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Can 'next-Gen' DNA testing help ID the remains of US service members killed in war?

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The Golden State Killer never saw the law coming.

Police had never connected Joseph James DeAngelo to a spree of 13 murders, 50 rapes and more than 120 burglaries across California during the 1970s and ‘80s. Then, in 2018, investigators uploaded a DNA profile of one murder victim’s rapist into a commercial database, similar to those created by companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com.

Bingo.

Several people in the database shared a common ancestor with the killer, and police created a “family tree.” They quickly honed in on DeAngelo, then 72, and arrested him after confirming that his DNA matched the killer’s. He confessed to numerous crimes and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The capture of the Golden State Killer put this technique, called genetic genealogy, in the headlines. Police now regularly use it to catch cold case killers, and to identify the remains of murder and accident victims from decades ago.

It also raised a question for historians and forensic anthropologists at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), which has labs at Offutt Air Force Base and in Hawaii: Could they use the same method to identify the war dead from World War II, Korea and Vietnam?

Four years later, the answer appears to be yes. The accounting agency, working with its partners at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) in Dover, Delaware, has begun to use a highly sensitive “next-generation” DNA sequencing test developed by scientists at AFDIL and Parabon NanoLabs, a pioneering genetic genealogy firm.

Someday, it may help Carrie LeGarde, a forensic anthropologist at the Offutt lab, tie a bow around DPAA’s largest and most successful project to date: the identification of the unknown dead from the battleship USS Oklahoma, sunk in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Over six years, she led a team of anthropologists that examined more than 13,000 bones recovered from the ship and later buried in Hawaii in graves marked “unknown.”

They identified 361 of 394 missing sailors and Marines. The 92% identification rate far exceeded the 80% goal set when the first remains were disinterred in 2015.

LeGarde said she was proud to have returned so many World War II heroes to their families, nearly 80 years later. But the fact that 33 could not be given names gnaws at her just a bit.

“We have done everything we can at this point,” LeGarde said. “Of course, I would love to identify everybody. But that’s a pretty difficult task.”

Traditional mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA testing involves extracting snippets of DNA from the unidentified bones and comparing them to DNA samples taken from one or more family members.

Those samples are processed at AFDIL and buttressed with traditional forensic work by DPAA anthropologists and historians, such as examining the size and shape of the bones and where and how they were found.

This process has allowed DPAA to meet or exceed a goal of 200 identifications per year — some from field excavations in former war zones, and others buried as unknowns in military cemeteries.

But this method has some drawbacks.

The requirement for family-reference DNA means the Defense Department must spend time and money tracking down relatives and persuading them to submit a DNA sample from a cheek swab.

That can be hard to do. Some relatives may be suspicious of giving a sample to the government. Some of the missing service members were adopted, so their DNA doesn’t match living relatives. And in some cases, family members just can’t be found.

The other significant problem is the DNA itself.

DNA decays with time, making it harder to extract readable samples from bones that have been buried for decades. It deteriorates even faster when burials take place in acidic soil or in warm, wet climates like most burials from Korea, Vietnam or World War II in the Pacific.

“If you don’t act, you might lose it forever,” said Kristen Mittelman, chief development officer for Othram, a private genetic genealogy lab in Houston that specializes in cold case IDs.

Also, chemical treatments historically used in burials to preserve bodies have had the perverse effect of destroying DNA. This has hampered several of the accounting agency’s major projects.

One example: the identification of 859 Korean War unknowns whose remains were retrieved from battlefield graves during and after the war. They were soaked in formaldehyde and treated with other chemicals before they were reburied in Hawaii, and DPAA analysts have had difficulty extracting DNA from them.

In 2016, AFDIL and Parabon introduced a far more sensitive “next-generation” DNA test. It let investigators capture samples from as many as 60% of even highly degraded samples — 10 times the rate of earlier tests.

Later innovations have allowed the lab to accurately match samples with more distant relatives, and to extract DNA from even some of the most highly degraded samples.

“We mimic what 23andMe and Ancestry were trying to do,” said Tim McMahon, director of the Armed Forces DNA Lab.

“We’re good at getting DNA from the samples they send us.”

Mittelman and her husband, David, who is the CEO of the Othram DNA lab, have suggested that genetic genealogy could also offer a path to identification not only of the USS Oklahoma’s 33 remaining unknowns, but also 85 unidentified dead from the USS Arizona.

