How New Jersey college students helped solve a 21-year-old cold case in Arizona

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June 30, 2023 | 3:37pm

In 2002, a 60-year-old man used the name Edward C. to check into a seedy motel in an Arizona border town before scheduled surgery in Mexico. But he never checked out.

His remains were found on September 8, 2002, inside the rented room in Nogales, Arizona. Although his fingerprints were recovered, authorities were unable to formally identify the man, who had listed an address in Florida, and was buried unceremoniously as John Doe of Nogale.

Now, two decades later, a group of 19 students at Ramapo College in New Jersey have used genetic genealogy to assist Arizona authorities, eventually settling the case late last month, school officials told The Post.

Analyzing unique patterns on DNA from a blood sample, Ramapo students identified the man as Donald Sigurd Hadland Jr., a 60-year-old who had ventured hundreds of miles from his New Mexico home to save money on a medical procedure .

Ramapo, a public liberal arts college in Mahwah, launched its distance learning investigative genetic genealogy program in January, offering a 15-week no-credit course teaching forensic evidence skills from start to finish for $6,000.

The man formerly known to authorities as Nogales John Doe has been identified as Donald Sigurd Hadland (seen here as a college student) by students at Ramapo College in New Jersey, via investigative genetic genealogy, 21 years after his mysterious death.

What the students did was examine the genetic matches from his DNA profile that was being developed to see if they were consistent with Mr Hadland’s family relationships, Ramapos Cairenn Binder told The Post. So going in, we had an idea of ​​who it might be, so we were looking to see if the genetic matches fit this individual’s family tree.

The Ramapo College of New Jersey Investigative Genetic Genealogy Center delved into the cold case in partnership with the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit that has identified more than 65 previously anonymous victims since 2017. The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office , Arizona, sought help from the groups earlier this year, Binder said.

The original police investigation had become muddled when Edward C., the name used by the man found in the seedy motel, was linked to identity theft and fraud in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he said he was from.

David Gurney is director of the Ramapos Investigative Genetic Genealogy Center. Cairenn Binder (right) oversees the IGG certification program, which launched in January.
Ramapo College of New Jersey

A search for fingerprints led to Donald Hadland, but investigators could not determine if that, too, was a fake name.

DNA analysis from the extracted blood sample enabled Ramapo students to develop a profile of Nogales John Doe in the GEDmatch genealogy database.

Because they already had a fingerprint lead, the students looked at matches from Nogales John Doe’s DNA profile and found some fairly close relatives who were consistent with the Hadlands’ family tree, Binder said.

Hadland checked himself into the Time Motel in Nogales, Arizona, before a scheduled surgery in Mexico in 2002, but died before the procedure took place, Binder said.

We call it an investigative lead, he continued. When we get to the identity of a person based on their genetic matches, we turn them over to the coroner and that was done in early May.

That led investigators to Hadland’s ex-wife, with whom he had a son, Pima County forensic anthropologist Bruce Anderson told the Sacramento Bee. The woman told authorities she hadn’t seen Hadland since the late 1980s, when she left the couple, she said.

Profiles of Hadland’s son and two grandchildren that the trio released to the genealogy database confirmed that the man found in the Nogales motel was Hadland.

A lab worker performs DNA extraction at the New York City Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in 2018. Researchers at Ramapo College are working on more than 25 other cases of unidentified remains.
AFP via Getty Images

It may have been that both Edward and Donald were false identities used by this person, Binder said. It could have been anyone, but once we looked at the DNA matches, we knew it was Mr. Hadland.

Hadland died of an accidental opioid and barbiturate overdose, Pima Country officials confirmed to The Post. Attempts to reach out to his relatives were unsuccessful.

Binder, who heads the IGG certification program, said Ramapo’s team built the Hadlands family tree using the GEDmatch.com genealogy database, the same method that helped investigators track down the notorious Golden State Killer in 2018. , decades after Joseph James DeAngelo raped and murdered women around the world. California.

Traci Onders, an investigative genetic genealogist in Cleveland, completed the Ramapos program in May after seven years of using DNA sequencing to reunite adoptees with their biological parents.
Ramapo College of New Jersey

GEDmatch.com allows users to upload their DNA profiles in hopes of finding potential relatives, by pulling genetic data from other popular genealogy platforms like Ancestry, 23andMe or Family Tree DNA.

Binder, an investigative genetic genealogist, runs the program with David Gurney, an assistant professor of law and society who directs the Ramapos Investigative Genetic Genealogy Center. The two both have ties to Pima County, where authorities are investigating more than 1,200 cases of unidentified remains, he said.

As of Friday, Ramapo College’s Investigative Genetic Genealogy Center is investigating more than 25 other cases, including a man found dead in April 2006 at the base of a cliff in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The victim, believed to have been 44 to 64 years old, was 5 feet 9 inches tall with sandy brown/blonde hair.

The Investigative Genetic Genealogy Center at New Jersey’s Ramapo College, a liberal arts school in Mahwah, solved Hadland’s unsolved case in partnership with the DNA Doe Project.
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Most of the IGG’s investigations focus on unidentified victims, as cases involving violent crimes in which a suspect is being sought cannot be publicized. A new group of 40 students will start in the fall, Binder said.

Traci Onders, 55, who finished the Ramapos program in May, now works as an investigative genetics genealogist for Advance DNA in Cleveland, Ohio. She previously spent seven years tracing biological parents in adoption cases.

One of the things I think is very similar is the sense of ambiguous loss, Onders said. People who don’t know where their relatives are. And that’s what genetic genealogy does for people. Hopefully this gives some kind of closure or insight into what happened. But it’s never news you want to hear.




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