different,” she said. “I didn’t think I would acclimate, but I did. I met so many amazing professors, and I made a lot of friends.”

Dr. Philip Carr, professor of anthropology and the Chief Calvin McGhee Endowed Professor of Native American Studies, taught McCarter in several classes. She is quiet and unassuming, but often winds up leading her class team. Then she started telling him about her extracurricular work in forensic genealogy.

“That came as a complete surprise,” Carr said. “You don’t expect a student to already have these kinds of experiences. We hope that our students have an internship by their senior year.”

When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, McCarter began spending more time at home in Grand Bay. She studies, works at the feed store business and spends hour after hour online.

She likes to wear jeans, Air Jordans and a pink cap that says “SOUTH.” She has several tattoos on her left arm. She wears glasses that fog up behind a face mask decorated with pictures of cats.

McCarter talks with her forensic research colleagues almost every day. Her mentor, Anthony Redgrave, is a co-founder of the company and a pioneer in the field.

“He’s basically a wizard,” she said. “I owe everything to him.”

Redgrave, who’s trained law enforcement officers, often works on cold cases with DNA samples provided by police departments across the country. He teaches his team members how to compare DNA records and genealogy records to triangulate relationships within a family tree. The latter has been made easier in recent years with commercial genealogy websites, along with organizations such as NamUs, an information clearinghouse and resource center for missing person cases.

McCarter was a quick study. He first met her on genealogy websites and forums, where he noticed that her hypotheses and educated guesses usually turned out to be correct.

“She just got it, you know?” he said. “She really fit the bill of exactly what we wanted in an intern.”

Redgrave has been impressed with her teamwork on investigations this year. She’s shown the patience and perseverance to see cases through. She’s taken the lead in some projects.

“Her memory and attention to detail really set her apart,” he said. “She’s really good at analyzing things off the cuff and then remembering something important from months ago.”

Unfinished Business

McCarter is looking forward to her next semester at South, where she’s a member of the Student Anthropological Society. She hopes to graduate in 2023. She’s already planning to earn a master’s degree and Ph.D in forensic anthropology.

“I don’t want to teach, though,” she said. “I want to work with law enforcement.”

McCarter is the kind of a dogged researcher who also has the people skills to talk with family members. She still keeps in touch with Harry’s children from her first case.

“I talk to them often,” she said. “They follow my genealogy stuff. I guess we’ll always be connected.”

At Redgrave Research, she remains the youngest intern, but has become a team leader. She says she still has a lot to learn. She’s looking forward to new cases.

“I get emotionally tired because of how terrible the cases are sometimes, but I don’t get tired of the puzzles,” she said. “I haven’t yet, at least.”

I get emotionally tired because of how terrible the cases are sometimes, but I don’t get tired of the puzzles.

In her bedroom, McCarter keeps a framed photograph of Alisha Ann Heinrich from the “Delta Dawn” case. She still visits the girl’s memorial in Jackson County Memorial Park.

Next to her plot is the grave of another baby girl whose body has never been identified. For McCarter, this is unfinished business.

“Definitely,” she said. “I won’t give up on that until it’s solved, too.”

(Courtesy of the University of South Alabama)
1 hour ago

7 Things: Pressure to end COVID restrictions builds on Ivey, University of Alabama System back to full-time schedules this fall, more vaccines coming to Alabama and more …

7. Trumps get vaccinated

  • According to one of former President Donald Trump’s advisers, Trump and former first lady Melania Trump got their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine before they left the White House this year. This is the first news that Trump received the vaccine.
  • Of course, their second doses were administered while living in Florida. Previously, Trump didn’t say one way or the other if he would get the vaccine, and his doctors had said he shouldn’t get the vaccine due to possible complications from treatments he received when he had the virus.

6. U.S. Rep. Jerry Carl makes monuments fight a national issue

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  • There has been a lot of debate in Alabama over the future of Confederate monuments in the state. The battle is now moving to Washington, D.C. after the D.C. Facilities and Commemorative Expressions Working Group (DCFACES) recommended 150 sites be changed. Included in the suggestions are the Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, Woodrow Wilson High School and even monuments that honored Alexander Graham Bell, Benjamin Franklin, Francis Scott Key, George Mason, Andrew Jackson and Christopher Columbus.
  • Now, U.S. Representative Jerry Carl (R-Mobile) has introduced the “The American Heritage Protection Act” that would protect national monuments from bureaucrats. He advised, “My bill is in response to D.C. bureaucrats’ attempts to change the names, remove, relocate, or “contextualize” the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument.”

5. Biden is back to believing all women should be heard

  • Apparently, hitting on a girl at a wedding is the straw that broke the back of the American news media and their Democrats, as they are covering New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) many scandals. This comes after the third accusation of sexual harassment has come out against Cuomo. White House press secretary Jen Psaki has said that President Joe Biden would support an “independent” investigation.
  • Biden was much less open to an investigation into Tara Reade’s accusations of sexual assault against him, but Psaki claims that “Biden has been consistent that he believes every woman should be heard.”

