“The old adage is this, everybody that goes into a crime scene either leaves something or takes something with them, it’s just up to us to try and find it.”
Riverside County Regional Cold Case Homicide Team Supervisor Ryan Bodmer says in his nearly three decades as a homicide detective, the advancement in technology, specifically forensic science is dream come true.
“Where we never had answers before, or maybe a case had reached its end, with plausible leads, it’s opened the doors for us to give us new leads,” said Bodmer.
In the year and a half that the cold case team has been working together, Bodmer says they’ve had seven cold cases that have been brought to conclusion.
One cold case out of the Coachella Valley has new life after forensic science helped identify the victim after 27 years. Patricia Cavallaro’s body, partially clothed and wrapped in a sheet was found in a shallow grave in the desert near Thousand Palms in 1994.
At the time of discovery, the Coroner’s Office used all available resources to identify the victim, including having her DNA profile entered into the California Department of Justice Missing and Unidentified Persons System, but no identification was made.
In 2021, the Cold Case Unit contracted with an outside lab, Othram Inc. to use advanced DNA testing to produce new leads in the case to help identify the victim or at least find a close family member.
“We took a portion of her body, actually it was a bone and had that bone forensically examined and developed a DNA sample from it,” said Bodmer.
Here’s where the forensic science came into play. Othram’s lab used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing to generate a comprehensive DNA Profile. The profile was delivered to investigators who used it to perform a genealogical search to find genetic relatives.
“We’ve made contact with her son to at least give him notification that we did find his mother. But, we have not yet been successful at finding the daughter, Victoria Cavallaro,” said Bodmer.
He believes she is living on the streets of Los Angeles and is asking for the public’s help in finding her. Even though Cavallaro has been identified, the case is considered a homicide and is not closed.
Bodmer stresses that the use of forensic technology including genetic genealogy is a game-changer and the use of outside labs like Othram Inc. help with specific needs in a case and the pace at which they can get information and leads.
“The county and state have good labs, but resources are competitive. We like to use private labs that have a speciality in identifying, say, for instance, getting DNA from a human bone. We can ultimately get a quicker answer.”
Othram Inc. out of Houston, Texas is the only company in North America that does end-to-end processing of evidence, according to their CEO, David Mittelman.
“We call it, from the crime scene to the courtroom. Our processing of evidence uses newer advanced DNA tools,” said Mittelman.
They are a fully in-house operation working with agencies at the local, state, and federal level throughout the United States.
“We build profiles from any kind of evidence, evidence that’s been discarded, or designated as unusual. We take these cases that have failed other methods and other laboratories, we bring it in and we’re able to build really great profiles,” said Mittelman.
From the profiles, according to Mittelman, advanced techniques like genetic genealogy can be used to see if you can “track back” and figure out who someone is.
Using an outside lab is expensive. With the help of a recent $535,000 grant from the U.S. Bureau of Justice that’s intended to aid in solving or prosecuting cold case violent crimes, relying on forensic evidence, Bodmer says the cold case unit can continue to pursue its goal of making a dent in the backlog of unsolved crimes in Riverside County.
“By going out and getting federal grants for us to use that money specifically to target DNA testing and private laboratories and such, it’s unbelievable,” said Bodmer.
Bodmer says the public can play a role in helping in these missing and unidentified persons cases by submitting DNA. If you have someone in your family who has gone missing or was murdered and the case is still unsolved, your DNA could help crack the case through genetic genealogy.
And, if you’d like to learn more about Othram Inc. and the work they do, head to their website DNASOLVES.COM