Moored just a few hundred yards from the Oklahoma, the Arizona blew up in a cataclysmic explosion just minutes into the attack when a Japanese bomb exploded in the ship’s magazine. Of the Arizona’s 1,500-man crew, 1,177 were killed, the highest death toll at Pearl Harbor.

Just 105 bodies were recovered and identified. Most of the rest are permanently entombed in the sunken hull, which is now part of the USS Arizona Memorial.

But 85 sets of recovered remains could not be identified and were buried as unknowns. Currently there are no plans to identify the Arizona unknowns, because doing so would require obtaining DNA reference samples from the families of all of the 1,177 dead.

The Mittelmans believe genetic genealogy could allow DPAA to bypass that step by using their proprietary testing protocol, which they said already has been used to crack hundreds of cold cases.

David Mittelman said they use multiple methods, plug into large DNA databases, and turn over their results to authorities. They charge $5,000 per sample.

“Our success rate is extremely high,” he said. “We pride ourselves on taking unsolvable problems and bringing them to conclusion.”

They’ve pitched their idea to officials at the Armed Forces DNA Lab. In a recent report to MIA families, DPAA called it a “fruitful meeting” but has not announced a partnership.

Hope still remains for the 33 Oklahoma unknowns, too.

When the Oklahoma Project wrapped up last year, the unidentified bones were placed in four caskets and reburied at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. They were lowered into the earth after a solemn ceremony on Dec. 7, 2021, the 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

LeGarde said one of the caskets contains an assortment of bones considered too small to be worth identifying. They will remain permanently buried.

But the three other caskets contain individual sets of remains linked by DNA, segregated and wrapped in blankets — awaiting new technology that will allow them to be identified and returned to their families.

“We know what casket they have gone into,” LeGarde said. “They could be accessed in the future if needed.”

That’s encouraging news for relatives of brothers William and Robert Sellon, USS Oklahoma sailors who grew up in Randolph, Nebraska.

William, 25, known to family as “Billy,” was killed in the attack. He is one of the 33 who remain unknown.

Robert, known as “Bobby,” survived. But he never escaped the shadow of Pearl Harbor.

“I’ve been watching the paper, so hopeful,” said Diann Sellon Gliem, 72, of Randolph, whose father, Monte, was the brothers’ first cousin. “There’s always been a sadness in our family, and kind of a mystery.”

Billy and Bobby were the only two sons of a cabinetmaker and his wife who had moved from Randolph to Missoula, Montana, in search of work during the 1930s. That is where the brothers joined the Navy.

It’s not clear today how they came to be serving together on the Oklahoma, but it wasn’t uncommon in the pre-World War II Navy. At least seven other sets of brothers were assigned to the ship, according to the website PearlHarbor.org.

Family stories differ about exactly what happened to them that morning. One account says they were together that Sunday morning but split up when one decided to go to church and the other skipped it. Another story says Bobby slipped out of a porthole of the ship before it capsized and swam back in a vain attempt to find Billy.

They do know Bobby never really recovered from the loss of his brother. He was wounded in the war — perhaps on board the USS Northampton, to which he was transferred after Pearl Harbor. The ship was torpedoed and sunk almost a year later during a disastrous naval battle near Guadalcanal.

After the war, Bobby returned to Montana, married, fathered two daughters, split up with his wife and remarried. He liked bars and guns, and once got shot by another man. His behavior reminds relatives today of post-traumatic stress.

On June 28, 1952, he walked into a bedroom at his parents’ house in Missoula with a high-powered rifle and fatally shot himself. He was 31. A newspaper account quoted his parents as saying he had been despondent ever since World War II.

“I was paralyzed with grief when he killed himself,” recalls Glenda Rock III, Bobby’s younger daughter, who was 6 when he died. “He always called me ‘Happy Jack.’ He was safety, was warmth.”

She said no one would mention her father’s name for several years. It took time, but she has worked through her family’s tragedy.

“It’s not painful anymore. It’s a saga,” Rock said.

Although she lives in Idaho, Rock said she would like to see her uncle’s remains buried in Nebraska if he can be identified.

That’s the ending Gliem is hoping for, too.

“The story just got sadder and sadder. It was hard for me to shake it,” she said. “It would be a closure on one of those open-ended questions from World War II.”

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