4. Tuberville: 2022 is the last chance to keep America 

  • U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) recently spoke about the future of the country and upcoming elections while at the 2021 Winter Meeting for the Alabama Republican Party. Tuberville said that “we’re in trouble” and noted that Republicans are those who want “God in our schools, that want “to go with the Constitution” and that want to “have small government.”
  • Tuberville added that Democrats “are just the opposite.” He added that 2022 is the last chance before “it’ll be too far gone,” stressing the importance of the midterm elections for Republicans.

3. Alabama to receive over 40,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine

  • The Johnson & Johnson single-dose coronavirus vaccine is the third vaccine on the market, and the Alabama Department of Public Health has said that the state will receive 40,100 doses just this week.
  • This will dramatically increase the vaccination rate in Alabama, where 617,768 people have already received at least one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. It’s now expected that Alabama will receive 140,000 doses of coronavirus vaccines this week.

2. These kids are going to throw a tantrum

  • The University of Alabama in Huntsville, Birmingham and Tuscaloosa will all reopen for the fall 2021 semester as normal, removing all classroom restrictions and returning to full in-person classes.
  • There’s a “strong likelihood” that going back to regular on-campus activity will be safe in the fall, according to dean of UAB School of Medicine Dr. Selwyn Vickers. Vickers also stated that “if safety concerns arise, we can adjust our plan” as the health and safety of those who attend and work for the schools is the “top priority.”

1. We are officially two weeks from the one year anniversary of “15 days to slow the spread”

  • As daily coronavirus cases have declined throughout the state and more people are being vaccinated every day, there is some question that the statewide mask mandate issued by Governor Kay Ivey may be allowed to expire on March 5. Alabama hospitals want it extended.
  • Ivey has renewed the order since it was first put in place in July, but she has yet to signal if she will be extending the order again. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky has said, “Now is not the time to relax restrictions.”

2 hours ago

Alabama House to consider bill giving legislature more oversight over how executive branch spends money

The Alabama House will consider a bill on Tuesday, backed by the chamber’s leaders, that would create a joint legislative committee with the authority to approve contracts, leases and agreements made by the executive branch.

Sponsored by Rep. Mike Jones (R-Andalusia), chair of the powerful Rules Committee, HB392 comes in the wake of Governor Kay Ivey’s plan to build three massive new prisons for men. Legislators from both parties have complained about their branch of government’s lack of input in the massive deal.

“Whenever an administration enters into agreements involving millions of taxpayer dollars, the Legislature deserves to have its questions answered and any concerns addressed,” said House Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) in a statement.

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McCutcheon is a cosponsor of the legislation alongside Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville), Majority Whip Danny Garrett (R-Trussville) and Speaker Pro Tem Victor Gaston (R-Mobile).

The bill creates the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Obligation Transparency and invests it with the power to approve or disapprove of any state agency’s proposed financial arrangement worth $10 million or 5% of its annual appropriation, whichever is less.

Making up the committee would be the chair, vice chair and ranking minority members of the committees in each legislative chamber that oversee taxation.

Meetings would occur at the call of the chair of the new joint committee, a position which would be elected from among its members at its first meeting. The responsibility of chairing the committee would switch between a member of the House and a member of the Senate each year.

A majority of committee members would also have the authority to call a meeting.

The proposed oversight committee would be able to meet when the legislation is in or out of session. It would have to issue approval or disapproval within 45 days of a state agency submitting a proposed contract.

If the committee were not to issue a decision on a contract within 45 days, it would be considered approved.

Disapproval by the committee would delay a contract from going into effect until after the end of the current or next regular session, giving lawmakers a chance to legislate on the issue.

Only future financial agreements would be subject to examination by the committee, meaning passage of Jones’ bill would not affect Ivey’s prison construction plan.

“Rep. Jones’s legislation offers a commonsense method of protecting taxpayers and reassuring lawmakers when large sums of dollars are being obligated,” remarked McCutcheon.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

3 hours ago

Rep. Jerry Carl introduces bill to prevent bureaucrats from removing, altering certain historical monuments

Congressman Jerry Carl (AL-01) on Monday filed his first-ever piece of legislation, titled “The American Heritage Protection Act of 2021.”

The Republican freshman representative from Mobile noted that his bill comes after the D.C. Facilities and Commemorative Expressions Working Group (DCFACES) last fall recommended 150 sites in our nation’s capital be either removed, contextualized or have their name changed. Sites specifically under fire include the Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, Woodrow Wilson High School and the fountain at Chevy Chase Circle.

Other historical figures with listed buildings or monuments included Alexander Graham Bell, Benjamin Franklin, Francis Scott Key, George Mason, Andrew Jackson and Christopher Columbus.

“Today, I was proud to introduce the American Heritage Protection Act of 2021, which protects our nation’s history from being erased or altered based on the whims of government bureaucrats,” said Carl in a statement.

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Carl’s bill would explicitly prohibit the U.S. Department of Interior from changing the names, removing or altering the following monuments in D.C.: the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial and Theodore Roosevelt Island.

