Remains found in Ohio shallow grave in 1991 finally identified via DNA, genealogy

Human remains found in an Ohio shallow grave in 1991 are of a missing Columbus man, officials said Tuesday, marking another cold-blooded homicide case opened by advances in DNA and genealogy research.

The dead man found more than 31 years ago is 21-year-old Robert Mullins, who disappeared two to three years earlier, prosecutors and Pickaway County sheriff’s deputies said.

“It’s been thirty-one Christmases and I was thinking about the headstone with no name on it,” Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost told reporters.

“We will all die at some point. This is the only sure thing about our lives on this earth. But what a tragedy to die unknown, not having a name to put on the memorial. Today that circle is closed.”

Robert Mullins.  (Pickaway County Sheriff's Office via Facebook)

Robert Mullins. (Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office via Facebook)

A pair of hunters came upon Mullins’ skeleton north of State Route 56 just west of State Route 159 in Pickaway County on Nov. 1, 1991, state and local officials said.

Investigators initially believed the remains were of a long-dead Native American woman, approximately 25 years old, because the person was no taller than 5 feet 4 and the region’s long connection to indigenous communities.

Eventually, anthropologists determined that the remains hadn’t been in the ground for more than three years. And it wasn’t until 2012 when researchers at the University of North Texas tested that DNA and determined the body was from a male with Indian ancestry, officials said.

Then, in 2021, Pickaway County Sheriff’s Lt. Johnathan Strawser and Medical Examiner Dr. John Ellis teamed up, trying to match their John Doe to publicly available DNA databases in hopes of building the family tree of the man, officials said.

They brought in forensic genealogy researchers from AdvanceDNA, who analyzed John Doe’s DNA and matched him to 4,000 people across the United States and England, before narrowing his tree down to a father from Virginia and a mother with ties to England and India.

“After Robert’s sudden passing, his family searched for him, especially his late mother,” said Amanda Reno, director of genetic and forensic case management for AdvanceDNA.

“His family explained that his absence had been a great source of grief for their family. He was loved and missed.”

Sheriff’s detectives said they hope to one day find a suspect in Mullins’ murder.

“Now the detectives have the new information (and) that will allow them to do what they do best: take to the streets, put the pieces together and look at the last days of Mr. Mullins’ life and find out who did this to him because that person is probably still out there,” Yost said.

Lieutenant Strawser said he was grateful for the help of all of Mullins’ blood relatives, who took a keen interest in this case even though the victim was unknown to them.

“We would also like to thank Robert’s genetic relatives who have volunteered their time (and) family information,” Strawser said. “Robert was their distant cousin. Even though they were people they’d never met, each of these relatives played a key role in bringing him home to his family.”

The practice of matching the genetic material of victims and perpetrators to the millions of Americans who undergo do-it-yourself DNA tests at home has proved to be a valuable new resource for law enforcement.

Last week, Philadelphia police identified 4-year-old Joseph Augustus Zarelli as the “boy in the box,” found beaten to death in 1957 and left unnamed until recently.

And most famously, DNA and genealogy led police to the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, who terrorized California in the 70s and 80s but was only arrested in 2018.

The serial killer was sentenced to multiple life sentences for 13 murders and 13 rape-related charges, although he has been linked to several other sexual assaults.

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