Additionally, the legislation would prevent Interior from removing or altering statues related to the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 or Civil War battlefields under its purview.

“While many people wish to erase or rewrite our history, I believe the best path forward involves learning from our complex history and avoiding judgment of historical figures based on today’s standards,” the Coastal Alabama congressman concluded. “If we erase or rewrite our history, we are unable to learn and grow from our past. I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to join me in this endeavor so we as Americans can engage in honest, accurate, and unifying discussions that enable us to move forward as one nation.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

3 hours ago

What Alabamians need to know about the latest activity on Goat Hill — March 2, 2021

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Legislature on Tuesday will convene for the 10th day of its 2021 regular session.

There is also one committee meeting scheduled for the day, as well as one subcommittee meeting.

Read about what occurred last Thursday on the ninth legislative day here.

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Looking ahead

The Alabama Senate will gavel in at 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday.

This will come after the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee meets at 1:00 p.m. The committee’s agenda includes four election-related bills; especially of note, SB 235 sponsored by Sen. Dan Roberts (R-Mountain Brook) would ban curbside voting in Alabama. Curbside voting is not provided for in Alabama law, however it is also not explicitly barred at this time.

The committee is further scheduled to take up SB 259 by Sen. Will Barfoot (R-Pike Road) that would allow the legislature to call itself into a special session. The provisions of the bill would require a joint proclamation by the Senate pro tem and the House speaker to call a special session; a resolution carrying the support of 2/3 of each chamber would then have to be adopted before business could be taken up in such a special session. The bill was officially introduced last week on the first legislative day following Governor Kay Ivey’s “herd of turtles” remarks. Between Barfoot and 16 cosponsors, the bill already has the support of an effective majority of the Senate, which only has a maximum of 32 members in attendance so far this session. SB 259 is a companion bill to Rep. Becky Nordgren’s (R-Gadsden) HB 21, which was prefiled back in October. Her bill is set to be considered in a House committee on Wednesday.

The House will convene at 1:00 p.m. on Tuesday. Before that, the County and Municipal Government Committee’s Government Service Subcommittee will meet at 11:00 a.m. On that docket is SB 107 by Sen. Chris Elliot (R-Daphne).

The lower chamber’s floor action is set to focus on a 16-bill special order calendar, which can be viewed here.

Included on that calendar is Rep. Jamie Kiel’s (R-Russellville) HB 103, which would effectively erase the distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” businesses during a pandemic or other declared emergency.

Also slated for consideration is Rep. Scott Stadthagen’s (R-Hartselle) HB 391; this bill would mandate that public school students can only compete in athletic competitions aligning with the gender on their birth certificates.

Another notable bill on the House special order calendar is Rep. Paul Lee’s (R-Dothan) HB 249. This legislation would cap a health insurance beneficiary’s cost-sharing or co-pay for an insulin drug prescription at $100 per 30-day supply.

Observers may also be interested to know that Rep. Jeremy Gray’s (D-Opelika) HB 246 is on the calendar; this is the bill that would allow yoga to be offered in public K-12 schools.

Finally, Rep. Mike Jones’ (R-Andalusia) HB 392 is set to be considered. This bill would create a formal layer of legislative oversight — and additional transparency — on executive branch contracts, leases and agreements exceeding $10 million.

“It is important that we maintain a system of checks and balances, and the Legislature must be able to access important information about agreements that obligate the General Fund to substantial expenditures,” Jones said in a Monday statement. “This bill provides an additional layer of oversight on large executive branch agreements in a manner that is fair, transparent, and, most of all, constitutional.”

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) stated that he supports the bill.

“Whenever an administration enters into agreements involving millions of taxpayer dollars, the Legislature deserves to have its questions answered and any concerns addressed,” McCutcheon said. “Rep. Jones’s legislation offers a commonsense method of protecting taxpayers and reassuring lawmakers when large sums of dollars are being obligated.”

While it could pertain to items similar to Governor Ivey’s prison plan in the future, the legislation would not be retroactive and would not apply to current contracts, leases and other obligations.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

4 hours ago

LISTEN: Actor Robert Ri’chard previews upcoming faith-based movie ‘My Brother’s Keeper’

Robert Ri’chard grew up in South Central Los Angeles in a very challenging environment. He had to make disciplined choices at an early age that would help determine his future and get him to where he is today.

Robert, an actor, entertainer, entrepreneur and mentor, lives with purpose every day.

In this episode, we discuss the choices we all need to make each day to become who God calls us to be. We also talk about the upcoming movie he co-stars in which will be coming out this month, “My Brother’s Keeper.” The movie deals with the struggles of PTSD and how God can help people overcome it. TC Stallings stars as a veteran returning from war and trying to reestablish a life back home. Robert plays his best friend, Donnie, and the two struggle to maintain their relationship after division arises between the two of them. The film also features Keisha Knight Pulliam and Joey Lawrence.

This is a great faith-based movie that is good for the whole family. Check local listings and online for viewing options starting March 19.

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